How to be a big cheese

Management: staff who rescued a Yorkshire dairy from closure have made a success of reviving the Wensleydale tradition
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The Independent Online
ALICE AMSDEN was called into work on her day off and told she was to be made redundant. The dairy where she was technical manager was to close with the loss of 59 jobs. Nine centuries of cheese-making in Wensleydale - where Cistercian monks were the first producers - would, it seemed, come to an abrupt end.

No doubt the closure looked logical from the point of view of Dairy Crest accountants based in Surbiton, Surrey. They felt they had overcapacity in the north of England. So why not cut costs by concentrating pro- duction on Longridge in Lancashire?

From the Yorkshire point of view, this was adding insult to injury. Ms Amsden and her fellow managers, David Hartley, Michael Webster and Richard Clarke, knew what a devastating effect closure would have on the local economy.

More than 20 per cent of the working population of Hawes in north Yorkshire depended directly on the creamery for employment. Small farmers depended on it to sell their milk. And the tourist industry depended on the farmers to spend money keeping up appearances in the locality.

Around a million visitors a year descend on Hawes, mainly in the summer months. Here was a potential market which Ms Amsden and her colleagues felt able to exploit, provided they could engineer a management buy-out. "We were shocked by the closure but very determined," she recalled, casting her mind back to the spring of 1992.

By December they were in a position to make an offer. Redundancy money and bank loans raised pounds 300,000. Faced by a sustained media campaign, Dairy Crest agreed to drop its original asking price by pounds 200,000, but it stripped the creamery of equipment. Backing of pounds 50,000 to buy second-hand cheese- making plant came from John Gibson, a plastics manufacturer of nearby Masham.

So Wensleydale Dairy Products opened for business just before Christmas three years ago with a staff of 13. Today it employs 72 and has an annual turnover of pounds 5m.

The former managers, now directors, had a clear business strategy from the start. Whereas Dairy Crest had used the creamery to diversify into the styles of Leicester, Double Gloucester and Sage Derby, they decided to concentrate almost exclusively on Wensleydale. Dairy Crest was making 200 tons of the local cheese a year. This year Wensleydale has turned out 850 tons.

Quality and tradition were on the new owners' side as they set out to meet what they saw as growing demand for natural foodstuffs which are not mass-produced.

Cows in Wensleydale are fed on grass from pastures unpolluted by chemicals, and the workforce is skilled in making cheese with a minimum of automation.

"It's a very close-knit community," said Ms Amsden. "Everybody is encouraged to put forward ideas. And they're flexible, prepared to move from one department to another. Even David Hartley will deliver to a store if he has to, and he's the managing director."

None of the directors has a marketing background. "I didn't even know the difference between a label and a logo," Ms Amsden admitted. So how did she learn? "Quickly. Packaging and marketing are important."

So is making the most of a captive market. They installed a viewing platform for tourists to watch the cheese-making process. A small museum has been opened, together with a restaurant and a shop. About 230,000 visitors have passed through it in the past 18 months. Every one is a potential customer or, at the very least, a vehicle for market research.

The shop counter offers samples of new varieties, including a blue Wensleydale and Wensleydales stuffed with everything from apricots to ginger.

Of course, Wensleydale Dairy can hardly rely on one shop to peddle its wares. Safeway put in an order soon after the dairy reopened for business, and other top supermarkets have followed suit.

Meanwhile, the former technical and production managers have been out calling on Harrods, Fortnum and Mason, Harvey Nichols and such specialist cheese shops as Paxton and Whitfield.

"We're not salespeople," said Mrs Amsden, "but we're straight and we're honest." What's more, they have a fundamental belief in the quality of a product indigenous to their locality that could all too easily have disappeared not long ago.

Incidentally, Dairy Crest is closing down its operation in Longridge, Lancashire.