Dicksons is a third-generation family business that sells branded products to all the leading retailers and wholesalers in the north-east. We also operate 30 butcher’s shops in the area, and plan to add more over time.
The business was set up by Michael Dickson in 1953, and following his death in 1966, run by his children, Michael and Christine. When Michael junior moved to the role of executive chairman last April, I became the first non-family md of the company, having joined as head of sales in 2014.
Michael is still active in the business three days a week, and it’s great to have his experience and expertise to tap into. His son Mike and daughter Elena are both involved in the business as well.
I moved to Dicksons from McDonald’s, which I joined shortly after graduating with a degree in business management in 1997. In all, I worked at McDonald’s in various roles for 16 years, mainly in the north-east. The management development there is second-to-none.
When a recruitment agency contacted me about the Dicksons job, I was living in Shildon, which is not far from here, but I hadn’t heard of the company.
I hadn’t heard of its locally renowned saveloy dip, which is a soft bread roll dipped in gravy, with pease pudding, stuffing, saveloy sausage and mustard. If Dicksons is unknown to people just 30 miles away, there is clearly plenty of opportunity for us to grow.
We sell all the things you would expect from a butcher’s, but our full product range is extremely diverse.
Product range is extremely diverse (back to top)
We make everything from sausages, saveloys, black pudding and stuffing, to pies, pasties, bread and salads roughly 300 products in total. We also make 2t of pease pudding a week, which is a real speciality in this region.
The factory is split into three main areas – a meat room, a cooked meat room and a bakery. There’s also a high-care area for making the salads and sandwich fillings, and a room for curing meat.
LOCATION: Unit 1, Heddon Way, Middlefields Industrial Estate, South Shields. NE34 0NT
STAFF: 100 (factory), 326 (overall business).TURNOVER: £14.3M
MAIN PRODUCTS: Cooked and fresh meat items, including sausages, saveloys, stuffing and black pudding. Bakery products include pies, pasties, small bites and sausage rolls. Local favourite pease pudding also sells well.
CUSTOMERS: Retailers, wholesalers and foodservice. Dicksons also has 30 shops.
PRODUCTION LINES: Bakery area with three lines, meat area with sausage line, packing area with three lines.
FACTORY OUTPUT: 60.5t a week.
In 2010, £1M was spent on extending the bakery, giving Dicksons the ability to double output. More recently, we invested in a sausage line, which helped us become more automated.
We’ve increased the shelf-life of the sausages from seven days to 10, by moving from flow-wrap packaging to clear cellophane in plastic boxes. We’re also starting to box our pies, which adds quality to the products.
Our technology team has managed to extend the shelf-life of the salads we produce by a couple of days as well.
Another improvement to the business in the time I’ve been here is the setting up of our own new product development kitchen.
New product development kitchen (back to top)
It’s a small space, but it has enabled us to create a jumbo sausage roll for Asda, and a chicken and gravy pie for Morrisons. The pie is family-sized, and bigger than what you tend to find on supermarket shelves.
Turnover is up 11% this year, following on from a 9% increase last year. While a lot of that growth has come from opening new shops, our like-for-like sales should still be 3.5% up in this financial year.
And despite opening shops relatively close to one another, we’re not seeing too much evidence of a cannibalisation in sales.
Business growth has also opened up new opportunities for factory staff. Our operations manager Rose Hotten – who joined the company last year – has restructured the management set-up and introduced key-performance indicators (KPIs).
Team leaders in particular look forward to seeing the KPIs each morning, as it gives them something to work towards. We have also added a short interval control board, which records progress hourly.
Darren in the meat room would be a good example of someone who’s been able to progress. He’s been an operator here for 20 years, and then finally got to manage that room, with some support, over a record-breaking December. It’s little surprise he won employee of the month.
We are now having conversations over what we need to do next to match further growth. Capacity is the next big focus. We’re in a good place in that we only start shifts at 6am, and the majority of staff are out by 4pm.
Lots of room for expansion (back to top)
We also have lots of room for expansion on-site. This year, we plan to extend one side of the factory and move from two loading docks to three.
It doesn’t sound like a major development, but if we’re going to grow to 40 shops and beyond, we need to ensure we are able to load our fleet as quickly and as effectively as possible.
Changing the dock area will also allow us to increase our chiller and freezer capacity, which is really important for us.
Going forward, we’ll be looking at more external dry storage, better post-cooking facilities and different packaging formats. It’s all part of a drive to improve efficiencies.
We’re not in a sector where we can automatically pass price rises onto customers, so we’ve got to try to mitigate those and absorb some of the costs ourselves.
Keeping an eye on consumer trends is important too – while we are still keen on keeping our butchery heritage, we recently introduced a range of carvery products in the shops, which we expect will sell well.
We’ve still plenty of work to do before we can look to grow nationally, but if the way the brand is valued in the north-east is anything to go by, our future looks great.
DOMESTICS: Married, with three children.
OUTSIDE WORK: When I’m not busy ferrying the children around, I’m a keen cyclist. I’ve done six coast to coast rides, but the company also puts on charity runs all staff can enter.
GREATEST ACHIEVEMENT: I would say that’s still to come. Let’s get this year out of the way and put together a plan for the next three years, then ask me again. But I think the future is really exciting.
ADVICE TO YOUNGER SELF: Always be prepared to learn. The complexity of our business means I’m unlikely to become an expert in everything, so I’ve tried to talk to as many people as possible – inside and outside of the business – to understand what I can.