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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
tvCould Mrs Brown's Boys have taken lead for second year?
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Selby Jennings: Oil Operations

Highly Competitive: Selby Jennings: Our client, a leading European Oil trading...

The Jenrick Group: Night Shift Operations Manager

£43500 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Night Shift Operatio...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - LONDON

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000 + Car + Pension: SThree: SThree are a ...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35K: SThree: We consistently strive to be the...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all