Generations of innovation

by Meyer Sosland
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In the British flour market dominated by the "big three" — ADM, Allied Mills and Rank Hovis — Jas Bowman and Sons Limited, with a turnover in excess of £40 million, has continued to grow and prosper in a niche that it has carved out for itself in recent years.

Headquartered in Hertfordshire, near London, England, and with a northern production plant in Whitley Bridge, Yorkshire, England, Jas Bowman is located close to major wheat growing regions and near arterial highways, giving excellent access for supply of raw materials and distribution of finished products.

On July 5, 2007, Jas Bowman celebrated 150 years at the forefront of flour milling technology with a series of events for the local populace, customers, associates and its own staff.

During the past century and a half, Jas Bowman has enjoyed many "firsts." One of the most significant was the development, in conjunction with the Research Association, of the world’s first practical process for producing heat treated flour and the launch of its "Trident" range of products. Since then, Jas Bowman has remained a market leader in heat treated cereal products that form the basis of Bowman Ingredients, which manufactures a wide range of coatings, batters, glazes, marinades, dusting and flavor systems for fish, chicken and vegetables. Recent investments have enabled Jas Bowman to diversify further into fast-growing sectors such as readymeals, soups and sauces.

Heat treatment of flours gained a further boost in recent years after chlorine was phased out and alternative means to make cake flour were required.

Guy Bowman, chief executive of Jas Bowman, commented, "Reaching such a significant milestone is not only a time to celebrate and reflect upon the company’s achievements over the past 150 years, but also a time for us to look to the future and our aspirations. With the continuing trend toward clean-label products in Britain, our main focus will be developing solutions to support this. Of course, we want to maintain our reputation for excellent service support, and we will continue to work closely with our customers to develop bespoke products."

Over the last 10 years, Guy Bowman, rather than seeking capacity gains, has overseen a strategic shift in the company’s milling business from commodity biscuit flours, which formerly comprised over 80% of sales, to bread making and other value-added flours for external customers and for their ingredient business. As a result, Jas Bowman has now virtually ceased biscuit flour production.

The company also maintains an overseas perspective, first through its longstanding sharing of technology with King Milling Company, Lowell, Michigan, U.S. (a family business that also operates in broadly similar markets), and secondly with the joint venture that Bowman Ingredients has established with Pioneer Foods of South Africa to exploit its heat treatment technology in that region. Further collaborations are under consideration.

Established in 1992, Bowman Ingredients is a major processor of the flour milled by the company.

"As pioneers of cereal heat treatment, our ingredients division was built on a unique foundation," said Managing Director Rory Bowman. "A complete understanding of cereal chemistry is crucial to our success. This comprehensive cereal technology enabled us to develop our unique and flexible ‘pressure-baked’ system for breadcrumb manufacture. In addition, we are accomplished in delivering cost-effective flavored products, providing market support and training customer staff in their use."

In keeping with the company policy of staying ahead of the market, Jas Bowman is planning to roll out the products of a new process in 2008.

The anniversary proceedings on July 5 were enlivened by two distinguished guest speakers. First, David Lang, a leading city analyst for the food sector, gave a thought-provoking presentation on current and likely future trends that will affect millers. He showed great optimism for the role of independent family businesses in a period when none of the owners of the three major millers, who between them dominate flour production in Britain, would consider milling to be a core activity.

He also showed how the bread market has moved through the efforts of independent bakers, in particular Warburtons, toward the higher quality, higher value-branded loaf. The commodity type of "loss-leader" supermarket own-label loaf, in spite of its low price, is steadily losing market share, he said.

Internationally, raw material costs have shown great volatility and therefore are a major uncertainty. In the United Kingdom, this has resulted in soft wheat trading at £58 per tonne higher (from £87 to £145) than in 2006 and bread-making wheat at £75 per tonne higher (£93 to £168) than a year ago. This was before the current year’s harvest, which may yet be downgraded due to the very poor weather conditions that have prevailed through the summer growing season.

The impact of industrial flour production and wheat being used for biofuels is beginning to be felt in the world markets. It will be an increasing factor for British millers when the large industrial wheat processing plants, including Wessex Grain and Cargill Manchester, come on stream.

This was a theme that the second speaker, Alastair Dickie of the Home Grown Cereals Authority (HGCA), picked up on within a broad context of changes in social habits, dietary trends in China and non- food uses for wheat and maize. In Britain, the demand for wheat destined for industrial purposes can be met at least partially by turning set-aside land back into productive use.

The company has a balanced board of directors. It includes three who represent the family interests and two who are very experienced external non-executives to ensure that an outward-looking business perspective is maintained.

The family members are Guy Bowman, chief executive, his brother Rory, managing director of the ingredients business, and their sister, Philippa

Pelly. Terry Pryce, the chairman, has served for 16 years and has had a career in the food industry that includes nine years as chief executive of Dalgety and then his own business, Solway Foods. He was awarded a Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth for services to the food industry. Hugh Campbell, with 15 years of service, has similarly had previous executive roles with United Biscuits and then with the milling company, Clarke and Butcher.

Jas Bowman has been impressed by the benefits the business has enjoyed from a recently implemented companywide training scheme, which has cemented relationships with key customers and motivated staff to higher levels of productivity.

The company said it now looks forward with enthusiasm to the challenges of the next 50 years to take them to their bicentenary. The planned launch of their "next generation" heat treatment technology in 2008 will be the next step in this quest. WG

Bryan McGee, a milling industry consultant, may be contacted at