Me and my factory

Why United Biscuits had to invest £50M

By Nicholas Robinson

- Last updated on GMT

United Biscuits' facilities needed upgrading, says McGurk
United Biscuits' facilities needed upgrading, says McGurk

Related tags Supply chain Mcvitie's

United Biscuits has pumped millions into its flagship Harlesden site. Kevin McGurk tells Nicholas Robinson why the investment had to be made

Key points

Harlesden is United Biscuits’ flagship operation. It produces 40% of our UK production and has just come to the end of a three-year £50M investment plan to boost output by 30%, creating 100 new jobs.

I came to United Biscuits in 2001 as an operational services director to help prepare the business for a private equity sale. Since then, I’ve done a number of roles within the company, including commercial management and running the cake business. I’m also the longest serving director on the company’s board.

United Biscuits’ former chief executive Martin Glenn (now The Football Association’s new chief executive) appointed me supply chain director two years ago to develop the group’s international supply chain, which was virtually nonexistent. Essentially, we didn’t have a supply chain that could use the buying power and knowledge of the whole organisation to drive costs down and support the business’s growth.

United Biscuits was previously very internally focused and we weren’t in the best place from a manufacturing point of view. Manufacturing is the biggest opportunity for the company, but it needs to be done competitively. To do that, we needed to be more externally focused and produce the right products in the right sizes for consumers at the right price.

The way our colleagues were working in our factories wasn’t right either; how they were paid; how much overtime they were working; and the fact that we had a lot of idle time because the shift structures weren’t right. Our facilities needed modernising too some of them were 20 years old.

Factory facts

Location:​ McVitie's, Waxlow Road, Harlesden, London NW10 7NY
Staff:​ 580
Output:​ 130,000t/year
Customers:​ Major supermarkets and independent retailers across the UK and export markets
Size:​ 50,000m²

That’s why we’re here at Harlesden today. This site was our lowest cost facility, so we decided to roll out a plan to boost its output and efficiency.

At the end of 2013 we had a proposal approved by the board to convert Harlesden from a mixed profile shift system to one that’s 24/7, making the site operational 362 days a year. We also had a modernisation and automation plan approved.

In total, including the changes made to shift patterns, we spent £50M. Most of the investment went into new flow-wrap packers for our four Digestive lines. When we made the initial investment we also decided to modernise all of the walls and floors and got new lighting to make it really bright.

Output boost (Return to top)

Here we manufacture McVitie’s Digestives, Chocolate Digestives, Double Chocolate Digestives, Hobnobs, Rich Tea and we also do a range of savoury snacks under the Jacobs brand including Mini Cheddars and Crinklys.

Our 580 staff now work European-style shifts. They do a rotating pattern of four days on and four days off and then three days on and three days off. Sometimes we will add a two days on and two days off rotation in there, which depends on what our customers need.

Output was 100,000t a year across the whole site but, since the investment, we’ve boosted that to 130,000t. Traditionally, we sold our products in a roll-wrap format. The equipment used to produce roll-wrapped products is very restrictive in terms of what pack sizes you’re able to produce – you can’t shift them up or down by much or very quickly.

Personal facts

Age:​ 51
Job title:​ Group supply chain director
Domestics:​ Married with three children aged 25, 18 and 15
Outside of work:​ I was a competitive swimmer in my youth and tend to be drawn to trawling up and down a pool to clear my mind. That plus cycling keeps me fit.
Biggest achievement:​ It has to be this current role. Bringing together a new International supply chain group for the first time, creating and developing a new team that has brought long lasting positive change.

Also, these machines were coming to the end of their lives and there aren’t many companies left using them. By moving to a flow-wrap system, we are able to offer more pack sizes. The system is also more efficient and produces 50% less waste. It is also gentler on the biscuits, which means product quality has improved.

Most importantly, we can vary our pack sizes from 500g all the way down to 130g. Changes to pack sizes can now be done within 20 minutes. Before, it would take us about three hours.

Rich Tea is the only line that operates on the old roll-wrap format. It hasn’t moved through because the majority of our volume and revenue comes from the Digestive range of products. Rich Tea is stable, but it’s not growing like the other brands. Overall, McVitie’s increased its market share by 1.2% last year. There are no plans to move Rich Tea over to the flow-wrap system yet. What we are planning, though, is a further £8M of investment for the front end of our factory.

Output can be increased to 160,000t at Harlesden. What’s holding us back is ensuring we have the front-end capabilities; so the mixing and the moulding. A lot of the systems at the front of the line are legacy systems and aren’t capable of reaching 160,000t of output. Over the next 18 months, we’ll be putting in new silos for flour, oil, sugar and chocolate to ensure we have the right capabilities to achieve a higher output.

Investment will be continuous at the site and across our other sites too. Every year we have a cost reduction programme, not just at Harlesden, but for the broader business. Usually, we aim to cut between 4% and 5% from the cost of production. However, we’ve reduced Harlesden’s cost of production by 20% since the investment.

Increased investment (Return to top)

Also, we’ve increased investment in our facilities company-wide. Typically, the biscuit industry invests 3.5% to 4% of revenue a year in its sites, but we’ve invested about 6% and will continue to do so as part of our modernisation plans, which extend beyond the Harlesden site.

The production process for a Digestive biscuit is very simple. It starts with the ingredients being mixed into a dough. The dough is then taken down in thickness using rollers before being moulded into shape. It comes out of the moulds and then goes into the ovens we have 70m and 80m gas-fired ovens here.

The biscuits come out of the ovens and go through a cooling process, before going onto a primary wrapping process. Sometimes they will move onto a secondary wrapping process.

In the future, I would like to see more spent on the front end of the process. This is just a wish list, but it’s really where our next level of investment at Harlesden needs to go.

For employee morale, I think we need to see investment in the baking part of the factory. It’s not imperative for the success of the factory, but it would be a good thing to see.

Kevin McGurk left United Biscuits to pursue other options as Food Manufacture​ went to press.

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