Mark Newton: Keeping it fresh

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Most people will have eaten produce from Freshtime without even realising it.

Many supermarkets own-brand, freshly prepared and packaged vegetables or takeaway salads, including pasta salads, even deli fillers, are all cooked and packaged in Boston at the Freshtime factory.

Since becoming the Managing Director for fresh produce supplier Freshtime UK, Mark Newton has taken on a new challenge and is pushing the company to new heights.

Two years under his watch, the company has already seen growth and introduced new products. With last year’s turnover at £50 million and expected to rise to £60 million next year, Mark’s strategy is paying off. The driver for the business has been about growth for some time, but since Mark joined in 2013, he has been a vital part in the expansion.

“We wanted to take the business to the next level,” Mark said. “We never really put a number to that but it was about taking Freshtime from where it was, which was very successful. It was a profitable growth business, but we wanted to expand it. So we started looking at new product areas, new customers.

“As you grow a business you need more people, you expand in terms of production capacity that you have available. That’s really what our strategy is, we just want to grow. We have to do it in a sustainable way, we’ve got to do it a way that ensures that everyday we are still supplying our customers 100% of the time in full. So we are doing it in a controlled way, but even so in the last two years it’s been quite meteoric.”

Over the last five years, around £12 million has been invested into the site with £2 million of that providing new machinery in the last year alone. The company has seen around 10 new senior level positions filled in the last two years and the whole site encompasses some 350 staff, with the majority working in the factory, making sure that everything is perfect.

“I think it’s fair to say that virtually every penny has gone into the factory. We don’t spend money on huge marble staircases and ivory towers, it’s all about developing the capabilities within the factory.”

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Finding recognition

Mark, 48, knew it was time for a change when he realised that his MD role at Florette UK had taken him away from doing what he loved – getting right in the middle of things and becoming part of the process.

“I had been at Florette for 12 and a half years and I started off as Commercial Director of the UK then became MD for the UK,” Mark said. “Then I spent the last two and half years as Group Chief Exec.

“In that kind of role you spend a lot of time in meetings, sat around a big boardroom table and not a lot of time doing all of the interesting stuff which throughout my career had always been about new products, new customers, new opportunities and actually growing things and developing things.

“It got to a point where five days a week I would just be sat in a meeting, looking at a spreadsheet or a report, which is all right once in a while, but it’s not much fun when it’s your be all and end all.”

With his passion for getting back into the heart of a business, Mark became Managing Director of Freshtime in Boston. He was given the challenge to expand the company and help it to make a name for itself that will be something that other companies in the industry would compare themselves against.

The difference that Mark can make in this new role is one that can’t be measured. For him it is almost like working in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory – just without the chocolate and the Oompa Loompas. Everything is tried, tested and tried again and only the very best makes it onto the shelves.

“I was keen to get back to doing a role where you can make a difference, everyday is different and you’re tasting new products. In a food business, particularly like Freshtime, it’s about the food and about new flavours and that was what I missed. That’s why I looked to join a company like Freshtime.

“I like to be involved if I possibly can. One of the things that we have here, which I’m very proud of, is a food culture. There are a lot of food companies out there where the food bit is secondary to productivity and efficiency, line speeds and pence per gram. We focus very much on the food first.

“We have daily taste panels where we taste every single product that we’ve manufactured. I will get involved in some of those and we encourage all the different departments to get involved in that. That culture of food is very important for us.”

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

An edge of its own

Mark noticed that there was a gap in the market which he wanted to explore and started making a name for Freshtime in its own right. In June 2015 the company released its first own brand products for smaller stores that didn’t have their own branding, like convenience stores. With all of the experimental cooking that Freshtime does in its onsite kitchen, he couldn’t miss the opportunity.

“We noticed that there was a gap in certain sectors where the volumes aren’t big enough to justify a separate new brand, so the Freshtime brand is there to help fill that gap. It is a brand that is at the upper end of the quality spectrum as well. We wanted to put our name to something that we were proud of, which is exactly what we’ve done.

“With my background in branded products, I felt it was important that we put out a very visual image of what we’re about and the Freshtime brand is all about quality. It’s the best quality vegetables, it’s the best quality salads. It was an important first step for us. We don’t aspire to be the Coca-Cola of the salad world, but it is an important message about our quality of standards.

“We have a development kitchen downstairs and it was churning out so many excellent recipes and excellent ideas, it was a shame not to use some of those. Not everything that we develop makes it onto a shelf but we felt that there were some really good ideas that we wanted to put out there.

“We chop our vegetables by hand, we layer the salads by hand, we place that cherry tomato in the corner by hand – because we think that’s the best way of doing it and we think that ensures the quality.”

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Pushing for growth

“Managing growth is always quite difficult,” Mark said. “In some respects it’s a good problem to have when you’re growing a business. It’s about making sure that you’ve got the right people within the business.

“All the while that you are trying to build the business, you’ve still got the challenge that your orders come in and you have to make the product and ship them out in a matter of hours. That is always a challenge. The bigger you get, the more customers you get, the more products you make, the tighter that bit all becomes.”

When it comes down to it, Mark is determined to make Freshtime the company that everyone looks to and aspires to be. “I’d like Freshtime to be that focal point for the areas that we are involved in. I think we are well on the way to being the reference point for our industry. In our values we want to be the company that people want to work with, they want to supply us and they want to buy from us. Generally people are starting to believe that.

“Two years ago we didn’t even have a website, now we are getting people ringing us saying, ‘Can you come and talk to us? Can you come and show us what you do?’ So that is what I aspire to.”