How Seabrook Crisps' boss is growing the brand in 'the worst' trading environment

Demand for Seabrook Crisps is growing but boss Daniel Woodwards is steering the business through the worst trading conditions he has ever experienced, writes Lizzie Murphy

Daniel Woodwards, managing director of Calbee UK. Picture: Bruce Rollinson

Seabrook Crisps has been on quite the adventure over the last 10 years - from one of Yorkshire’s best kept secrets to a top-selling UK crinkle cut crisp manufacturer.

The firm’s growth in a hugely competitive UK market has been impressive and managing director Daniel Woodwards has been a driving force behind the expansion.

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“It’s definitely been a journey,” admits Woodward from the firm’s 10-acre site in Bradford.

Daniel Woodwards, managing director of Calbee UK. Picture: Bruce Rollinson.

When he joined Seabrook as part of a turnaround management team, initially as finance director and then operating director, sales and profits were down at the family-owned firm, costs were escalating and a full-scale turnaround was required.

The team put together an investment plan and in 2015 chief executive Jonathan Bye led a management buy-out with Woodwards, marketing director Kevin Butterworth, and commercial director Jon Woods, backed by private equity firm LDC which took a majority stake in the company.

They focused on automation in the factory to make it more efficient and more flexible in the competitive crisp market.

By the time the UK subsidiary of Japanese snack food giant Calbee snapped up the business in 2018, it had revenues of £29.8m and profit (EBITDA) of £5m, up nine per cent and 28 per cent respectively during LDC’s tenure.

Surprisingly, given the global supply chain issues resulting from Brexit and the covid-19 pandemic, plus increasing adverse weather conditions that affect the business, the strategy put together three years ago has hit all of its milestones.

Woodwards, 44, who is now managing director of Calbee Group UK after Bye stepped down in 2019, has invested £5m in its factories including new production lines at Seabrook Crisps,

He also implemented a turnaround strategy at its smaller factory in Deeside, Wales, which produces snacks under its Harvest Snaps and Yushoi brands.

At the time of the acquisition, Calbee had an £9.3m turnover but was making a loss (EBITDA) of £1.9m. Last week, in its first combined accounts since the acquisition, the group revealed a turnover of £43.7m and EBITDA of £5.8m.

The Deeside factory, which previously only made pea snaps, employs 60 staff and now produces a range of maize and plant-based snacks for the growing healthier snacks market.

Nevertheless, underneath the upbeat financial figures and a huge spike in demand for supermarket snacks during the pandemic lies a very tough trading environment.

“The bit we couldn’t predict was the disruption due to the pandemic and the global supply chain issues that have come, either through the pandemic or from the adverse weather patterns, which are increasingly becoming an issue,” says Woodwards.

“We had a sense that Brexit was an issue but I don’t think anybody really had a good feel for exactly how that was going to play out.

“You mix that altogether simultaneously and it’s hard to differentiate which has caused which problem. That’s just created the worst trading environment I’ve experienced in my career.”

He adds: “As a business we’ve adapted and made sure we’ve supplied everything we could. Virtually every commodity that we buy has been affected in some way, whether that’s been cardboard, sunflower oil, labour or availability of drivers.

“But it’s been really important to us that if you went shopping you could find your favourite flavour of Seabrook’s or Loaded or Harvest Snaps, whenever or whereever you wanted it.

“We made sure that if any of our commercial partners came to us with supply challenges, we’ve been able to meet them. That’s been the commitment of our team.”

The commitment appears to be paying off. Seabrook, which employs 170 people, is growing at 26.9 per cent year-on-year and outperforms the category 19.2 per cent on a 52-week basis. With the exception of Walkers, Seabrook sell more packs than any other multipack crisp brand, according to Kantar data on August 8, 2021.

The firm produces 2,000 bags of crisps a minute from its Bradford site alone, including straight cut crisps for Asda and Aldi own label, equating to 230 tonnes of product a week, up from 200 tonnes 18 months ago.

This year also marked its return to television advertising for the first time in 15 years. “The business model is to invest in the brands, make sure that the Seabrook’s brand is known nationally and then invest in the operations to make sure that we’ve got the capability to meet the demand that the investment will create,” he says.

Woodward’s plan is to grow the brands further. “That’s critical but it’s a tough market,” he says.

The growth, he adds, will come through its existing brands and existing technologies, organic expansion into new subsections of the categories or mergers and acquisitions. “Each of those options is open to us and continually under review,” he says.

“There is some innovation in the pipeline but our immediate focus is to drive our existing brands and we’ve now got the capacity to do that.”

While the market for snacks that are lower in salt, fat and sugar is growing, Woodwards says it will complement the larger fried potato side of the business. “It’s clearly and important part of the market but it’s something that we’re looking at to complement our existing offering,” he says.

Looking ahead, Woodwards expects demand for its products to remain high. “I think we’ll continue to grow - that’s the plan. The main challenge is making sure we’ve got the right resilience through our supply chain to ensure that demand can be met.”

When it comes to ownership, he believes it doesn’t actually matter when it comes to the day-to-day running of the business.

“Different ownership models aren’t that different in my opinion,” he says. “We just try to make the best business we can every single day. Doing it correctly is the same, whether that’s under family, private equity of corporate ownership. The last couple of years have been the toughest trading environment I’ve ever worked in, and, therefore, ownership is not the defining factor for us.”

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