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26 November 2012

David Strydom travelled to Marsh Barton on the outskirts of Exeter to find out why juice supplier Cobell is able to invest in machinery despite economic uncertainty

Bright-eyed and bristling with energy, Nick Sprague (PICTURED) has the air of the entrepreneur about him. If I'd met him before I interviewed him at his offices in Marsh Barton, Exeter, I'm sure I would've known he'd founded something that required a fair bit of hard slog and enthusiasm.

Enter Cobell, Nick's brainchild. It's a small, dynamic supplier of processed fruit concentrates, juices and purees, which is developing specialist support solutions to complement its global operation. And - recession be damned - Nick has even continued to invest by installing three new bulk storage tanks at his facility as part of an ongoing expansion programme, to improve its capacity to receive, blend, package and reload product.

Nick heads up a team that includes MD David Pearce; director/partners Graham Holland and Ian Taylor; technical and operations director, Andrew Clark; and purchasing director, Alan Leal. There's also a finance team; a sales and marketing team; a technical team; a procurement logistics team; and the staff at the Cobell distribution centre.

"I'd worked for eight years for a company doing exactly what we do today,'' Nick says about his life before Cobell. ''I progressed through the ranks and decided I could stay and enjoy a career being employed by somebody else or branch out and do my own thing. I called the company a mixture of my children's names - my son is Jacob and my daughter is Gabriella.''

Nick and his wife started working on their project together; today Cobell employs 40 people. "I can see that figure expanding in the years ahead to about 55 or 60,'' says Nick. "We've gone from being the 'new kids on the block' to the largest in Northern Europe with sales last year of £52m. The plan is to keep progressing through organic growth and a few more acquisitions perhaps.''

Central to Cobell's new investment is a 25,000l tank which means it can receive or ship a full road tanker load of product while two additional 12,000 litre tanks mean it can blend larger quantities of fruit-based ingredients to exactly meet customer needs. Each of the new hi-specification, stainless-steel tanks is said to meet stringent hygiene standards, and incorporate the latest technologies.

These include efficient impellers to thoroughly mix the ingredients without damage; state-of-the-art treatment processes to ensure the blended fruit products arrive at point-of-use in optimum condition; and thorough clean-down solutions to maintain the integrity of each production run.

Andrew Clark, Cobell's technical and operations director speaks glowingly of Cobell's health. "We've trebled capacity in just 24 months and project a 50% increase on shipments this year," he said. "We source high quality processed fruit ingredients from prominent suppliers from around the world, import them into the UK, blend, re-pack, then ship them to our growing customer base.

"Our new processing and storage tanks now allow us to receive stock in bulk quantity, blend larger consignments to meet customer requirements and package them more efficiently. This means we can now economically provide bespoke product development from trial to production quantities right through to bulk volume."

Having blended fruit and other ingredients to the customers' exacting recipe it's then chilled or frozen for shipment and storage or packed in various aseptic containers, making it ambiently stable, typically for up to six months. The aseptic, pasteurised packing line has also just been upgraded to enable up to three metric tonnes per hour to be processed.

Package sizes include a range of 3, 5, 10 and 20 litre bags in boxes, jerry cans, 200 litre drums, 1,000 litre bag-in-'pallecon' plus bulk container loads, all designed to conveniently meet customer shipping, storage and usage needs.

Andrew says Cobell works closely with machinery manufacturers. One is Flexifill, manufacturer of aseptic and non-aseptic bag-in-box filling equipment; another is Rapak, manufacturer of bag-in-box liquid packaging systems, which Andrew describes as 'a global business that is an expert in this discipline'.

Then there's local engineering firm, Vigo. This Honiton-based company makes pasteurisers that can be used for pasteurising fruit juices and sweet cider or preserving fruit. "We designed our pasteuriser with them,'' says Andrew. "The beauty of it is that it's very flexible and can handle a range of products - from juices, purees and concentrates, which is a demanding task for one piece of kit.''

The key to handling relationships with engineering partners and getting the right machinery from them, says Andrew, is the initial design work and communication. "Everybody needs to understand exactly what is intended. We're blessed with supportive local engineering suppliers, with experience in their related fields. That's essential because in many cases around the world engineering facilities aren't local to food producers.''

Andrew says the level of Cobell's vertical integration gives it the edge over its competitors. "We have such a broad supply base of quality processors; a huge amount of expertise within the team and through that supply base; and the ability to offer a complete solution as opposed to offering only a commodity,'' says Andrew.

"We understand what our customers' requirements are and what our processors' need to do to satisfy those requirements,'' he adds.

Nick concurs. "In our industry there are 10 competing companies, and even though we're still the new kid on the block, we're one of only three of those companies with facilities,'' he explains. "So although it may be a bit congested, we're keen to engage with our customers; we're not being nosey but we're keen to understand what they do in order to give good advice.

"We're tenacious and resourceful, and if a customers gives us a challenge we'll do anything to rise to it. If we can't, we're not scared to tell them that. We no longer see ourselves as the middleman but rather as a facilitator; in the past the tendency was to keep at arm's length the processor - who is turning that orange into a juice - and the customer. We've broken that down. We no longer hide from the margin we make because we offer a value and a service.''

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