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An interview with Bennett Opie's Engineering Manager

20 December 2010

EXCLUSIVE James Jennings , engineering manager of Kent-based food producer Bennett Opie, talks to FP Express about the company's work and its involvement with machinery suppliers such as Domino Printing Services (see picture)

The nature of Bennett Opie's work means it works with many food machinery suppliers such as Domino Printing Services which provides labelling equipment for the Bennett Opie factory.

Food Express was given access to Bennett Opie's Sittingbourne factory and was able to speak to James Jennings, its engineering manager. The following exclusive question & answer article is a result of that visit.

Could you define Bennett Opie in your own words?

Bennett Opie is one of the UK’s oldest family businesses, and has been producing and supplying high quality food and drink since 1880. Based in Sittingbourne, Kent, the Opies range of products includes the world-famous pickled walnuts through to cocktail cherries, pickles, sliced lemons, chutneys and ginger. Opies is also the UK importer for Monin syrups, Coco Lopez cream of coconut and Clement Faugier chestnuts. In addition, Opies is also the sole UK importer for Lingham’s chilli sauces and Ferns Indian chutneys, pickles and pastes.

Could you describe the founding of the company, as well as the origin of its name
Cornishman Bennett Opie set off to make his fortune in London in 1880 with £5 in his pocket. He initially sold eggs and bacon in the capital with the help of his two brothers Richard and Samuel. Business prospered so much so that in 1912 he founded a private company, Bennett Opie Limited.

Each generation who joined the business has contributed to its growth. Bennett’s son William recognised the opportunity to manufacture liquid eggs for the bakery trade during the First World War, when fresh eggs were in short supply. It was also William who decided to diversify into preserving cherries to provide a cost effective alternative to expensive French imports. In 1929, the company relocated to Sittingbourne, in the heart of the Kent countryside. This marked the start of what was to be the development of expertise in preserves and pickles.

Today, in the safe hands of Bennett Opie’s great grandsons, Philip and William, the company goes from strength to strength, creating new products in line with developing tastes and food trends, but never neglecting the established products on which the company’s success has been built.

How did the company cope with the recession, and how has it found the recovery?
Like many businesses, Opies has had to make adjustments to ensure its continued success during the recession. However, the company has grown significantly during the past two years, with a strategic expansion plan which has increased turnover by 22% to £15m. In addition, additional investment in a neighbouring site to the current production facility gives the company the space to aid future growth.

2010 marks Opies 130 anniversary and to celebrate a new range of ginger and pickled products will be launched. Opies continues to analyse production methods and streamline them as much as possible to minimise downtime. This, along with a detailed knowledge of the food industry, will ensure the successful future of the business.

How important are machinery suppliers to the processes in your factory?
Our equipment is sourced from specialist machinery suppliers to ensure we have access to the latest technology. Our production process is very advanced and we can react quickly and work to short lead times.

What sets you apart from your competitors?
Opies is a family business to the core. Bennett’s desire to go the extra mile for his customers is a legacy which still endures today. Opies employees are passionate about what they do and this is reflected in the quality of the products.

Could you describe the Bennett Opie hierarchy?
William’s brother, Philip Opie, is the Technical Director and Chairman. He has been with the business since 1977. The great grandson of founder Bennett Opie, William Opie, is the Managing Director. He has been with the business since 1972. Paul Fox is the Business Development Director. He joined the business in 1999 and is the brains behind new product ideas. Derek White is the Operations Director. He has been with the business for 25 years and is responsible for ensuring the highest production standards are continually met.
Steve Ward is the Finance Director and he joined the business in 1989.
What are your views on investment in China? What is your company's role in this area?
China is a very important market to Opies, with the company importing significant volumes of ginger from the region. We also export capers to China and it is one of our biggest markets for this product, which is of the highest quality. In a globalised world, investment in any economy will have far-reaching benefits.

What is the secret to satisfying the retailers?
There is no one size fits all approach to satisfying your clients. We deal with retailers of varying sizes, who all have different requirements from us, be that products, delivery schedules or location. The key to success is flexibility. We understand that each retailer has a responsibility to their customers and spends a lot of time understanding their shopping habits and needs. By being able to react quickly, have personal relationships with our clients and ensuring our products are of the highest quality, we can offer a service which not only satisfies their needs, but also their customers. The retail industry, particularly food and drink, is highly competitive. It is this competitiveness which gives us the motivation to continually develop the relationships we have with retailers to ensure a prosperous future for both them and us. The advantage of being a family-owned business is that we are not tied down by bureaucracy, but can give each client the personal service they deserve.

What are your thoughts on sustainability in the food industry?
We care passionately about protecting the environment and are doing everything we can to reduce our carbon footprint. We are continually monitoring our energy consumption, particularly heating, lighting and machinery, and we regularly review our consumption and progress against targets. The measures taken to improve sustainability include:
 Reclaiming syrup from the production lines to use for other products
 Recycling all water that is used in the cooling processes during production
 Ensuring at least 90% of packaging is recyclable and recycling all cardboard and other materials wherever possible
 Introducing two new shrink-wrap machines which have a carbon footprint of 50% less than the previous machines
 Maximising delivery loads and choosing new vehicles with reduced emissions
 Ensuring as many ingredients as possible are locally sourced to ensure food miles are kept to a minimum

For the past five years the targets for energy reduction laid down by the Food Manufacturers Federation have been exceeded.

What legislation / regulations have the most affect on your products?
We pay close attention to all changes in the legislative environment and there are many regulations which affect food production. These regulations help to maintain industry standards and we are proud to consistently exceed them.

How important are skills & training to Bennett Opie?
We continually monitor our employees development and offer training to ensure they not only work to the highest standards, but also experience job satisfaction. Retaining employees and developing them is an important responsibility for any employer.

What is your background?
James Jennings has been with Bennett Opie for seven years. The first five years were spent as an electrical engineer and for the past two years he has been an engineering manager.

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