Recently I was invited to Trewithen Dairy’s 20th birthday party and took the opportunity to speak with some of the family and their team.
Trewithen are a company that isn’t content to just tread water. In fact they epitomise the old adage that ‘only a dead fish goes with the flow’. For me this was apparent before even discussing the history of the actual business, by the way they throw a party… There was an award winning barista serving Trewithen milk and Cornish Coffee Co lattes, local paella company sizzling away outside, the youngest Clarke son Fred manning the BBQ with local sausages and burgers, cream teas, flavoured yogurts, Kelly’s ice cream, factory and farm tours, slide shows and an open feeling of complete hospitality.
Before I tucked into the food offerings and had a chat with the family I got a behind the scenes tour of the new office hub from Chris Trenerry who is in charge of sales. Chris talked me through the ‘industry benchmark production facility’ and their new offices which he explains are a real ‘testament to the guys on the project remaining on budget.’ The offices were the last part of the puzzle to be completed after focusing on the dairy side first and foremost. Chris tells me how the ‘old office space was a complex of five portacabins – freezing cold in the winter and damp’. ‘The whole thing was, that Bill was really keen on, not having everything separated. It wasn’t as together as it could have been.’ They’ve changed the way they operate as a business now by moving into the offices ‘it’s all open-plan as in google-style or moogle.’ (Chris did ask me to not print that but I think it’s quite funny and particularly like the blend of old family dairy and a modern team working together in this quirky way.) Chris believes that the new open-plan structure in the administrative part of the business has had real benefits on how they all work, telling me how you can ‘always hear and see everything that’s going on’ and it reduces the slow filter time of communicating via email so the ‘benefit to our business is massive’ – a bit like the old farm kitchen of traditional times where people can catch up quickly. For me the new offices feel like the beating heart for the Trewithen family with so many different parts all in one building and sitting surrounded by the farms who feed into a range of excellent products.
One aspect I really liked seeing on my tour with Chris were the Pigeon holes for each driver’s run. Inside are kept the routes for that day’s deliveries – showing that with organisation and a bit of modernising the Cornish Milk Man is still very much alive – just on a bigger scale and with more local dairy products including clotted cream, yogurt, and butter! The Trewithen infrastructure is a superb model for any aspiring business with maps in meeting rooms showing routes and the 27 farmers spread across the 25 mile radius of the dairy. Plus they have a strong local ethos as Chris shares that they hope to remain a ‘strong Cornish company’ as Cornwall has the ‘perfect conditions for growing grass, and therefore perfect diet for cows’.
SECRETS OF SUCCESS
After speaking with Chris about how they supply so many customers I wanted to understand more about the family part of the business and what has lead to Trewithen 20 years on being a Cornish household name. When I ask Bill Clarke what the most important part of running Trewithen is for him, he reveals that ‘For me the key is all about the stakeholders. I don’t think people appreciate that with a business like ours unless you engage all the stakeholders you can’t get anywhere. You can’t afford to miss any of them; you’ve got to have customers who are engaged, you can’t do it without the farmers coming on board and being engaged and they are here today taking enormous pride in what their doing. You can’t do it without the staff being engaged to achieve the quality and you can’t do it without the community.’ Bill explains how they didn’t get ‘one complaint on planning’ and again that’s because the community were engaged’. Another key element that has enabled Trewithen to succeed over the years is that Bill confesses he ‘enjoys the challenge of managing people – if I didn’t it would all be a bit daunting’.
When you discuss a local business that is doing well I think it’s almost impossible not to ask what the future holds for Trewithen? Bill answers me with a solid response that ‘we have limited geographic aspirations and we want to be really good in Devon and Cornwall. That’s what really matters to us and then to develop the business further after that by developing new products – expanding the range and quality of what we do. It’s important to communicate what we don’t want to do.’ I think that this is a great mindset: don’t over-expand, sell out or loose touch with your Cornish roots and I think that although the temptation must be there, it’s great that under Bill’s leadership Trewithen want to continue as a proper local dairy. He concludes that ‘we know clearly what we want to do, we don’t want to take over the world. We are a regional dairy.’
After answering my question regarding success in business Bill is also very quick to add ‘and of course family – I take the family for granted for all the right reasons.’ I think that meeting Bill and his family shows that you gain a certain air of confidence by having your family in your corner and not only that but it seems to help them all to have a grounded perspective based on something positive and trusting. After a couple of hours at Trewithen it’s easy to feel part of the family. ‘If you can’t take the family for granted then there’s something wrong’ and he tells me how lucky he feels that the ‘family have come with me 100% on this’. Describing his wife Rachel, sons Francis, George Fred and daughter Hannah as ‘very tolerant of me and they recognise my limitations’. He also adds concerning his children that they ‘routinely surpass my expectations’ – that’s proper dad-type praise…
FATHER & SON TEAM
After catching up with the dad I had to meet the son Francis Clarke, Bill and Rachel’s eldest son who joined the business in 2007. He was also closely followed by brother George in 2010. Listening to Francis talk is inspiring for a younger generation returning from university and getting involved in family business. He fills me in on what’s happening this year and the impression I get is ‘fun and quirky’. There’s ‘Trewdy on the move’ – a digital marketing idea that appears on facebook and twitter, plus a new Trewithen sponsored Cafe Trail run with Cornwall Food and Drink where people can enjoy travelling along a directory of places to go and enjoy a Cornish Cream Tea, charity work supporting Lostwithiel YFC as they raise money by travelling from Lands End to John O’Groats in a couple of vintage tractors and a few very exciting new products. As a chef and founder of my own food company I love Trewithen’s approach to products. This June they are launching Toffee and Apple yogurt with real apple pieces, which is Francis’ favourite, and also Strawberry and Honey yogurt pots. I think the influence of the next generation and Francis and George’s involvement can’t be overlooked in the way that Trewithen embraces the 21st century.
Francis relates how he absolutely loved growing up on a farm and was heartbroken when they changed direction to run the dairy but now really enjoys the business. Working with family isn’t always easy, something I know too, but Francis feels that his dad Bill is a natural leader and respects that fact that he has an ‘excellent grasp of the bigger picture’. But jokingly he comments that his dad is ‘not always as keen on the details and has a tendency to want to move on to the next thing’. In this respect they complement each other – Francis tells me that the skills he learnt at Uni have helped him with strategy and therefore working in
the business plays to his academic background whilst giving it some practical impact. To gain a proper understanding of the business he believes that it’s vital to immerse yourself in the market place and spending lots of time with customers has heightened his understanding. However interestingly Francis explains that ‘I’ve almost exhausted my learnt skills’ and now he wants to move on again with some more formal marketing and/or sales training. On a more personal note, I’m keen to see how he balances life within a successful family business and finds time to relax; he admits ‘not very well’ but with his girlfriend now living in Cornwall he is making more time for wakeboarding and climbing up Brown Willy on a clear day.
BILL CLARKE: QUICK KERNOW QUESTIONS
Q. Pasty or Cream Tea?
A. When it’s the right time for one it’s the wrong time for the other – but I’ve got a strong vested interest in Cream Teas.
Q. When are you happiest?
A. Never happier than when on my own farm wearing the dirtiest of clothes and out doing a dirty job.
Q. Favourite Food?
A. Marmalade and Clotted Cream on toast