Queen's Awards: Brewery knows value of keeping business in the family

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Indy Lifestyle Online
A Bedford brewery which has removed widgets from its cans and instituted language courses for all its staff has become the first family- owned regional brewer to win a Queen's Award for Export.

Charles Wells, run by the fourth generation of the Wells family, produces Bombardier Ale, judged "England's best'' at the Brewing Industry Awards last year. Each week, 16 lorries set out from its Eagle Brewery in Havelock Street, Bedford, carrying 30,000 pints of beer bound for 23 countries.

They include Norway, where Charles Wells beer sells in the most northerly bar in the world, in Hammerfest, and Moscow, where brewery representatives found the Russians deploying redundant nuclear bunkers as cold-stores.

Beer - brewers Bass Beers Worldwide have also won an export award for the second successive year - is joined by breakfast cereals, whisky and sweets as the consumable elements of this year's awards.

While Chambers Candy of Halesowen has made a success of old-fashioned English sweets, including highly-scented Victorian cachous, and W.Jordan (Cereals) concentrates on unadulterated breakfast cereals at its mills at Biggleswade, Morrison Bowmore Distillers, carrying a second successive award home to Glasgow, symbolises a contemporary feature in these export awards. Although the product is highly traditional, the ultimate owners are now Japanese (Suntory bought the company in 1994).

The Wells family, meanwhile, is likely to continue for one further generation at least. Peter Wells, youngest son of chairman and managing director John Wells, joined the company this month. His father's cousins, Paul and Tom, are also directors.

Brewers of Fargo, Old Bedford Ale and Bowman beers as well as Bombardier, Charles Wells began to export its products in 1979, when John Wells, then sales director, undertook to learn Italian and secured markets in the United States and Italy. Wells says: Nobody else of our size was exporting - we were then one of the smallest flying the flag. We have had 10 per cent of British exports to Italy since the outset. Although we are bigger today, we are still not a national giant, but export more of our brewing output than any of the others.''

Mr Wells continued to do all the export work himself until 1985, with the support of his secretary, Valerie Walter - who has been at the brewery for 23 years and who still calls him "Mr John''. Although there is now a dedicated export manager, John James, the key to success, according to Mr James, is partly the scale of the operation.

"We are small enough to build a close relationship with our suppliers," said Mr James. We work closely with our agents and distributors. They are often invited here to the brewery where they can meet a Mr Wells. This counts for a lot - they can't meet a Mr Guinness.'' The opportunity to learn other languages has been extended to all the 409 workforce, including the British-Italian employees from Bedford's large Italian community who come to learn "proper'' Italian, and to the warehouse staff, where Manohar Lal Tegi , a fork-lift truck driver, can now communicate with Italian drivers as he loads their vehicles.

Three miles off the M5 in the West Midlands, the Chambers Candy Co's premises on a small industrial estate are a far cry from their product - perfumed comfits, dusted chocolate-covered blueberry raisins, butterscotch and fruit-flavoured drops - and an even further cry from the evocative packaging, embossed and decorated tins depicting country cottages or Faberge eggs.

Chambers Candy was formed by Roger Inman and his wife, Marion, who developed their own recipes and packaging. Mr Inman had been managing director of Bluebird Toffee, but from this more robust corner of the confectionery market he could see a call for what might have seemed a fading variety of genteel sweets. He took the plunge and set up his own business.

Mrs Inman says:"It took off quite quickly. We worked very hard on increasing our sales and promoting our products and do a number of exhibitions through the year, particularly the big confectionery and sweets exhibition in Cologne.'' It is the Americans, however, who are weak for the nostalgic appeal of L'Amour cachous, while the Japanese lap up Oscar and Bertie, two Edwardian bears whose portraits on the tins carry as much appeal as the confectionery inside.

Mrs Inman says: "What we're selling isn't really like a Mars Bar. It's a gift and a keepsake.'' Three-quarters of the product is exported, to 40 countries, and the workforce now stands at 23.