Perhaps it’s been easy to overlook the huge role that BV Dairy plays in Shaftesbury life. Few people venture past the company headquarters, tucked away where Wincombe Lane ends.
But in their sixtieth year, BV Dairy is getting deserved recognition, following a succession of prestigious awards. ThisIsAlfred.com’s Keri Jones visited the company and discovered that BV Dairy’s financial success is partly because this family-run business puts its staff first.
“My grandfather Jack started the business in 1958, in Kington Magna. My father worked for the business for 40 years and he retired in 2001. I’m the third generation from the Highnam family to manage the business and I’ve been in the business for 27 years,” said Jim Highnam.
The MD of BV Dairy appeared ‘hands on’. Jim was wearing a yellow, hi-vis vest, emblazoned with the company logo as we chatted in BV’s large and modern meeting room. Black and white prints of their delivery lorries and cattle filled the wall around us.
Finance Director, Vaughan Heard, reeled off some seriously impressive statistics. “We employ 128 people at the moment and we have a turnover of £37 million. We are taking in 36 million litres of milk from the local farming community, so that will be pumping back £12 million into the local economy and the rural sector,” he said.
BV Dairy has kept its focus close to home. Milk is sourced from no further than 25 miles from where we were sitting. I walked across the plant, passing the large, squash-court sized anaerobic digester, which cuts energy bills by harnessing the by-products of the diary process. BV Dairy has growing green credentials. Their rooftops glisten with solar panels and staff vehicles are either hybrid or all electric.
Sue Hardiman was busy at work in one of the much older, single storey buildings on a site that used to house the government’s Wincombe radio monitoring station. Credit Controller Sue was born in Shaftesbury and headed off to London’s bright lights before returning home to Dorset. And BV Dairy has become her second home. Sue has seen this family business grow massively during her 38 years service.
“The business was being run from the house owned by Jim’s father so we had a little office inside and there was a barn where the cream was made and the milk separated. There were fifteen of us working there. Then we came up here and there was so much space. It was amazing, although this building was derelict when Chris bought it. I thought he’d never make this work but he had the foresight to see what was going to happen and he was right,” Sue said.
I asked Jim for more of the history of his family’s business. “The story goes that my grandfather was one of the first people to get a licence to produce cream when rationing was reduced at the end of the Second World War,” explained Jim. “That wasn’t until the early 1950s. The initial starting point of the business was liquid cream. The product range grew slowly when the business was in Kington Magna. When the business moved to this site in Shaftesbury in the mid-1980s, the product range was extended to cultured milk products like yoghurts, sour cream and crème fraîche – anything from nought per cent fat soft cheese, which would be quark, up to a 45% fat soft cheese – a cream cheese.”
Jim has analysed retail trends so the company can introduce new products at the right time. “If we looked a few years back we would have seen more interest in lower fat products, but the interest at the moment is with high-protein,” said Jim.
“It’s been really interesting to see how it’s developed and how Jim has brought it from a little family run company into the future,” said Sue. But even though the company is introducing new product lines, it is unlikely that you’ll be able to identity BV Dairy’s Shaftesbury-made products on shop shelves any time soon. “There are so many own label products in supermarkets and there is little room for brands, except really big brands,” said Jim. “We have developed a contract and manufacturing part of the business and we are producing kefir and kefir quark for a brand owner, who is selling to all of the major retailers. It has big potential but is unlikely to be branded BV,” Jim said.
So how has this local company grown to become such a significant employer and economic force? The directors say that they have achieved success by encouraging staff to develop their skills and abilities. Vaughan is passionate about taking on apprentices. Five team members are on this scheme and are placed across the company’s activities, including marketing and finance.
“Apprenticeships, for me, are a significant development and a way forward. Our role here is to encouraging people in whichever way they want to go. They will then increase their learning, their ability and their value to the company,” said Vaughan.
Vaughan thinks that it is important that all staff understand how their job role fits into the wider operation. “I will always ensure that they understand all the elements of the business. The finance apprentice realises this. He’s already been on the food safety course. He will be going into the factory to do production and will then go to the logistics department. As he furthers his career, he will understand more about the food industry and not just accounts,” Vaughan explained.
When the Dorset Chamber of Commerce’s Dorset Business Awards assessors came to tour the BV Dairy premises recently, apprentices guided them around. “We hosted the judges for half a day. They scrutinised the business. We also asked two of our apprentices to show them around different parts of the business, which made a really big impact on the judges. The apprentices did that really well,” said Jim.
In fact the judges were so impressed, they awarded BV Dairy two awards. Jim collected them in front of 700 guests packed into the Bournemouth International Centre earlier this month. “The biggest surprise was the second award that we won, which was the ‘Company Of The Year’. At that stage we had won the ‘Investing In Dorset’ award and we had relaxed. We decided that it was fantastic news to get an award and that was probably our quota for the night.”
Vaughan had a more frustrating experience on the night. He’d taken the family to New York. The award event’s timing coincided with a Broadway show that he had tickets to see. The theatre used Wi-Fi and mobile phone signal blocking equipment so Vaughan had to nervously wait until the interval for news. “Then I got fifteen messages from everybody, saying ‘congratulations’. I had to go back in the second half of ‘Wicked’ and watch that, whilst I must confess my mind was elsewhere, working out how to congratulate everybody.”
Jim says he was proud that North Dorset gained recognition with the two awards. “I was delighted to put Shaftesbury on the map and also very pleased to put manufacturing on the map as well.”
“For me, it’s about celebrating people,” added Vaughan. “They come into this company and work very hard and do great work. It’s not just the company directors saying that they are doing a good job, it is demonstrating to the rest of Shaftesbury, the Blackmore Vale and Dorset that we are all doing a good job.”
Distribution Manager Charis Lewis was at the awards night. She said that staff who couldn’t attend on the evening were encouraged to celebrate the next day. “Jim brought cake around. It’s been celebrations all round this year.” So was it a cream cake? “No it wasn’t,” laughed Charis.
Cakes aren’t an expensive treat, but Sue said the kind gift made quite an impact on staff. “It’s a big morale booster. That’s from the MD. Not many companies would do that,” said Sue.
A company’s culture often extends downwards from the top and Sue says that many BV Dairy staff have clocked up over twenty years service because they feel valued by Jim and the management. “He’s a good boss. He’s one of us. He’s not in an ivory tower. If you want to go and have a chat with him, you can pop up. People here are respected. If I have got anything that I think he needs to be aware of, I will tell him. And I remind him that I used to pick him up from school!”
I left BV Dairy with a strong sense that the team is valued. The company is considerate. Little things, like a manager arranging a free staff meal once a week, seem to make all the difference. “I think people need to know that it is an approachable business and is a good place to work. It’s growing all of the time but it’s never going to be so big that we don’t recognise the staff here. We really are a family run business, even now. We all know one another and if people are looking for a job they should perhaps think about coming to see us. It’s not a bad place. I wouldn’t have stuck it this long,” Sue laughed
As BV Dairy enters its 61st year, it will be a local company to watch. It’s a business where increased turnover means more sales, not poor staff retention. “The principle behind this business is all about keeping money in the Dorset and Shaftesbury region,” said Vaughan.
And with that approach, when BV Dairy gains more awards, Shaftesbury shares the rewards.