My Biggest Mistake: Gordon Baxter

The president of W Baxter & Sons, the Speyside soup company that claims to have turned down 172 takeover attempts, spent 48 years as either managing director or chairman. Here he hands over a lesson to successors with a pinch of salt.

MY BIGGEST mistake was trying to sell salted porridge to the English in the early 1960s. I think it was 1964 and we had just taken on a new sales manager from Nestle called James Allen, a six-feet-four Canadian. I had hired him on the princely salary of pounds 4,500 a year, compared with the pounds 3,750 Nestle was paying him as general sales manager.

At some stage James, who was a close friend, chanced upon our experimental kitchen where my wife was preparing some porridge. He tasted it and said, 'Gee, Ena, that's great stuff. We ought to be selling it in a can.'

I said we ought to test- market it first, but if the reaction was positive we could try it out on a larger sample.

Later my wife and I went to Australia on a sales trip. We travelled around the David Jones stores in Sydney with our products - plus kilts, bagpipes and the full works. If you're going to push sales, you might as well put on a first-class Scottish show.

While we were there we received a telegram from James saying that the porridge trials had been successful - and could he make 10,000 cases to send to shops?

I thought if the market research had gone well, then we should go ahead. So the plant in Speyside began making 15-ounce tins of Baxters porridge with cream. Baxters then sold a big order to Fine Fare, which was being run at the time by Jimmy Gulliver.

To cut a painful epsisode short, it didn't sell. We had used the Scottish recipe for porridge - with salt - even though we knew that the English palate was different, and that they preferred it with a touch of sugar. We had used the Scottish recipe even though England was going to be 90 per cent of the market. That was our great mistake.

In the end, Jimmy Gulliver said to me: 'Gordon, I can't sell it. We're going to have to clear the shelves.'

We had to take all of it back. It was a painful experience, because we were poor as churchmice in those days and the business only had a turnover of pounds 1.5m.

But we did learn a lesson: don't make what you want and then try to sell it.

Find out what the customer wants and then go and make it. It's a pretty basic tenet of business, but often easy to overlook.

In the old days when Baxters was just a wee business and my wife was making a soup, we would just take it round to a few of our friends in the grocery business and ask them for their views.

The retailers are a bit more sophisticated today, and market testing has to much more rigorous. I'm sure if we had made tinned porridge with a little sugar, it would have been a winner.

Now Baxters is a pounds 40m business and we have about 20 chefs, cooks and technologists working in the kitchens on a host of soup, jam and sauce recipes. Everything is well tested, and not just on our friends.

The old favourites, such as Royal Game soup, invented by my mother in 1929, still sell well. In recent years we have added succesful new recipes to the range, including our vegetarian and Healthy Choice high-fibre soups and Pour Over sauces.

Earlier this month I decided to step down as chairman of Baxters and become president of the company. After leading Baxters for 48 years I now plan to play a public relations role and spend a bit more time fishing. I will also advise on new business programmes and continue to be repsonsible for the highly successful visitor's centre we have on the banks of the River Spey.

Joe Barnes, formerly joint managing director of Sainsbury, succeeds me as chairman. Not only does he have great retail experience but he loves Scotland and is a fine salmon fisherman.

His role is to build on the strengths of the company and to provide guidance and development opportunities to the younger members of the family so that the chair will, in a few years, be filled once again by a family member.

My son Andrew Baxter is deputy chairman, and my daughter Audrey is group managing director. They reprepresent the fourth generation of Baxters.

They are too young to remember the porridge episode but I have related the tale to them so they can avoid similar mistakes.

(Photograph omitted)

Sport
footballLIVE City face Stoke, while Warnock returns to Palace dugout
Arts and Entertainment
books
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
gadgets + techSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind the scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
i100
News
The slice of Prince Charles and Princess Diana's wedding cake and the original box from 29 July 1981
newsPiece of Charles and Diana's wedding cake sold at auction in US
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF, BGP, Multicast, WAN)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Network Engineer (CCNP, CCNA, Linux, OSPF,...

DevOps Engineer (Systems Administration, Linux, Shell, Bash)

£50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: DevOps Engineer (Systems Administration, L...

Data Scientist (SQL, PHP, RSPSS, CPLEX, SARS, AI) - London

£60000 - £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A prestigious leading professiona...

Financial Technical Consultant (C++, C#, Finance, MSc, PhD)

£50000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Financial Technical Consultant (C++, C#, F...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone