I’m used to my business being called a lot of things, by a lot of different people. Most of the time it’s good natured banter about our name, or what we do – or the smell of chocolate that wafts its way across the car park at certain times of day.
However, if there’s one thing that is guaranteed to cause me some night time angst, it’s when local parents tell their children to “work hard at school – or you’ll end up working at the cake factory.” In other words, get a proper qualification, or you’ll only be fit for making food.
I wonder how I can best change this mindset. It’s a fact that 1 in 7 jobs in the UK are directly linked to the production, supply and retailing of food. It’s also a world that is remarkably resilient to recession – so at least the jobs are better protected when all around you fall.
Yet none of that strikes a chord with some of the good parents of the West Country. It seems to me that we are viewed purely as a “factory” – which means manufacturing, which surely means dark, satanic mills and impoverished labourers wearing clogs to work, where they are whipped to within an inch of their lives.
That image couldn’t be further from the truth. I am inordinately proud of the 300 people that come and work for me at Ministry of Cake, and at our new Ministry of Pudding site. I’ve known some of them for a few years now, and I love the fact that most of my production managers have worked their way through the business to some quite serious positions of responsibility, male and female alike. A fair number don’t hold paper qualifications, but what they have in spades is character, drive and energy.
That drive and energy is a key reason behind Ministry of Cake’s rapid growth over the last few years – and we all know that rapid growth comes with risks. But as we have grown, I have fought to retain the open, informal culture that we enjoy so much. Meetings are focused on innovation, action and laughter. The only time I would be tempted to give anyone the hairdryer treatment is if I found them taking formal minutes!
We work really hard to make sure that there is no ivory tower here. My office is a dozen steps from the factory floor and – whenever possible – directors’ doors are open to everyone. Being approachable means staying in touch and being able to identify talent – and to show the sort of commitment to our people that we expect from them.
Ultimately, it’s all about getting the balance right between retaining control and being an approachable employer – but I do believe that we can have our cake and eat it. An informal, fun atmosphere encourages open, honest communication – and this means I can stay close to the sharp end.
In my view, being a good employer also means being a good neighbour, and I make a real effort to build links with local schools and colleges. I enjoy giving students and teachers a more realistic idea of what it’s like to work at Ministry of Cake, and it’s great when you begin to see their viewpoint change for the better.
So – I happily talk to as many students as I can, I give away free cake with the passion of an evangelist and I talk at as many functions as I can about the world of food and all the different roles that need to come together to make great cake.
In a world where real manufacturing jobs seem set to go the way of the dinosaur, the food manufacturing industry offers a rare sight – an industry that is a world beating and continually evolving to meet new tastes and demands.
It’s a great place to be.