Brian Stein: Who sold all the pies?

The Business Interview: James Thompson meets the chief executive of Samworth Brothers, a food supplier with annual sales of £670m under its belt
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With Ginsters' Cornish pasties and Melton Mowbray pork pies on his plate, Brian Stein, the chief executive of Samworth Brothers, could easily lay claim to being Britain's favourite pieman. Mention Samworth Brothers to shoppers in any of the big supermakets, though, and few will have heard of the group, even though it is one of biggest makers of chilled foods in the UK, and most shoppers will have its goods in their baskets.

He could also lay claim to being a champion of UK manufacturing. The group has 10 UK plants and employs 7,000 people and Mr Stein has firm views on the nation's manufacturing sector. "I don't think that manufacturing has been supported very well by the UK at all. The truth is that we have allowed too much manufacturing to move abroad and now everyone has woken up to the fact that banking was not necessarily the saviour and we should pay more attention to manufacturing – but it might be too late."

He adds that when Samworth Brothers tries to recruit at universities, undergraduates often don't want to "get their hands dirty" in manufacturing. This is not the case in countries such as Germany, US and Japan, where it is viewed as an "important profession".

Sales at Samworth Brothers, which owns 13 operating companies, have surged to more than £670m since Mr Stein took the reins in 2000. In 2009, Samworth Brothers grew its pre-tax profits by 22 per cent to £48m and it is on track to beat the figure this year after picking up significant new business from the big grocers for products from ready meals to desserts.

Mr Stein says he has witnessed seismic changes in what consumers eat over the past two years. "In the middle of 2008, I saw people's eating habits change more dramatically than I have even seen them change in 40 years. Literally, within a couple of weeks of the newspapers talking us into a recession we saw top-of-the-range ham sales decline by between 20 and 25 per cent. People became frightened and they felt guilty if they were buying expensive food."

Two years on and Samworth Brothers is benefiting post-recession from increased consumption of so-called "premium foods", such as Tesco's Finest range, although the "value" ranges remain popular. "We are starting to see more and more people trading up or down from the middle sector between premium and economy ranges," says Mr Stein.

While Mr Stein has clear views on product sales, he is less sure about the impact recent hikes in commodity prices will have on supermarket products. "There is an element of froth and people with a vested interest talking up prices but it is currently impossible to guess how much is reality. What certainly has happened over the past number of months is that we have seen quite sizeable increase in [the price of] dairy products."

More specifically, Samworth Brothers has paid about 20 per cent more for the cheese it purchases this year. Elsewhere, problems with the Russian wheat harvest have prompted talk of the price of loaf of bread rising by between 10p and 15p, but Mr Stein does not expect increases on this scale.

While the grocery sector could be in for challenging times, Samworth Brothers seems to be in rude health. Mr Stein says its business has typically been dominated by two retailers: Tesco, which takes delivery of about half of what Samworth Brothers makes, and Waitrose.

"What we have seen in the last 12 months is significant growth with Marks & Spencer, Morrisons and Asda and recently we have picked up a significant chunk of business with Sainsbury's. The exceptional growth we are now getting is coming from other retailers that we have not been strong with in the past."

Since he joined Samworth Brothers in 1996 as group managing director, his achievements include growing Ginsters from a regional brand to the UK pastry market leader in 2008 and developing the first dedicated own-label sites for Tesco.

He also helped develop the Mini Melton pork pie, which is the company's biggest seller. Two of the major producers of Melton Mowbray pork pies – Dickinson & Morris and Walkers Charnwood – are owned by Samworth Brothers and Mr Stein says pork pies enjoyed "record" sales earlier this summer when the sun was shining and people were enjoying them at BBQs and picnics.

The popularity of such products is also reflected in the wider growth in convenience food in the UK, regardless of campaigns for people to return to the kitchen and cook meals from scratch. "When particular programmes become fashionable on TV and when particular personalities get involved, we certainly see massive growth in those particular foods short term," he says. "But the reality is that more and more convenience food is being sold because the truth is that people have less and less time. Although they like the idea of every so often preparing a meal for their family, once they have done it they quickly go back to convenience food for the next week or fortnight."

For Mr Stein, a more immediate concern is the uncertain outlook for the UK consumer. "At the moment, with the Government talking about a lot of jobs disappearing in the public sector, confidence is quite fragile," he says. But given its track record of "profit growth every year for the last 20 years", the outlook for Samworth Brothers seems more upbeat.

Brian stein

On the sportsfield Mr Stein, 61, said he used to be a "fanatical sportsman", although these days it is mainly as a spectator. When he was younger, he played football, rugby and was a fast bowler at cricket. "I have bad knees from playing sports that are bad for the body."

As for his beloved Liverpool Football Club, he wanted his views on Rafael Benitez off the record, but sources suggest he did not shed a tear over his departure this year.

He also plays bridge and likes bonsai, the Japanese art of miniaturising trees.

At home He lives in Nottinghamshire and is married with three children.

At work He joined Samworth Brothers in 1996 and took the helm in 2000.