Sweet taste of success
“It’s a relationship based on trust and understanding.” Wilkin & Sons, the food company behind Tiptree jams and some very luxurious Christmas puddings, shares its challenges and plans for expansion – and describes how a strong link with Barclays is helping build a strong future.
When Scott Goodfellow asked his colleagues at the Wilkin & Sons headquarters whether anyone could remember when the company started doing business with Barclays, nobody could give him an answer, because it was so long ago. Given that former chairman Peter Wilkin, part of the Tiptree firm’s founding dynasty, remains involved with the company after a 52-year career, it’s safe to say that Barclays has been backing the Essex business for a long time.
Scott, Wilkin & Sons’ Sales and Marketing Director, says: “Our relationship with Barclays is very important. What we value is that it’s a relationship based on trust and understanding. In every sense, they take all opportunities to better understand our business.”
Our relationship with Barclays is very important. What we value is that it’s a relationship based on trust and understanding. In every sense, they take all opportunities to better understand our business.
The Wilkin family has been farming the land between Chelmsford and Colchester since the early 18th century, but the coming of the railways saw a switch from arable to fruit production. In 1885, Wilkin & Sons began making fruit preserves, distributed across the nation and exported around the world.
“We’re fruit farmers at heart,” says Scott. “We grow all sorts of traditional English fruit: strawberries, raspberries, cherries, rhubarb, plums – even the curious medlar. We have a jam factory where we make jams, honey, marmalade and condiments, ketchup and mustards. We have a patisserie in Witham, where we hand-make cakes, gateaux, biscuits, flapjacks, and other tasty treats. They supply all of our eleven tea rooms throughout Essex, and we have even made the Victoria sponges for Wimbledon.” The 2010 purchase of fellow Essex company Cole’s strengthened Wilkin & Sons position in the Christmas pudding market, while the tea rooms are a key part of the company’s expansion plans, with an outlet containing a café, tea room and gift shop newly opened in the centre of Chelmsford.
Scott says he can see the Tiptree-branded tea rooms rolling out nationally and even internationally in the next five years, noting “banks can help us in driving expansion of our tea rooms”. As well as trust, he says, “the other thing we appreciate is Barclays’ flexibility. We’re investing in a number of areas across the business and most of the investments we have are very long-term, so there may not be a quick payback. Barclays understands that our business is about long-term steady progress, and they’re happy to give us facilities that encourage our sustainable approach.”
The company’s strategy is to maintain a focus on its core (“very good food products”, in Scott’s words), but also to move into adjacent categories, hence the emergence of profitable new lines from salted caramel spreads to fruit gin liqueurs. Scott says: “Innovation is very important to the business. We look at emerging market trends, and at our core brand values, launching into areas where we can bring quality and authenticity.”
TipTree featured in our video focusing on East Anglia:
Wilkin & Sons has 450 full-time employees, with a further 350 seasonal farm workers taken on during the summer season. In addition to providing direct employment, Wilkin & Sons works closely with other local businesses, using products from Essex farmers and suppliers. “There’s a good business community here where people help each other out,” says Scott. “And the whole point of the business is that it’s very much a family culture, with plenty of instances of different generations of the same local families working here.” An employee benefit trust, introduced over two decades ago, ensures a high level of worker ownership of the business, with approximately 50% of the company’s shares currently in employees’ hands.
Joining friends from Wilkin at various community events are Barclays representatives. Scott explains: “Jo Rassell is our local Barclays Relationship Director. She and her team do a very good job of getting under the skin of our business, and physically spending a lot of time with us.”
Some of that time is spent out on the company’s 850 acres of land, picking strawberries: “Barclays put in a team for our Little Scarlet Strawberry Race every year. Teams from the local community will pick Tiptree’s unique strawberries for an hour, and whoever picks the most wins a prize. It’s all fancy dress and the money goes to charity – and every year Barclays sends a bunch of very good pickers. Jo and her team generally spend a lot of time trying to understand what our business is about culturally as well as commercially.”
There are challenges ahead for the business, as there have been throughout Wilkin & Sons’ 132-year history. Scott is reporting “steady growth” in turnover, with 25% of sales being exports – including handmade scones to China. Despite the diversification into new product lines and retail areas, he sees growth being founded on the company’s basics: “We focus on quality – good quality products at reasonable prices with very good levels of service. That’s what we’re about. We understand how we see the business developing, and Barclays has been very good in giving us the flexible support we need to do that.”