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Gilbert's Foods: The Lamb that Roared

08 January 2013

It's refreshing to speak to somebody who actually tells it like it is. And there are few more straight-talking people than Peter Smith (pictured), MD of Gilbert's Foods, as David Strydom discovered during an entertaining interview.

Gilbert's Foods' headquarters is located near Morecambe in the deep northwest. When I arrive, rain is lashing down outside but the mood inside the factory - exemplified by the friendly staff and MD Peter Smith - is far warmer than the weather.

The company specialises in manufacturing pasteurised meat products. Designed for re-heating via microwave, oven, boil-in-the-bag, grill or rotisserie, these products are said to offer the caterer a safe, efficient way to serve meat.

''Our products undertake a pasteurisation process during manufacture that removes the risk of the product being undercooked and therefore reduces any risk associated with food safety,'' the company website says. ''Introducing the pasteurisation process to the manufacture of our products also enhances flavour, texture and tenderness to the meat.''

I ask Peter for some background on the company. ''We're a family business founded by my father in 1970. He came into the industry from engineering on passenger liners so he looks at things differently. He passed that on to me - we look at the industry from a different angle.”
Gilbert Smith took over a butcher's shop in a busy little village but when tourism petered out in 1975, he had to sell meats outside the shop instead. This laid the seeds of today's business. Gilbert's Foods employs 65 people and has set up a tradition in which Peter's son, now 20, may one day head up the business - although at the moment he has his sights set on being a professional golfer. So no ambition in this family, then!

''The direction of where we go with our product constantly changes,'' Peter says. ''My dad was doing all the meat that went into McDonalds burgers when it had only two or three shops in the country. Then somebody asked him if he knew how to make hams, to which he obviously said yes, and went home to read up on it!''

I ask Peter what day-to-day challenges he faces. He explains that the reliability of equipment such as thermo-formers, box erectors and packaging lines is a challenge because they're complicated machines. ''They're not unreliable but if any were to break, it would be a problem.''

Peter says staffing used to be a challenge but ''immigration from Eastern Europe has really eased our problems in filling vacancies. We’ve gained a lot of reliable and hard-working individuals. We find our employees tend to make a life for themselves here so high staff turnover isn’t really a problem.’’

Peter sings a familiar - and refreshingly blunt - tune with respect to the lack of engineering skills. ''We've bred common sense out of our kids over the past 30 years. The kids coming out of school have no grounding in anything basic such as mathematics. Nowadays you get jobs such as 'outreach coordinator'. Well, excuse me, what is that? Nobody can tell me!''

Peter is less than impressed at current levels of education in the UK and continues “A lack of skilled engineers in the UK means machinery has to be de-skilled. I think we’re sitting on a time bomb in terms of engineering skills in this country.''

Peter has similarly strong opinions on EU legislation. ''I went to a factory in Germany a few years ago where the guy explained the German idea of the legislation that comes out of Brussels. If, say, EU legislation is six pages long, the Germans condense it to two pages. In Britain, we get six pages and turn it into 32. And we insist on applying every last page. That's the problem - the stuff coming from Brussels is only huge by the time we've finished with it. We're complicating simple things.”

With respect to the economic uncertainty of the past few years and how this has affected what customers buy, Peter says prices have gone up but the recession isn’t to blame. ''For many reasons in 2011, lamb prices increased - after we'd signed our annual contracts. That wasn't recession related.

''One reason for the increase was that the kill rate was cut by six million in New Zealand - the biggest player in the lamb industry – so inevitably prices increased. Fuel, animal feed and wages also went up. The result was the cost of lamb in the UK went up a third. So there was trouble in 2011 but we held our own and turned things around.''

Is Gilbert's Foods far more successful than its competitors? Peter isn't so sure. “Any success we’ve had is just us keeping things tight. For us, it’s about offering the best price point we can to our customers without compromising on service of the quality of our product.”

Cooking with character
General manager of Gilbert’s Foods, David Wilcox, says the plant specialises in cooking. ‘’We make meal centres and ready meal components. We use thermo-forming technology for our sauvé process but the most important machine onsite is the cooker. We have two sterilisation cookers and we’ve got three four-wrack pasteurisation cookers.’’

The cookers used by Gilbert’s Foods come from a French company called La Garde. the main reason for buying this particular brand was that there wasn't anything as efficient available in the UK and La Garde has a great network of UK agents which makes communication easier if there are any maintenance issues.

What would be the perfect thermo-former? ‘’There are many expensive solutions but our problem is you can’t buy the expensive solution until you’re sure there’s going to be a requirement for the product. Many of the most costly solutions are difficult to modify so we use machinery but are still reliant on people.’’

‘Why we don’t use robots’
David Wilcox, general manager at Gilbert’s Foods, explains that while there are robots available that will pick-and-place different cuts of meat, they are ‘’expensive, difficult to run and maintain and not easy to live with despite the fact they do a fantastic job. We use humans because they perform the process as well as robots.

’’It’s not cost-effective for us to buy one because we don’t know from one month to the next what we’re going to cut. We need to remain flexible to be effective - and to compete with people who are bigger than us - and if you invest too heavily in machinery, you can buy something you’ll use once, then not again for a long time.’’

Gilbert’s Foods has a maintenance engineer but, as David points out, when the machinery becomes too high-tech and complex, more engineers are needed, which costs the company more. I ask David if a robotics manufacturer decided to donate a new robot to the plant, would he use it. ‘’Yes, I’d use it,’’ David says, ‘’but as long as they provided a phone number which would allow me to get somebody to my premises within 20 minutes of the robot breaking down.’’

David says where thermo-formers are basic pieces of equipment, computerised robots aren’t ideal in a wet or damp environment. ‘’When you go to trade shows you see the lovely pieces of equipment but they’re in a dry environment, manufacturing something picturesque such as dry Pleistocene. But when you’re working in a real environment with raw material that’s different temperatures and sizes - that’s when technology starts to struggle. Then the human equation comes back into it.’’

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