Farmhouse Biscuits in Twiston celebrates 50 years of business
PUBLISHED: 13:55 08 November 2012 | UPDATED: 22:19 20 February 2013
Crumbs! When it comes to traditional baking, one Lancashire firm has all the ingredients for success. Martin Pilkington reports
Its an ill wind that blows no good, and the harsh winter of 1962-63 had storms aplenty. They nearly bankrupted Philip and Dorothy McIvor, but also set them on the road to a prosperous (and delicious) future running one of Lancashires iconic businesses, Farmhouse Biscuits.
Philip and Dorothy had married in 1961, and for 140 a year were renting Coolham Farm at Twiston. Wed just got nicely going when we hit that bad winter of 1962-63. We had 1000 head of poultry, a dozen beef cattle, Galloways, a couple of pigs and 60 sheep, says Philip: And we were snowed in for 12 weeks, with no water for nine. I lost two stone carting water to keep the stock and the family alive we had our first child by then.
What few eggs the chickens laid wouldnt hatch, so we decided to sell those we had, and some chickens, direct to the public on Blackburn Market. They made good money, but then Dorothy came up with the idea that changed their lives: Because the counter was bare chickens one end eggs the other my wife decided shed make a few things to fill it up. She made cakes and biscuits like Lancashire flips, and buns and lemon cheese and jam and so on. It was the turning point.
Wed got close to insolvent with the bank by that time but started to pull ourselves back. The market was very profitable so we kept it going, and we went from one to three, with Clitheroe and then Blackpool added. With cakes you had to throw them away if they didnt sell, but with biscuits you just put the lid on and took them back the following week, so we decided to focus on biscuits.
Investment decisions in the early days were somewhat different from more recent moves. At Twiston capacity was doubled when a second domestic oven was bought once their Rayburn was at maximum output.
Their very first machine was only purchased when Dorothys 18-hour working days became intolerable. Now the company is about to open a purpose-built addition to the Nelson plant into which they moved the business in 1978, the latest in a long line of extensions. Theyd stopped farming long before 1978, but ran the biscuit business on Dorothys family farm in Barrowford until space there was inadequate.
We started with Dorothy, her mother and mine making the biscuits, all to their own recipes, says Philip: Now we employ about 250 people.
For all the changes some things remain constant, which is perhaps the underlying secret of their success. The factory has much hi-tech machinery, but many of the processes are done by hand, and many of the workers have been with the company for 30 years and more.
Several of the senior managers began their careers on the factory floor decades ago. The basic packet design dates back to the 1960s. And though faster machines are available, old-style mixers are still used which produce a crispy texture, some of them recent arrivals, a couple bought second-hand years ago now more than a century old.
We produce about 55 to 60 tonnes of biscuits a week now, and sell to Fortnum & Mason who are our biggest customer, lifelifelifelifeHarrods, the second largest, Harvey Nicks, airlines, cruise lines, the Queens shops, Waitrose, Booths... all outlets that speak of quality. Their packaging reflects that market, the display of tins in the boardroom a whos who of high-end retail. And not just in this country, with about 20 per cent of their production heading overseas: Christmas begins in May here, when the tins for customers in the Far East need to be on the water, Philip tells me.
It would surprise a marketing consultant to find they have no external sales-force, though they do have regional distributors, some with them since the mid-70s, and attend a couple of annual trade-fairs. And multinational rivals would consider their shift system strange: We are a one-shift company because the operation is so complicated, we are making so many different products at any one time, says Philip: And we want to maintain the quality of our product.