What’s the story, morning glory?

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Kevin Smithson, operations director (designate), Jordans

Bill and David Jordan – sixth generation flour millers – started this business in the 1970s at Holme Mills, Biggleswade, and they are still actively involved and just as passionate about using 100% natural ingredients and minimal processing, which can make my job a bit of a challenge, but it’s what the Jordans brand is all about.

Our market is a lot more crowded now as everyone has jumped on the health bandwagon, but we are in a good position to capitalise on the surge of interest in traditional products like porridge and mueslis, which are going absolutely bananas at the moment. We’ve been talking about health and balanced nutrition for 30 years and it feels like the rest of the market has finally recognised the benefits too.

Having said that, we have to keep refreshing our brand if we want to stay relevant and maintain our price premium, so we have just launched a range of new products combining several ‘super foods’ like blueberries, almonds, oats and seeds in response to growing interest in the functional foods arena. As with all our products, only 100% natural though.

We also have another point of difference with our conservation grade oats, wheat and barley, which are supplied by 80 farmers who are audited and grow to a set protocol, which includes setting aside 10% of their land for wildlife. There is a slight on-cost to us as we guarantee a premium to the farmer, another reason why we need to maintain our premium position in the marketplace.

By the mid-1990s, Holme Mills, our heritage site, was bursting at the seams. It was working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and with growth of 8-10% a year, there was no way we could handle everything at that factory anymore, we had to move some production to another site.

It was at this point that I joined as cereal production manager. We started cutting the turf at this site [at Market Garden Road] in December 1997 and it was up and running by August 1998. Over the next three years we transferred the cereals over from Holme Mills.

As it was coming up to the year 2000 and everyone was panicking about the Millennium bug, we reviewed our ERP (enterprise resource planning) system to see if it would be compliant. We decided to install a new one, which I and the project team drove, but also took the opportunity to do some business process re-engineering. Simplification of processes, clarification of responsibilities and clear measures and audit protocols were key deliverables.

Shortly after that, the quality team started to report to me, and then 18 months ago, I inherited operations. Today, I look after manufacturing across the business and have responsibility for raw material expediting, packaging (purchase and expediting), planning, and our new warehousing facility and automatic data collection system.

Jordans has three manufacturing sites today: Holme Mills (where we make snacks and bars – around 3,000t a year); here at Market Garden Road, where we make breakfast cereals – over 1M packs a week); and the Normandy Lane site, where we handle new product development and produce intermediates – extrusions which go into Frusli bars or Country Crisp.

The big project now is called ‘stratos’ internally, which is rolling out our automatic data collection system and material movements across all three sites, and coincides with the switch to a new 11,612m2 warehouse across the road. We had been operating out of a rented site across town, but 18 months ago, we took the decision to work with Tay Group, which is based in Letchworth, to build and run a new warehousing facility for raw materials and finished goods. This saves 10,000 trailer movements a year across Biggleswade. The new site is also geared to deal with a 24:7 operation, unlike the old one, which means we can schedule deliveries to the factories on a JIT (just in time) basis, dramatically reducing our factory stockholding.

The new data capture system pulls off data from shop floor equipment and uploads it to the central IT system. We’re also barcode scanning raw materials and finished goods moving through our supply chain, which gives us real-time information and complete pallet traceability.

Our investment in shelf-ready packaging (SRP) has been driven by retailer requirements, and there was obviously a cost associated with that (putting in a new bag and box line in this plant). But we’ve tried to offset that by identifying ways to make our operation more efficient. We also rationalised the number of SKUs (stock keeping units). For example, we used to do Country Crisp in 12s, 10s and eight-packs. Now, we just do them in six-packs.

However, we can’t completely switch to SRP as some lines aren’t suitable and 21% of the business is export, which means we have to use 0201 cases for protection.

We are always striving to make improvements because input costs, from raw materials to energy and labour, are going up. Take hazelnuts. The price quadrupled from June 2003 to June 2005 and is still over double the historic market average. To save energy, we’re looking at a range of options: optimising baking, start ups and shut downs; our use of compressed air and we are even investigating generating our own electricity through using the water wheel at the mill or wind turbines.

measure it, improve it

I suspect you’ve heard this before, but if you measure something, you can improve it, so we have online monitoring systems, which give us an efficiency figure for every 10 minutes of operation. This ensures that the operators are aware of how efficiently the plant is running and helps them identify where the issues are.

We have automated where possible, and will continue to do so, as by giving people the tools and resources they need to do the job we are able to drive a performance culture. When I joined, many roles involved a significant amount of manual labouring with little intellectual input.

However, today most roles have a significant amount of monitoring and set up involved, allowing staff to develop and Jordans to continually improve. We typically spend 2.5% to 3% of turnover on capital expenditure, but last year we spent a bit more because of SRP, which means we’ll have to rein ourselves in a little this year. The kit here at Market Garden is pretty new because it’s a new site, but even Holme Mills, our oldest site, has a fully automatic robotic packing hall; investing across the business is fundamental to our strategy.

This is a great place to work, with a fantastic team ethic and a superb brand based on a real commitment to natural healthy food. As part of the Biggleswade community, we are the largest employer. Staff turnover is under 12% and over 8% of our staff have been here for more than 20 years, so we must be doing something right!

It’s a challenging job, but that’s what 24:7 manufacturing is all about. The retailers are knocking chunks off each other trying to be number one so we regularly get short notice of promotions and I might get two weeks’ notice of a 300% uplift in demand. Bearing in mind that we work on a two-week manufacturing cycle with several different order patterns, over 300 SKUs and that some of my raw materials have very long lead times, it can be hard to manage the supply chain so that we don’t end up tying up too much working capital in safety stock.

The key for me is driving a customer focused performance culture with accountability down to shift managers and team leaders. They have the resources and techniques to allow them to minimise reactive tasks, which you have in any manufacturing operation, to plan for tomorrow and create the headroom to drive continuous improvement.

INTERVIEW BY ELAINE WATSON

FACTORY FACTS

Location:​ W. Jordan Cereals, Market Garden Road, Stratton Business Park, Biggleswade, Bedfordshire, SG18 9JY. Tel: 01767 318 222

Employees:​ 230 at Market Garden (MG) site, 340 across business

Output:​ MG site: 35,500t a year

Products:​ MG site: Cereals: Original Crunchy, Country Crisp, muesli, porridge

PERSONAL

Name:​ Kevin Smithson

Age:​ 39

Career highlights:​ Graduated from the University of Birmingham in 1988 with a first class degree in chemical engineering. Joined Scottish & Newcastle as graduate trainee before going travelling. Then spent five years at Whitworths before joining Jordans in 1997

Domestics:​ Married to Jane with five-year old twin daughters Charlotte and Eleanor -“now that’s productivity for you”

Outside work:​ “Enjoy – especially when I win – racquet sports, golf and general exercise. Love holidays if messing around in the snow.”

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