Life’s so tasty for shortbread giant Walkers

Picture: Jon Savage
Picture: Jon Savage
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WALKERS Shortbread has hailed a “welcome” return to profit growth after the Aberlour-based firm shifted its focus on to its own brands rather than lower-margin private label work.

Managing director Jim Walker told The Scotsman that the family-run firm’s headcount had risen to a record 1,660 staff as production accelerates for the key Christmas sales period.

He said that work is under way on the company’s sixth factory, with full production expected to be reached in the spring.

He said: “We have always aimed for sustainable growth and so we have diversified into lots of different markets. Each year, some markets will be up and some will be down, but thankfully there have been more up than down.

“We have six factories, four of them in Aberlour and two in Elgin. We have created about 600 jobs in the past ten years.

“Both myself and my brother Jo are in good health and are keen to keep the business independent. When you enjoy your job as much as we do, it makes it easier to carry on working.”

Jim is 69, while Jo will turn 76 in December.

His comments came as accounts filed at Companies House showed that pre-profits at Walkers jumped to £14.6 million in 2012 from £8.9m in 2011 thanks to its operating margins rising to 11.8 per cent from 7.2 per cent.

Turnover rose to £123.7m from £119.1m, with exports breaking through the £50 mark for the first time.

Jim said that the company benefited from word-of-mouth recommendations for its products rather than advertising.

In the year ahead, he added that the company would continue to develop its new sharing packs of shortbread and oatmeal biscuits and that it was also preparing to launch other products.

Last month, Prince Charles, the Duke of Rothesay, said that he still enjoyed eating the Duchy Originals organic oaten biscuits, which he launched in partnership with Walkers in 1992.

Up-market grocery chain Waitrose signed an exclusive deal to sell the Duchy Originals fare, with Jim Walker reporting that the brand continues to perform well, especially through exports.

He also hailed the performance of the firm’s range of Weight Watcher biscuits, which are made under licence.

But he warned that rising raw material prices – especially butter – were taking their toll during the current financial year.

“Last year’s figures were helped by a fall in butter prices towards the end of the year, but those have now risen again,” Jim noted. “The rise in profits was very welcome because it came after five years of falling margins. wWe’re a small player in the global commodities markets so there’s not much we can do when it comes to rising costs.”

Owen Paterson, the UK government’s Environment Secretary, is due to tour Walker Shortbread’s operations in Aberlour today.

The company joined Paterson on a trade delegation to New York over the summer.

The firm has won four Queen’s Awards for Export Achievement over the years and now sells its biscuits in more than 60 countries.