Focus: Making a century of memories with A.L.Simpkin & Co sweets

As one of a rare breed of traditional British confectionery firms remaining as a family-owned business, A. L. Simpkin & Co is proudly celebrating its centenary. Neill Barston meets the present generation leading the company forward amid challenging times

“We’ve lived through world wars, recessions, and now the pandemic, but we are still here,” says Adrian Simpkin of his family’s traditional British confectionery business that has successfully completed an eventful century of trading. Clearly, the past year has been characterised by key market challenges ranging from Brexit-related material sourcing headaches, through to navigating the Covid-19 crisis that continues to impact on companies on industries across the world.

But as the Sheffield-based director of A. L Simpkin & Co explains, he believes his grandfather Leslie would have approved of the work of being continued by himself and his sister Karen, who manages production operations for their global business exporting to dozens of countries despite the ongoing pandemic. (See our exclusive video interview with the business here).

Historically, many of the company’s UK fans have grown up with the hard-boiled sweets occupying the shelves Making a century of confectionery memories As one of a rare breed of traditional British confectionery firms remaining as a family-owned business, A. L. Simpkin & Co is proudly celebrating its centenary. Neill Barston meets the present generation leading the company forward amid challenging times of chemists, travel retail outlets and garden centres, with their solidly-crafted tins marking them out as something a little bit special.

Then there’s the array of flavours of its glucose sweets that have equally caught the eye, which span everything from summer fruits and botanical editions chocolate series and manuka honey varieties, through to its specialist Nipits throat lozenges once favoured by former Conservative Prime Minister, the late Baroness Margaret Thatcher.

In a bid to diversify, the company has broadened its offering over the years, venturing into chocolate bars, gin and tonic flavoured candies, biscuits and lollipops in its ranges.

As Adrian explains, the company was in fact one of the first to adopt no sugar varieties, as well as offering gluten, dairy and nut free product ranges amidst its ever-adapting series. “We’re proud and honoured to be custodians of our famous family brand,” notes Adrian, who says it’s been quite some adventure in steering it through the decades.

While the business is clearly inhabiting uncertain times, there’s a sense of resilience about the company that it is determined to keep its market as one of the few family-owned British confectionery firms. During its long history, the brand has marked notable occasions with special edition designs.

This includes having supported the Royal Air Force with Vita glucose tablets during the Second World War, commemorating sherpa Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary’s ascent of Mount Everest, marking the first transatlantic Concorde flight in the 1970s, and celebratory anniversaries for the Queen and the late Duke of Edinburgh among its prominent historical footnotes.

 

There’s even been a recent tongue-in-cheek design dedicated to the thorny subject of Brexit, with the renowned tins becoming increasingly popular within private label fields, making their way to garage forecourts and are even being stocked by luxury car brands.

Tastes may have changed over the decades, but as Confectionery Production has reported, the pandemic is reaffirming consumers interest in nostalgic, familiar brands, and Simpkins has its part to play in that evolving trend.

Rich heritage

As we discuss its foundations, it becomes clear the company might never have existed were it not for the misfortunes of its founding member, who turned a highly challenging situation to his advantage. “My grandfather started the company on his return from the Great War – he had been badly injured at the Somme, and later had to have shrapnel taken out of him every few months.

In the hospital, they gave him liquid glucose for energy replacement. “He described it as a ‘gooey affair’ and asked the surgeon if it were available in hard boiled form and was told ‘no’.

So, he went away and looked into manufacturing confectionery,” explains Adrian. He relays that in true entrepreneurial fashion, Leslie Simpkin started the business after buying a small corner sweet shop in Sheffield, and shortly afterwards purchasing the site of an old refrigeration centre in Hillsborough that had burned down, readily converting it for confectionery manufacturing.

Today, the building retains much of its 1920s character, which is an increasingly rare sight in an age increasingly focused upon advanced, highly automated production environments. To its credit, the brand has remained faithfully true to the company’s roots, retaining its time-honoured recipes that have been much imitated down the years.

As Karen Simpkin reveals, there’s a definite sense of satisfaction in being part of something with personal heritage, even if global competition is increasingly fierce. “There’s a lot of people that have worked here whose families have been here generation after generation, which we’re proud of.

“But things do get harder, and the problems that we have today are not the same as they were 100 years ago. We’re still a small confectionery manufacturer, and a lot of others of a similar size are becoming fewer and fewer. You have to buy and store more products in order to fall in line with industry requirements, and that all costs money to achieve,” the production manager explains. While she admits that she and her brother ‘are very different people,’ their respective abilities combine well in problem solving throughout its production and broader business activities.

Logistics challenges

Notably, she concedes that manufacturing in the 21st century requires more administration and paperwork than ever before, and that’s even before considering the logistical issues brought about by the UK’s decision to leave the EU. However, Karen enthuses that in spite of such trials, playing her part in shaping the business over the years continues to offer fresh challenges surrounding meeting global demand.

These days, its employee base of around 50 people form part of a close-knit unit reportedly turning out in the region of more than 20,000 sweet tins a day.

As its production boss notes, neither she nor her brother originally intended to join the family firm, with Adrian previously having spent time with the Royal Marines, while she pursued a successful career in food technology. Karen went on to work for Smithkline Beecham in Manchester, producing key beverage brands including Ribena and the renowned Lucozade energy drink. “The food industry was becoming more regulated, and with Simpkins needing more quality control systems, I temporarily came in around 1990, and have stayed ever since.

 

“To carry the business on is quite something. It’s far more challenging than working for a larger company with hundreds of staff, here you can be doing anything. “The role is so varied, you can be doing quality control, on the production lines, purchasing raw materials, you never know what is going to happen from one day to the next. “You never wake up in the morning thinking – oh we’ve got to do that again, so you have to be proactive and get ahead of the game. We have a brilliant team here, and we couldn’t do it without them,” acknowledges Karen.

As for her brother, he continues to manage the sales operation of the business, which he notes has changed significantly in his 30 years with the company. “The biggest challenge that we now have is the pricing – which has gone through the roof, rising steadily for a few years for sugar and cardboard packaging,” notes Adrian who reveals its core business remains supplying to smaller customers rather than focusing on selling ranges in bulk.

Taking a brief tour of the production facilities, the factory’s main manufacturing hall is in full swing. From its classic industrial boiling machines delivering its key flavours, or sturdy conveying systems contrasted by the traditional manual production methods forming the glucose bases, it’s a fascinating process that remains true to its founding roots.

As the company’s production manager explains, there have been some key nods to technology, with PLC process management systems being a feature of its wrapping and labelling. There’s a definite sense the team appears to very much enjoy being part of a heritage brand that continues to resonate with consumers around the world. “I think there’s a sense of nostalgia with our sweets where people think ‘ah that’s what my dad used to have on his travels,’ which has helped us grow the business in some of the most obscure places. “The industry is forever changing – nobody used to do sugar free, but it’s something we have been doing since the 1970s, if not earlier for some of our ranges.

Exploring new ranges

Moving with the times, Adrian explains that online retailing has been critical amid the pandemic, noting that revamping its website prior to the coronavirus crisis has been essential to its ongoing success.

However, he’s keenly aware there’s little or no room for complacency and as such, the business continues to be proactive in delivering intriguing new flavours to add to its collection. In recent times, the company has explored legal CBD within one of its ranges, as well as a new venture exploring the potential of the much-touted ashwagandha herbal ingredient.

The business has forged a project with Podium Finish lozenges, with the assistance of Confectionery Production editorial board member Andy Baxendale to bring the product to fruition. Phil Boylan, of Podium Finish, adds: “Adrian and Karen at A. L. Simpkin have been an absolute godsend in helping us bring the Podium Finish lozenge to market.

“Our main ingredient, ashwagandha, is an adaptogenic herb that is relatively unheard of in the UK and required a unique approach in both handling and application to incorporate it into a lozenge format.

“Simpkins worked brilliantly alongside my product developer Andy Baxendale in bringing the product to life reflects on the sector, which is showing commendable signs of resilience in testing conditions.reflects on the sector, which is showing commendable signs of resilience in testing conditions. As for Simpkins itself, with such determined and engaged management at the helm, the business is more than likely to be around to celebrate many more significant milestones to come

As for Simpkins itself, with such determined and engaged management at the helm, the business is more than likely to be around to celebrate many more significant milestones to come. and using their expertise and ‘can do’ approach they have helped us build a standout product in the sports nutrition market.”

 

 

It is these kinds of collaborations, including a further recent link-up with the renowned Taveners brand (part of the Tangerine group) in the UK that continue to open new doors for the business.

To date, there have clearly been plenty of highlights for the team leading the company, as Adrian adds. “Some of my favourite highlights have been travelling with my father for export accounts. Being in the confectionery industry – it might sound weird, but it’s a good craic, everyone’s in the same boat, which makes it interesting.

“There are a lot of family firms out there, but it’s just a shame that we’re all not supported more by the government as there are some fantastic products manufactured in the UK,” he reflects on the sector, which is showing commendable signs of resilience in testing conditions. As for Simpkins itself, with such determined and engaged management at the helm, the business is more than likely to be around to celebrate many more significant milestones to come

 

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