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Smylie Ltd: Wirral-based food exporter on investment, global markets & more

Smylie Ltd: Wirral-based food exporter on investment, global markets & more

With continuing growth, new ventures and a second prestigious Queen’s Award for Enterprise, it’s an exciting time for Wirral-based food exporter Smylie Ltd. The firm’s managing director tells Move Commercial how ongoing investment and an ever-increasing understanding of global markets has helped lead the firm’s success.

Interview by Natasha Young

 

The British flag has been very important to Wirral-based food exporting business Smylie Ltd – known as Smylies – over the years, according to managing director Chris Smylie.

“When people see [a product is] made in the UK they do trust it,” he tells Move Commercial. “It’s certainly a massive selling point and that’s been one of our successes.”

It’s no wonder then that Smylies is determined to make the most of its recently announced stamp of approval from the British monarchy, in the form of a Queen’s Award for Enterprise in international trade.

When the family-run company heads to a royal reception in June to pick up the prestigious prize, it’ll be the second time the firm has been presented with the accolade.

“We won the award back in 2014 and for us it’s definitely the best award to win – it’s one of those awards that is recognised around the world,” explains Smylie. “Virtually everyone has heard of the Queen and then you’ve got a photo of yourself meeting the Queen – last time it was myself and my father.

“It’s not just about customers, but also suppliers and the staff here knowing they’re working for a good business that’s going places and being successful.”

With Prince Charles expected to hand out this year’s awards, which also recognise achievers in innovation, sustainable development and promoting opportunity through social mobility, Chris Smylie’s brothers Alex and Adam, who he describes as “an integral part of the business”, will this time be on hand for the photo opportunity.

“We’re working on some of the marketing now, looking at how it can be best presented to customers and suppliers and how we can push on it,” explains the managing director.

For Smylies, the award has provided an early icing on the cake for a 2018 that’s already bringing new ventures, investment and an expectation of continued growth in the firm’s 15th year.

The company was established back in 2003, building on the Smylie family’s already long-running background in the food industry.

“The Smylie name in business and food goes back to 1843 in one way or another,” explains Smylie, whose great great great grandfather James Smylie emigrated from Ireland to Manchester during the potato famine and set up a food company selling provisions such as bacon, lard, butter and cheese.

“It should be a very exciting and interesting few years ahead, backed up with the Queen’s Award which puts us in a good position.”

“In about the mid 1990s the Smylie business was in wholesaling and used to supply butchers around the North West with products, and then that business evolved and in around 2000 an old butcher friend of my father’s went to work in Dubai and he started to ask my father to source various British products for him.

“At the time my father was going around Cash & Carry outlets picking up prices and products like Heinz Baked Beans and Weetabix, and when he finally got an order together of a few pallets worth of food he sent it over to Dubai. It was all quite small at the time and dad used to work out of an office while outsourcing the warehouse element to a company in Cheshire.”

In 2003 when economics graduate Smylie had been travelling and then spent a year working in insurance, his father Nigel invited him on board to further develop the business of selling British produce to expats and overseas markets with a new office and a warehouse.

Starting with a four-strong team and a focus on securing the sale of British produce to Middle Eastern destinations including UAE, Bahrain and Qatar; Smylies began with the now managing director building up the warehouse and the markets the business was targeting.

Once the business was a few years in he played a key part in expanding their exporting reach into more countries.

“I went on a trade mission to Hong Kong in 2007,” he says. “We got some support from the Derbyshire Chamber of all places, but they were the ones organising the mission.

“We went to see a few potential clients and one of them was called the Dairy Farm Group. We’ve been supplying them for over 10 years and they’re actually one of our biggest customers now so the trip was well worth doing and we’ve come a long way since then.

“When Hong Kong came along we also started supplying to Singapore and Malaysia.”

Smylies has now achieved growth during each of its 15 years in business, and currently exports products to the likes of retailers and food service companies in around 50 countries worldwide, across the Middle East, Asia and the US as well as growing markets in New Zealand, Australia and the Caribbean.

Meanwhile here in the UK, Smylies has a workforce of more than 60 people and has also gradually grown from sourcing products from wholesalers to building up a portfolio of direct accounts with food and drink suppliers looking to export their goods.

The firm’s 30,000 sq ft facility, where it has been based for almost four years, has helped to facilitate that growth.

“We were looking to relocate in Wirral and at the time we were leasing a property in Bidston but the other units there were quite rundown,” recalls Smylie.

“We got talking to Wirral Chamber, who were talking to the council, and one of the developers came to see us about some new warehouses they were looking to build in Bromborough.”

“The Smylie name in business and food goes back to 1843 in one way or another.”

Agreeing to buy the new site was a big commitment for Smylies, which would more than double its commercial space in the move as it relocated from a 12,000 sq ft base.

“We very much helped design the building with the developer, because at the time they were actually going to build two smaller units,” he adds. “We said those wouldn’t be good enough for us and, actually, [the developer] needed someone to sign up for it otherwise it wouldn’t have gone ahead.”

Alongside exporting prominent brands such as Cadbury, Bird’s Eye and Muller, a natural progression Smileys was to find further growth through launching its own label products.

In 2016, equipped with an extensive knowledge of global export markets, their needs and what they look for in produce, Smylies branched out with its King’s Deli range of hand-cooked crisps.

“We weren’t really working with any other crisp brands who wanted to work with us, or maybe they’d got their own agenda on exports or there were some brands we liked but perhaps they didn’t tick the box on price, flavours or shelf life so we thought why not try and do it ourselves,” says Smylie, adding: “We’d also reached the stage as a business where we were at the right size, we had the client base and we thought it wasn’t too much of a risk.

“Now [the crisps] are in various markets in the Middle East, UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Singapore, Hong Kong, and a number of countries in Africa as well; and it’s even opened up a few markets for us in Europe, where there’s always been a market that we haven’t really supplied.”

According to Smylie, 2018 will see the company continue its foray into own-label produce with the launch of cheeses and yoghurts, but that’s not all it has in store.

“We’ve invested a lot this year in IT so we’ve got a new system which will hopefully go live in June and that’s going to be great for business.

“In the warehouse we’ve put a new mezzanine floor in and a big new conveyor belt project to help us be a lot more effective on what’s coming in and going out of our doors.

“We’ve also got a big new online portal where customers will be able to log in and view the product range and the prices, log into their own account and view information and news, so we’ve really laid the foundations this year to enable us to kick out over the next couple of years.

“It should be a very exciting and interesting few years ahead, backed up with the Queen’s Award which puts us in a good position.”