Forty years of adaptation builds company resilience
St Ewe Eggs began life as a dairy farm, bought by Christine and Richard Tonks in the late 1960s. Now run by their daughter, Rebecca, we find out from Head of Marketing, Nikki Owen, how the company has changed to become the award-winning egg business it is today.
How has St Ewe adapted to change over the years?
The team at St Ewe is proactive and agile. We have an amazingly innovative team, quick to read the market and keen to listen to customer feedback. This forms the basis of our decision-making, helping to create and grow the business.
How did you prepare for Brexit and has it been as you expected since we left Europe?
We haven’t seen the full impact of the ‘Brexit effect’ yet, but the packaging supply chain has seen an 8% increase plus extra transportation charges. We bought and shipped a new grader over from Europe in December anticipating increased import complications and charges, and I’m sure we’ll see further issues emerge over time.
What industry ‘shocks’ have you weathered over the years?
We were fortunate the packing side of the business started after the Salmonella scare of the late 1980s, but out of that crisis came the British Lion Code. This was a positive outcome for our industry and illustrates a response to consumer demand. It remains the envy of many accreditation schemes and protects British-produced eggs from European competition.
The current avian influenza (bird flu) situation hasn’t had a great effect our business to date but we remain vigilant and ready to respond if and when we feel it’s necessary. The volatility of feed costs is our major, ongoing concern as we head towards an all-time high.
You produce a wide range of eggs, as well as adding pasteurised egg a few years ago. Why do you keep innovating?
We are an ideas company and innovate in line with market demand. It also enables us to find a market for all our egg types – an egg is not just an egg. Some consumers prefer large eggs, perfect for boiled eggs with soldiers; others like the smaller pullet eggs, with a deeper flavour, produced by younger hens just beginning to lay. Our pasteurised liquid egg comes from our seconds, minimising waste and offering a convenient solution for chefs not wanting to crack eggs all day!
There is nothing more motivating for the team and our producers to see a brand idea develop from germination to supermarket shelf.
Have you brought complementary skills into the team from outside the Tonks family?
Recognising strengths and weaknesses is really important; not doing so can hold you back. No-one is good at everything so we look at the wider team and work out where we need extra expertise.
What happens when something goes wrong? How do you learn from it?
‘Every day is a school day’ and things do go wrong – usually on a Friday afternoon.
The biggest catastrophe is when the grader, Guinevere, decides to take a break; as the most essential piece of machinery, the panic button is pressed! For the last major breakdown, we had our engineers up in the early hours fixing ‘her’. The show was back on the road within 24 hours, with some additional grading through the night playing catch up to fill our orders.
But we analyse, learn, improve and move on.
Who are your business peers? Where do you look for support and how has the pandemic changed this?
We are very lucky to have many mentors and advisors, who challenge us along the way. Lockdown has been particularly fascinating and busy. We’ve been learning about customer habits by processing a large amount of data, giving us a really raw view of the market.
What impact has your charity initiative, Shell Out to Help Out, had on the team and business?
Shell Out to Help Out (#SO2HO) is our response to a crisis. The third lockdown saw 52% of our business wiped out overnight through the closure of foodservice. The South West had closed for the season, the ‘eat out to help out’ initiative was over and the hospitality industry took advantage of the furlough scheme incentives where it could. Like countless other packers, we were faced with the prospect of destroying perfectly edible eggs.
Instead, since January we’ve been selling eggs at ‘pop up’ locations throughout Cornwall, direct to consumers. For every tray sold, we’re donating a carton of eggs to local food banks. By the beginning of March, we’d donated over 160,000 eggs. It’s been such an experience selling eggs in car parks and laybys, hearing customers’ views of our brand. The response on social media has been unbelievable, helping to elevate the St Ewe brand nationally and internationally. Most of all, it’s given the team a real boost during a difficult time. They’ve volunteered every weekend, relishing the chance to meet customers face-to-face, albeit under layers of protective clothing and PPE!
The Rural Business Awards National Winner 2020/2021
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