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Leadership & Strategy


Learnings from a 133 year-old family bakery business

Roberts Bakery tour 1Large or small, family businesses share common sets of values and issues. An Open Business Days event gave 30 family firms the chance to extract learnings from a fifth generation operation.

It is a business that dates back to 1887, when Robert Roberts opened a small bakery and grocery business in the North West of England. More than 130 years later and the company’s family origins and way of working has remained the same, even if its scale looks anything but humble anymore.

Now spread across a 24-acre site and with more than one thousand workers, Frank Roberts & Sons has grown from a local bakery business to one supplying supermarkets around the region.

Keen to contribute to the family business ecosystem, particularly in the North West of England, deputy chairman Mike Roberts recently invited a group of family firm leaders to have a behind the scenes look at operations.

“We may be large now, but we definitely started out small,” he said. “Whether that’s through changing products or integrating new generations into the business, it’s important for other family firms to see what that journey was like.”

The bakery has invested in the machinery and technology needed to scale rapidly

Operational learnings

Guests were given an exclusive tour of the white loaf production site, where an impressive array of technology and automation sees thousands of loaves baked every day.

It was the perfect tonic to stimulate some valuable conversations between the attending family firm leaders, all interested to hear how others in their situation are dealing with similar problems.

Hannah Barlow, joint MD at Dunsters Farm, took over the running of the family business with her brother six years ago and has fully utilised the insights and learnings good networking can create since then.

Explaining the value she gained by attending the site visit to Frank Roberts & Sons, she said: “It can be daunting to come into a room where you don’t know anyone, but when you’re all family businesses there is that something in common.

“It lets me see things a different perspective.” Whether it’s talking about an HR issue or customer service strategies, Hannah values having a sounding board.

Roberts Bakery tour
Attendees had the chance to meet family firms they ordinarily wouldn’t cross paths with

It’s a sentiment shared by fellow Open Business Days attendee Rebecca Falder, quality system manager at HMG Paints. “In my role I’m starting to take on bigger projects and so want to learn as much as I can from people who have been in similar positions – really draw parallels from what they’ve done.”

While her business is in the paint production space, Rebecca wanted to visit Frank Roberts & Sons because she sees many similarities in the production and knows there are things she can absorb about the way they’ve built a strong culture over 130 years and maintained family business values.

“There are quite a lot of differences between ‘normal’ businesses and family ones,” she added. “The value set and reasons why you are in the business tend to differ quite a lot. So, speaking to like-minded people and those who have similar relationships within their business is important.”

A day well spent

In the tour around Frank Roberts & Sons, the Open Business Days guests were shown how the business has created systems that both speed up production and provide stringent oversight when it comes to quality control and health and safety. They also had a chance to hear about product innovation such as its Crunchy Cricket loaves, each loaf contains around 336 crickets, and its Big Idea Initiative, an internal programme which encourages staff from all parts of the business to put forward suggestions for improvements and new offerings.

Commenting on this initiative, Mike said: “You need to open up product development to the entire business as they are seeing things you don’t. Staying current means looking at what the competition is doing, where the market is going.”

The day also featured a panel session featuring Mike, The Pilot Group founder and COO Simone Peppi and Be the Business CEO Tony Danker. As two family firm leaders themselves, Mike and Simone talked about themes such as succession, staying innovative, forward planning and other scenarios unique to family businesses.

Asked about the value of events like this, Simone said: “It’s really hard when you’re running a business to take that time out, to reason with yourself that giving up an hour or a day is worth it when you don’t see the tangible results straight away.

“But business is business, and whether you’re selling widgets or selling bread there is real value to be had.”

If you’d like to know more about our Open Business Days programme then visit our dedicated page.

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