It’s also having a go at the quantity with a clutch of contracts with multiples like Waitrose and Tesco as well as some major projects pending.
- Langage Farm general manager Paul Winterton is steering the business on a growth-focused course with announcements due shortly on some major contracts
But, if it came down to a choice between volume and quality, general manager Paul Winterton is adamant about which is the most important – particularly in a challenging economic climate.
“People may have cut back on their spending on big items but if you look at what they are doing, they still want a bit of luxury and they are happy to spend on our products,” he said.
Traditionally a farming business, diversification for Langage Farm came in 1980 when owners the Harvey family wanted to generate additional income in order to pay for their children’s education.
The late Elizabeth Harvey started to make extra thick double and clotted which she initially supplied to friends and family, who gave such positive feedback that she decided to start making products on a more commercial basis.
Twelve years ago, the manufacturing operations were based two miles from its current base, on the farm, and the Harvey family were faced with a difficult decision – whether to maintain production levels or to move to bigger premises and exploit the growth potential the business clearly had.
They opted for growth, bringing in Liverpool-born Paul as general manager and building a purpose-built factory that allowed it to upscale production to compete for national and international contracts. It now makes a range of products including: ice cream; clotted cream; frozen yoghurt; cottage cheese; creme fraiche; ice cream bombs and yoghurt with further lines in development.
The business has grown to the point that it now employs 45 people, has a number of high-profile contracts, an ever-expanding list of products and a recently-launched ‘Moo bar’ concept of an ice cream parlour-style frozen yoghurt outlet.
Last year saw the business develop a UK first when it opened an anaerobic digester to generate energy both from farm waste and household food waste – a move which is seeing it reduce energy bills and open up new markets.
Langage has a herd of 280 pedigree Jersey and Guernsey cows, which the business is seeking to increase to 350 over the next two to three years in order to increase volumes.
As well as an increase in capacity, the business is also targeting new contracts and products which, if successful, would see it recruit an additional 20 or so employees.
It is set to finalise two major contracts by the end of this month, including one with a well-known coffee chain that Paul believes could mean significant revenue for Langage.
Its current turnover is around £4.2 million and there are plans to grow this by £2 million over the next five years.
But while it is clearly ambitious and is working with some big names, the business remains true to its roots as a family-run enterprise, with Mrs Harvey’s son, James, now at the helm.
“We have been here eight years and built it with five times the capacity of the previous farm base. Once we got the site right, it started to move quite quickly,” said Paul.
But just because it is ambitious and has the capacity to handle large contracts, it doesn’t mean that all contracts with multiples are in the firm’s best interests and Paul said the firm was not afraid to turn down large contracts if the numbers did not stack up.
“We turned down a £3 million contract 18 months ago because it was not commercially viable to do it,” he said.
“We’re not afraid to say no (to big contracts) – there’s no point in looking at contracts that are not a two way street.”
As a result, the business has grown steadily, with major growth in the last five years, and a deliberate approach of not becoming reliant on individual, large contracts by focusing on delis and other independent retailers as well as supermarkets.
“Working with the multiples, it’s a very volatile playing field. It doesn’t matter what people say, it’s down to the commercial reality of what the bigger organisations would expect. The contracts are only as secure as your relationship with the buyer,” he said.
“The key thing is not being overwhelmed when you’re working with larger contracts, to hold your own and to have a vision for your business.”
In the run up to Christmas, much of its manufacturing focus was on clotted cream but, with New Year diets still under way, this has now switched to production of cottage cheese.
The business has made frozen yoghurt for the past 15 years and believes that this low-fat alternative to ice cream offers huge commercial potential for increasingly health conscious consumers.
After setting up a successful Moo Bar frozen yoghurt and fruit counter at the China Fleet Club which is strongly branded with the distinctive Langage Farm cows, it is now seeking to roll out the concept on a franchise basis.
Two more Moo Bars will be opening in February, in Paignton and North Devon, with plans also under way to open an outlet in Plymouth and the possibility of opening one in London.
“It’s been very popular. It’s an area that families gravitate to,” Paul said.
Langage Farm is in the final stages of development for additional products including rice pudding, panna cotta and creme brulee which have already attracted interest from suppliers.
It is also trialling the idea of flavoured clotted cream, with taste tests set up for strawberry and chocolate varieties so far yielding encouraging results.
“It’s something that’s not been done before and its working,” he added.
As well as developing its own new products, Langage Farm also works closely with local schools to come up with new ideas.
This has seen the company try out new ideas including brie and black pepper and cheese ice cream after children were challenged to come up with new ideas in a competition involving 400 schools.
Future talent is a key goal for the business and, one suspects, a personal goal for Paul who himself was once told by a school careers teacher that his aim of becoming prime minister was not realistic.
He believes that young people should be ambitious and that the food industry offers a strong platform for them to realise these ambitions.
To bring talented youngsters into the industry, Paul would like to see a South West university devise a manufacturing degree in order to produce industry-ready entrants to the sector.
“The food industry is often seen as a secondary career and it isn’t. We produce some fantastic foods in Devon but it’s difficult to recruit people into the lower level” he said.
Another issue that Paul is passionate about is promoting Devon as a food and drink destination, something he believes has massive untapped potential.
He is a board director of the sector group Devon Food and Drink and is keen to spearhead efforts for the sector to raise its profile.
“Devon is the food basket of the UK but we don’t market it very well. I’ve been in Devon for 26 years and I have been astonished by the produce that Devon makes and the skills we have got. I’m really disappointed that the rest of the world doesn’t know about it,” he said. The last year has also seen Langage Farm open its £4 million anaerobic digester plant which the business has spent the past five years researching and investigating different systems and processes before progressing, in a display of commitment to its environmental credentials that is unusual from a relatively small business.
“It is one of only six in the country and the only site to have a farm with an AD plant so you get the circle where what is produced in the plant goes back onto the field,” said Paul.
“We believe that we are the only dairy company to have farm, manufacturing and AD on one site. It’s a full circle, from cow to plate and preventing waste from going into landfill – it’s a unique option. It’s a first in UK and, possibly, Europe.”
As well as processing slurry and farm waste, the AD plant takes in waste from across Devon in a contract with Viridor. As the waste decomposes, it creates a biogas which is used for energy.
Langage’s factory is totally powered by the energy generated but although the investment is expected to save around £60,000 a year on energy bills, Paul is adamant that this was not the main motivation.
“It was not done from a point of view of financial gain – it was done from a business and ethical point of view,” he said.