Family firm that has cheese fans flocking

Judy Bell with daughters Katie and Caroline.
Judy Bell with daughters Katie and Caroline.
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Judy Bell has handed over the reins of her award winning Shepherds Purse artisan cheesemaking business to her daughters. Catherine Scott visited the North Yorkshire creamery.

SOMETHING is very different at Shepherds Purse. It isn’t just the branded T-shirts worn by staff, or the mugs sporting the company logo, or even the rebranded packaging and website. It is the fact there are two new women at the helm of this quintessentially Yorkshire artisan cheesemaker.

Katie Matten and Caroline Bell have taken over the business from their mum and Shepherds Purse founder Judy Bell, and it is quite a responsibility. Judy, who started making sheep’s milk cheese on the family farm near Thirsk more than 25 years ago, has entrusted the running of her award winning business to her two daughters, and she couldn’t be happier.

“I am thrilled that Kate and Caroline are working together, they have gelled really well. They are so enthusiastic and passionate about the business – and 
have a lot more energy than me. Ethically 
they feel the same way as me about keeping things right. We care as much about our customers as we do our products.”

And her daughters are well aware of the legacy they have been left.

“Shepherds Purse is synonymous with Judy Bell,” says Caroline. “Her values are at the core of what we do.”

Judy was a pharmacist before meeting and marrying farmer Nigel Bell and having four children. After becoming a mum, she went to work part-time for an osteopath in Northallerton. It was there that she became aware of people being intolerant to dairy products and hit on the idea of making cheese from ewes’ milk, despite having no experience of food manufacturing.

Like many farmers in the late 80s, the Bells were being encouraged to diversify to survive. They had an 180 acre arable farm with some beef cattle and pigs and initially Nigel was sceptical about Judy’s desire to have sheep.

“He just doesn’t like sheep,” she says by way of explanation. But determined Judy managed to convince him and, after getting a loan from the bank, she bought the 40 ewes she needed to start her business. However that proved to be the easy part. Judy had never even milked a cow before, let alone a sheep and she had very little idea of cheese making. So she embarked on a two-day course.

“It is very much a skill. I never thought that I wouldn’t be able to do it. The trick is to get the consistency, so that you make the same cheese every time.” It is a skill she has passed on to Katie, who has worked in every part of the family business she now runs, with her younger sister Caroline.

The family company now employs 20 people at a purpose-built, state-of-the-art dairy, supplying most major supermarkets as well as top restaurants and smaller retailers and airlines. The creamery is adjacent to the family home where the girls grew up with their brothers and where Judy and Nigel still live.

“It was great growing up on the farm,” says Katie, who lives just a couple of miles away from Shepherds Purse.

Although they grew up next door to the creamery and spent much of their school holidays packing cheese and helping out at the Great Yorkshire Show, neither woman had particularly considered their future in the family firm.

“Of course we were always part of the family business, but mum and dad never put any pressure on any of use to make it our career,” explains Caroline, 33.

Katie, 36, always dreamt of being an air stewardess and although she studied leisure, tourism and marketing at college it wasn’t long before she went back to where her heart was.

“I’d signed on with a recruitment agency in Leeds and was working at Shepherds Purse while I was waiting for something to come up and never left,” says Katie.

“When I realised I was here to stay, I worked in every part of the business, from making to packing the cheese, managing the staff, customer care, production, sales – everything. Mum was always the first one in and the last one there at night and I realised that she needed some help so I got her and Justin to show me how to operate the pasturiser and cheesemaking.”

When their sales director retired four years ago Katie easily stepped into the role and started taking on more responsibility.

“It just seemed to gradually fall into place organically,” she says. And then last year Caroline followed suit. With a background in IT, and having spent the last few years working for Apple, she was in a great position to bring her know-how to the business. One of her first jobs was to redesign the Shepherds Purse website and then rebrand the packaging to bring a fresh look to the products. It also helped to mark a shift in direction, a clear indication that there were new women running the business.

“Katie and I are very different,” says brunette Caroline of her blonde older sister. She has an eye firmly on marketing and branding, as well as social media, something Shepherds Purse has to embrace to survive and prosper in today’s markets, while Katie’s forte is production and sales. It is all a far cry from the kitchen table business Judy Bell started in 1986.

“It was never about making money,” she says. “I started out trying to create a product which helped people.”

Her first sheep’s cheeses were released to the public in 1988 at farmers’ markets, although the big product launch came in July 1989 at the Great Yorkshire Show.

“When people saw that it was made with sheep’s milk, more than 25 per cent of them turned the other way. I thought that I had made the biggest mistake. People associate sheep’s milk with a strong flavour like some goats’ cheese, but it isn’t like that. Once they taste it they like it.”

Judy decided to enter her ewes’ milk cheese into the famous Nantwich International Cheese Show, which attracts more than 1,200 cheeses. Hers won first prize – the first of many accolades received by Shepherds Purse in the last two and a half decades.

What followed was years of hard graft as Judy and her family spent every waking hour dedicated to cheese, including hand turning them every two hours – even during the night. In 1991, she employed a cheesemaker to help expand the business. In July 1993 Tesco approached Judy to supply her cheeses on a limited basis. Most businesses trying to expand would have bitten their hands off – not Judy Bell. No one was going to sell her produce if they didn’t know a thing or two about cheese and sheep.

She told Tesco they could sell her cheese but she would train their staff. And train them she did. Staff from Tesco came to Shepherds Purse for intensive training. She showed them round, cooked them food made from her cheese and then talked them through the products.

“When Shepherds Purse went on sale in that store, they sold like hot cakes.”

Judy had succeeded in getting the supermarket staff to share her passion for her cheeses. Other supermarkets followed suit and soon the demand outstripped the supply of milk. But, just as the business was taking off, Judy and Nigel’s youngest son, Jonathan, was killed in a car crash. Jonathan worked on the farm and looked after the sheep. Following, his death Justin, who had decided he didn’t want anything to do with farming, returned to the family business.

It was his suggestion that the family start to develop a range of cows’ milk cheeses. Yorkshire Blue now accounts for 75 per cent of the company’s total production. They have also introduced buffalo milk cheese into their range. Justin recently left the family business to set up his own IT business, although on the day I visited he was busy installing a new computer system at Shepherds Purse, part of the modernisation drive being implemented by the sisters.

Judy has no intention of sitting back and enjoying retirement either, and her daughters wouldn’t want her to. It is clear the two sisters work well together, but they are still very aware of the important part their mother, who is still chairman of the board, has to play.

“Mum is still a core part of the business,” says Caroline. “We value her input and we are really keeping her busy.”

Always a keen believer in networking and of championing local produce, when not at Shepherds Purse she is fighting the cause of the small producer. She is on the board of Deliciously Yorkshire and is always the first to give advice and champion the county’s food producers.

When we meet she is planning a trip to London for a meeting of Family Business, a networking group.

“It is so important to share ideas,” says Judy who recently appeared on Paul Hollywood’s Puddings and Pies, where he cooked with Shepherds Purse Fine Fettle, the Yorkshire feta cheese which had to be renamed after the Greeks complained. It 
is hard to see Judy sitting back and enjoying retirement, although she says 
she is spending more time with her husband Nigel who has just had shoulder surgery, in her garden and seeing the grandchildren. She seems more than content with the turn her business has taken, although it is hard to imagine her handing over the reins to anyone from outside the family.

“You mean sell?” she says when I ask the question. “I suppose one day I would have had no choice, but it isn’t a decision I have had to make.”

Shepherds Purse did employ a managing director from outside the family for a while but it isn’t something Judy would like to see repeated. “He was a nice enough chap, but he just didn’t get us. He was very commercial and that has never been our primary concern here. It is about the way we do things and about customer care, not just about making money.”

Meanwhile Katie and Caroline are looking to introduce new products to the existing Shepherds Purse range of 10 cheeses. Earlier this year they were approached by fellow cheesemaker and Blur bass guitarist Alex James to produce his Blue Monday cheese and also launched the award winning Harrogate Blue.

Katie would like to see the farm at Newsham developed further, possibly making it more accessible to the public.

“People these days want to know where their food comes from and how it is produced. We are very proud of what we do here.”

The biggest challenge the sisters face is propelling Shepherds Purse into the future while maintaining its artisan methods and ethical foundations, created by their mother 25 years ago.

“I am happy to let the girls make the decisions, as long as I agree with them,” laughs Judy.