News Industry Profile 2013 Hollings



Industry Profile 2013: Hollings
9th October 2013

by Sandra Pearce

Family-run Hollings created a bit of a stir when it first brought out its packaged treats, and continues to introduce new treats and chews, keeping the customer intrigued as to what’s next. Sandra Pearce talks to daughter Emma to learn more about the business

“We are moving treats away from the traditional image of them being greasy, smelly, dirty. Our growth is now in packaged treats, and our customers appreciate the service we provide, our products, and the margins we give retailers,” says Emma Hollings, sales and marketing manager at treats manufacturer Hollings.

Just as EasyJet transformed the face of low-cost budget flights when it was established in 1995, family business Hollings is changing the face of the treats market with its upmarket packaging and innovative range to tempt an ever-growing customer base. “We’re bringing a modern twist to the treats market,” explains Emma. With over 100 lines of natural products and a rawhide range, it is important that customers can still see the product inside, and so its packaging includes clear windows. From colourful prepacks and shelf-ready display boxes to resealable carrier bags, which now have a gusset bottom to allow better display, sales are growing.

“I remember years and years ago going to trade fairs, and people were all saying that their customers preferred weigh-up. But now, more people are choosing pre-packaged,” she adds. Yet retailers can be assured that the product offers good margins, despite being packaged. “There is a good mark-up on natural products,” she explains.

Hollings was set up in 1981 by Emma’s parents, Jeff and Celia, when she was just a toddler. Jeff had been a butcher while Celia was in the civil service, and the two bought a plot of land in the North Yorkshire market town of Skipton and built an 8,000sq ft factory producing their own dry dog food, Tyke Gold. Then in 1986, one of its wholesaler customers asked if they could dry some pigs’ ears. With Jeff’s butcher background, they found a source for the ears and installed a drying room. The treats line was born… and grew and grew. Today, treats forms about 95% of the business, with Tyke Gold and small animal food (Bobtail & Pipkin) the remainder.

Today, Hollings produces 250,000 packs of treats and chews a week, which equates to roughly 12 million a year, not including the thousands of bulk boxes that retailers sell either as weigh-ups or re-package themselves. All this is achieved using the company’s 25,000sq ft premises in Skipton and 30,000sq ft factory in Worksop – ignoring, in this instance, the 5,000sq ft factory ‘across the road’ at Skipton which manufactures solely its dog and small animal ranges.

The Worksop site in Nottinghamshire was acquired in 2004 when it was a 10,000sq ft manufacturing plant ‘doing what we were doing’, Emma recalls, and over the years has expanded to its present size. It is now where all Hollings’ treat products are made, whether by cooking or drying (it has four drying rooms). As a quick aside, Hollings sells thousands of air-dried pigs’ trotters every week, and air drying can take anything from 12 hours to four days, depending on the product and its density. “You can see that we really need to plan our schedule well to make the rooms work most efficiently,” she notes.

All finished products then make the hour-and-a-half journey to Skipton, which is now a packaging plant housing six packing lines, warehouse and headquarters. Across the three sites, Hollings employs 60 staff, and the manufacturing facility runs 24 hours a day over five days, so there is scope for yet more production if weekend runs were introduced. Emma admits things are still very labour intensive as products are hand counted and weighed (sizes range from 50g up to 5kg), but the company is looking into automated lines to speed the process up.

Its Skipton warehouse has storage for 2,000 pallets, or roughly three weeks worth of stock, which puts the family business into a strong position as far as stock availability is concerned. With a keen eye on traceability, Hollings sources as much as possible from the UK, and has established a good relationship with its abattoirs, who deliver direct to the Worksop site. Sometimes innovation arises from discussions with the abattoir owners and managers who talk about which animal parts are being thrown away… such as bones. Today, sales of bones – which are all shrink wrapped – come a close second to pigs’ ears, which has become a victim of rising costs.

Pigs’ ears are easily three times more expensive than five years ago, and this on top of the seasonal demand whenever Chinese New Year comes round. Jeff, who handles the raw materials and production side of the business, places his orders well in advance of this major Chinese holiday to avoid the price hike. Rising raw material costs is a universal issue, and with growing wealth in countries like China, demand for protein has risen. “We are buying from what is really a human food market,” Emma said, “yet the world is facing shortages, so there is increased competition. And China is now also sourcing from EU suppliers every month of the year.”

Which is where Hollings’ large range has an advantage – there is just so much to choose from, customers do not have to stick with the traditional pigs’ ears or tripe. For instance, since May, Hollings has brought out 12 new products including chicken, salami and venison sausages as well as fish treats. A first for Hollings, the all-natural Hollings Fish Bites and Hollings Whitefish & Potato Biscuits are made from fresh fish, sourced responsibly from within EU waters but manufactured in the UK. These come in smart new packaging with a resealable top, and retailers also have the option of a display box for more on-shelf impact. More treats are in the pipeline, she reveals.

Being a family business means quicker reaction times, she says, so when a customer asked for a new product – chicken feet and necks – although it was not in their range, within a week that product was ready. Innovation also comes from keeping an eye on what’s happening in Europe as Hollings sources raw materials from ‘two to three’ trusted EU suppliers. New product launches are growing sales, not simply transferring customers from one product to another, so it’s no surprise to learn that Hollings is demonstrating year-on-year growth.

Although Hollings does supply some retailers direct, by and large the distribution route is via wholesalers, so the company is reliant on wholesalers to help market its products as well as publicising new launches through the press.

Emma joined the business in about 2001, after working for Servisair as team leader on the KLM check-in desk. She was only too glad to turn her back on shift work to join the family firm, and began by touring the country, visiting customers from Scotland all the way down to Lands End. “I got a very good feel of who was doing what, who could do what, as well as what worked best.”

She admits there is a bit of a leap of faith for some retailers, who may still be firmly entrenched in the weigh-up mind-set. “But we have proven time and time again that with a good display of our products, they sell themselves,” she said, adding that many retailers find a comfortable balance between packaged treats and weigh-up.

“In five years’ time we want to double what we are doing now. Now it’s all about making the best of what we have, increasing our efficiencies, and educating and informing retailers about what we have to offer, and why they have to stock Hollings!” 

Jeff and Celia with Emma’s son – third generation in the making?