The predicted sale of Northern Foods bakery businesses, after two recent profits warnings, has finally taken place. A sudden change in eating habits with consumers turning towards more ‘perceived healthy foods’ plus rising energy costs are blamed but the company has been a serial underperformer for some years.
I remember when Paul Fletcher of Fletchers Bakeries happily informed me that he and Chris Haskins (now Lord Haskins) had got together and agreed the sale of the bakery business “over a handshake and a lunch”. He felt it finally secured the family firm’s future.
But since then many companies have jumped on the bakery bandwagon. Some have had massive grants to fund expansion, others, like Northern have not managed to keep pace with change, competition or, of course, energy prices. Uncertain times lie ahead with the break up but with massive debts of around £363 million there was no choice. Indeed I am not sure even now that it has sold off enough.
Meanwhile, in Scotland, at the annual Scottish Master Bakers conference, bakery education was THE topic.
There are not enough skilled bakers in the UK and Ireland and it is felt most acutely by craft and in-stores bakeries. So the big news was the launch of a brand new training centre for bakers in Scotland, made possible by the generosity of Mathiesons.
What impresses me most about the SAMB, apart from its finances, is its education policy. Arthur Rayer and John Livingstone, under the leadership of chief executive Kirk Hunter, are so pro-active and pioneering.
Every single year they investigate the changing needs of members. Then they get down to the hard graft necessary to secure the funding, train the trainers (six) and deliver the courses – to 900 students so far!
But I can’t help noticing that all this is going ahead without any input from Improve – the sector skills council for food and drink. There is a baking industry feeling that Improve cares more about big companies, which is ironic because they are normally wealthy enough to fund and put in place their own training. It is small companies that lack resources and time to train.
So I find myself asking: does the SAMB really need Improve or does Improve have something to learn from the speed, care and efficiency of the SAMB?