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Industry Profile: Marriage’s Specialist Foods
24th June 2013

By Sandra Pearce

Traditionally flour millers, Marriage’s also has a range of pet and farm animal food, and recently launched its wild bird offering. Sandra Pearce travels to Chelmsford to talk to sixth-generation Sam Marriage about the family business’s plans – and its roots

Each year the Marriage’s family business produces around 40,000 tonnes of flour. Which sounds a lot. Doing a Google check, it appears that that amount could end up as 67,800,000 loaves of bread. Which translates to one loaf for each and every person in the UK – with spare change of about four million loaves!

The Marriages have a long tradition of farming and milling which can be traced back to the 17th century, which in turn led to the establishment in 1824 of W & H Marriage & Sons by brothers William and Henry.

Today, Marriage’s markets specialised flours (500 products in total) such as stoneground meal and strong flour. A slower milling process at its Chelmsford mill in Essex, with its original wooden stairs and 100-year-old mill stones, strikes a sharp contrast against the high-tech backdrop of a modern mill bursting with the latest technology. Marriage’s flour is designed for beautiful nutty loaves, rye breads and soft sponge cakes. Most of the wheat is sourced within a 30-mile radius, and the higher protein and focus on the varieties ensures a quality not possible from the super-fast commercial methods.

What started out as a by-product in the form of quality wheatfeed for animal feed is now a major part of the business, and the family now produces alongside its flour products 35,000 tonnes of animal feed, and a further 40,000 tonnes of micronised cereals and pulses, coarse mixes and wild bird foods out of its second mill at Driby Top, Lincolnshire. These 75,000 tonnes take the shape and form of 200 stock products and 500 own-brand products.

Sixth-generation Sam Marriage is head of marketing at Marriage’s Specialist Foods, based at Driby Top – many will know him from his days at wild bird seed manufacturer Cranswick Pet
Products, which was sold to venture capitalists and more recently to Westland Horticulture.

Sam honestly admits that the world of venture capitalism was not for him. “I believe venture capital has a place to play for many companies wanting to grow, but I found it a bit too cut-throat. I never really thought I was a particularly principled person, but the last few years have made me do a lot of soul searching. I am definitely more comfortable back in a slower family business environment.” 

Seven Marriages are now involved – his dad, uncle and cousins. At the heart of the business are the family’s Quaker roots, influencing and shaping their decisions and how they interact with each other, the people they deal with, and the community. At the heart of the Quaker movement is a strong adherence to the principles of honesty, equality, community, simplicity, and peace.

With Sam wanting to join the business and his knowledge of the wild bird sector, Marriage’s
purchased the Driby Top site in 2012, which included an existing three-year-old mill that produced bird food. Sam was tasked with launching the Marriage’s range of bird food, and bringing the existing animal and bird range to the independent pet retailer – Marriage’s will be at 15 trade and consumer shows this year, and there is a big marketing push and advertising strategy.

Cousin James handles the farming sector, and each has his own dedicated sales team. Being an independent business, independent retailers and bakers remain at the heart of the family customer base.

Driby produces wild bird; indoor bird; racing pigeon; some small animal and horse food. At Chelmsford, the mill produces poultry food for chickens, quail and game; duck and goose; turkey; goats, cattle and sheep; pig, horse and organics. Some of the horse food is exported to Europe, he reveals. And apart from the core commercial feeds, Marriage’s also does what he calls the ‘quirky’ food – such as for ostriches and crickets. There is, however, a minimum order of one tonne. All diets are carefully balanced, and full-time nutritionist Jo Montagu ensures complete traceability and quality.

In a world where it can sometimes appear that everything has to be absolute super-premium
quality, at Marriage’s there is a more realistic approach to products. Sam explains: “Quality to Marriage’s is about the right product for the right application to do a good job. It is not necessarily premium quality, it’s about getting products that work. This is a very practical philosophy; it’s not ‘flash, bang’. It’s about making good practical choices, and using ingredients that make the best product, which may not necessarily be the most premium product.”

So how does Marriage’s wild bird food, for example, distinguish itself from the host of other wild bird products jostling for space on a retailer’s shelf?

Bird food, he says, is not just about nutrition. You have to understand birds, beak morphology, which birds eat which seeds, and how it is going to be fed. Yet a lot of bird food being sold does not have this science behind it. Retailers also want a bird food that will offer good margins and keep customers returning, and customers want a food that looks good. If a bird food has an extra message, such as it’s a no-grow formulation, or perhaps a high-energy food, this engages the customer and enables a dialogue between retailer and customer.

“We have the science to formulate mixes that get people back into your store, and which look attractive. It is easy to not put vitamins and minerals into a food, but we do, and this helps retailers sell the product as they can talk about it,” he added.

Everybody matters
On the whole, he says the profitability of the products is ‘actually quite low’, but efficiencies are very high. There is no fancy London address or wallpaper adorning the walls. Investments instead focus on the service and products it supplies, and its people.

The Marriages see themselves as custodians of the business and its future. “The culture is working for the business rather than the business working for you. This custodian thing has allowed the business to carry on for so long,” says Sam. “There is no selfish motivation.” Which again finds resonance with the Quaker philosophy.

Since purchasing the Driby site, Marriage’s has employed a further 18 staff there and is trebling its sales force to the independent trade.

“We want to be a company full of entrepreneurs, a company where everybody matters. We want to support people and trust them to do their job, and for everyone to realise how their input makes a difference.”

This attitude extends to its suppliers – Marriage’s has relied on a number of local suppliers and has built a solid relationship based on trust and integrity. “We don’t have contracts with many of our farmers,” reveals Sam. “We pay them what we think their product is worth, and it works. These open contracts operate on a trust system, and in doing so, we also take out the middlemen and any bureaucracy.”

There is a charming practicality about this, but it must surely require incredible attention to detail? “Dad knows everything about this company,” says Sam with a grin. “He knows every nut and bolt in this mill; even the tyre size of every lorry. The devil is in the detail.”

Marriage’s has a fleet of lorries that deliver its feed to farms, retailers and yards across the south of England, relying on a national haulier for deliveries to the rest of the country. For its own fleet, the choice was made to purchase twin-axle-driven lorries so that even in snow, deliveries can be made to livestock farmers. “People often don’t think about things like this when deciding who to buy their food from, but getting that food to the farmer in snow can be the difference between life and death, and it is something we believe we should do.” And this goes back to the fundamental philosophy at Marriage’s about making (and using!) products that are best for the job.

Rising feed and commodity prices do present a challenge, but the key, he says, is to be proactive in managing these prices and explaining any rises. “It’s foolish to try to absorb these rising costs; you have to raise RRPs. But we then need to explain why the prices are going up. People who fight price change usually lose out; but people who respond quickly usually end up making money, whether a retailer or manufacturer.”

The independent pet retailer is a strategic focus of the company now: “Going into Tesco does not fit into our plan,” he comments. “We want to get our brands out there, and we want to go nationally. Crucially, we are an independent business, and are similarly keen on other independent businesses. 

“Strategically, we are interested in building strong, long-term, trusting relationships with people, and we believe we can form these relationships with independent retailers,” he said. “After all, the independent pet trade has similar values to what we believe in. We like entrepreneurialism, and we like to support independent businesses. We see their success as part of ours. It’s a cultural thing that sets us apart from others in the market.”

Distribution is via two routes – through wholesalers and direct, depending on which is the most efficient and cost-effective for the retailer concerned.

And as if Sam does not have a full-enough plate, he reveals there are two more brands to launch later this year. It’s important to keep innovating and coming up with products that are fit for purpose, he says. “Life’s a long game, and it’s a small industry.”