In this episode, Engage's CEO Phil Wedgwood talks to the Managing Director of Soreen, Mark Simester, about how they think about and tackle challenges with internal and external engagement.
When Mark isn’t at the bakery ensuring the smooth running of the Soreen business, he can be found spending time with his family or representing Soreen doing some form of sports activity – usually eating a Malt Loaf Bar to keep his energy levels up.
Mark is a real people person and is obsessed with talking to anyone he meets about Soreen and looking for suggestions on how he can improve the business.
00;00;01;08 - 00;00;15;03
Welcome to Engage in Conversation, the podcast from Engage Solutions Group. In this episode, our CEO Phil Wedgwood talks to the managing director of Soreen Mark Simester, about how they think about and tackle challenges with internal and external engagement.
00;00;16;21 - 00;00;38;02
Welcome to our Engaged in Conversation podcast. The last time I did one of these, I interviewed the CEO of a law firm. And today I'm joined by Mark Simester, CEO of a food manufacturing company called Soreen. We work across many sectors, and it's great to understand and explore the differing engagement challenges they have. Mark, Welcome.
00;00;38;27 - 00;00;40;29
Thanks Phil, lovely to be here.
00;00;41;00 - 00;01;01;28
Yeah. Last time we met, it was a British cycling event down the road at the velodrome, and I think we both share a bit of a passion for cycling, which is nice. And it was clear as well to see how the Soreen brand fits nicely into that sort of health and fitness domain and fuels a healthy lifestyle so, tell us a bit about Soreen.
00;01;02;25 - 00;02;04;11
Yeah, sure. So Soreen. It's obviously known for its malt loaf products, it's actually an 83 year old business. So the first malt loaves sort of rolled out the bakery in 1938, which is sort of hard to fathom, really. It's sort of survived the war years. It was actually owned by Warburton's for quite a while - The 1950s to the 1990s, and all that time it's been produced in the Greater Manchester area.
So there's a great link between the business and the city because obviously all of the colleagues have come from the Manchester area over the years and currently today we've got 160 colleagues working in the middle of Trafford Park and the bakery that we have makes all of the Soreen for for the whole world, how we export as far as Australia and Canada and the US. And that's all made here in Manchester.
00;02;04;19 - 00;02;15;29
That's fantastic. Well, I think we're both proud that both our businesses are made in Manchester, so that's nice, and I particularly like that heritage. And you don't manufacture anywhere else? It's only here.
00;02;17;04 - 00;04;35;18
Just in the Manchester area. So we'll produce about three million products, three to 4 million products every week. And I guess the biggest turnaround in the business direction in the last few years is - Lots of people, you know, will know, Soreen for, you know, the famous loaves that people will sort of slice and butcher and was almost seen as a treat. But we always had sort of back to the you mentioned of the cycling - We always had a fan base that would talk to us about its energy giving properties in the nutrition. And it's always been sort of taken as a training food for triathletes, marathon runners, cyclists, any sort of endurance sport. And I sort came to this all in business five years ago, and this was a real interest to me as to sort of what was going on. And we discovered really through looking at the sport science and getting nutritionists to come in and look at the product and the science of the product. But despite the fact it tastes like a sweet cake, the nutrition properties are sort of second to none in the in the snacking world. And there really was a reason why for decades, endurance athletes have been been training with the products. So versus all of the snacks and cakes it is incredibly low in sugar. And so we don't really use sugar much in in our process at all. And all our products have got less than 3% fats. But a lot of the product is almost cereal in its ingredients. So we use wheat flour, malt flour and starch, which are all you know - at it's core ingredients - a cereal. So the product behaves quite a lot like oats and porridge. Yeah, in terms of its slow release and giving energy. So that's great if you're an athlete in terms of you love cycling or running, but it's also really good for for perhaps a new target audience for us, which is young kids. And of course, now our our lunchbox loaves are tiny little loaves of Soreen. That's now our best selling product as a result of, you know, it was powering families up and down the UK.
00;04;36;01 - 00;04;49;10
That's fantastic. And you can see how the brands pivoted to that more grab and go culture and that sort of sporty culture obviously sticking. I do have a friend, actually, that cycles with a whole Soreen loaf in his in his gilet, which is quite comical.
00;04;49;18 - 00;04;54;21
But but yeah, the bars are great for that, aren't they? Stick a few in a jersey and off you go.
00;04;55;05 - 00;05;41;27
Exactly. I mean, we are so much more of a grab and go culture when it comes to snacking. And very much the convenience of having just a small snack that's under 100 calories and, as I say, almost lunch boxes, only 5.1 grams of sugar, which is very difficult to get anything that's not low in sugar, but The nutrition makes it work. But the other thing just makes it work is the portability. It will fit into a lunchbox perfectly. It fits into a handbag or a work bag or a pocket or wherever you are. And today, you know, everyone's so busy, just that little break in that little tree through the day to a break up the day, you know, really works for people. So, yeah, we've really seen sales of balls take off in the last few years.
00;05;42;04 - 00;06;20;25
It is great. And I think when you shared with me some of the macro nutritional data that you had against some of the competing bars, it was really shocking how amazingly well Soreen scored because you don't think of it as you see a lot of these ultra new wave brands kind of fitness brands that people use in the gym and the like. And, you know, Soreen is actually outperforming those, the vast majority of those with those macro nutritional aspects and and also which one of the things, if that thought was really cool. He's probably the oldest energy bar in the world. It's 83 years old. I mean, how many how many energy bars are there?
00;06;21;00 - 00;09;25;03
That is a great way of thinking about it. And yeah, it's one of our, Sort of, core beliefs as a business, as we move forward on our on our health journey is we want Soreen to be more than a business that sells snacks and you know, drive sales figures and makes profit. We really want it to have a role in the community and a role in the nation's diet. And we're keen on that, and we've really put that at the heart of our strategy. So we sort of see Soreen as the as the champions of nutrition when it when it comes to snacking. And you know, with that comes some, some beliefs that we've captured that everyone in the saw in business, you know, is really passionate about. And we're really passionate that healthy snacks shouldn't be more expensive than than everyday snacks. And of course, we have all sort of been into into shops and seen, you know, bars at three and £4 just because they've got certain nutrition properties. We don't think that's right. We think that everybody in the UK should have access, and that just means, you know, things just need to be affordable. The second thing is, we believe it should be easy for shoppers to understand what's in the product. They shouldn't have to read an essay in small font on the back of the packs. I think it's the duty of all manufacturers to be on the front of packs with traffic lights and clear messages. And you know, the closer you look, you will see out there manufacturers with all gray and all purple because they might pretend that they can't for color print on packs. A lot of that is rubbish. They should be letting shoppers know, you know, how much sugar, how much fat is in their product. And then the third value that's really cool to us is that no child should go hungry. So I guess the last few years has brought to light a number of disturbing insights just about the nutrition that an infant and primary school and even secondary school children have. You know that horrible stat that some kids will really suffer during school holidays in terms of, you know, not getting at least one square meal in the day? So we we partner with a local food bank called the Bread and Butter Thing in Manchester. And so that is one of the the places where if we do have product that we're not going to going to use and send out, it goes to them, which is a great cause. But we also work with a number of organizations that work with kids in the school holidays, the sports camps and the sports clubs. And we provide a lot of free balls so that at least they get, you know, a decent, wholesome snack during the day when they're doing the great activity that these organizations do in and around Manchester. So you can see it's more than just a nutrition story. You know, it's trying to do all bit in the community, and we're really passionate about doing that.
00;09;25;03 - 00;09;58;00
It is a phenomenal story. And the way you've operated over the last couple of years and carried on through COVID is and done. All of those things that you've mentioned is is just phenomenal really is. And it's it. It's so great to be working with a brand like that because it means a lot for the area as well, and you're supporting the local area and the local community in such a powerful way. So let's talk about engagement. You've obviously worked through the whole COVID era that must have been immensely challenging.
00;09;58;00 - 00;13;58;04
Yeah, I mean, all. These are trying to improve the communication with colleagues, and, you know, of course, we were trying to use different techniques and tried different things before COVID came along, but I guess COVID just made it challenging in a number of phases of the pandemic. I can remember to start with sort of end of March, beginning of April 2020. We were all concerned as a group of colleagues. As you know, we didn't really know what this thing was and it was breaking on the news and you had the government press conferences every day. Was it four or 5:00 to try and find out what was what, what was happening next? You know, what was like the next day's instructions? So there were different groups of colleagues that that affected in different ways. So of course, you had the office colleagues that, you know, after a while, we asked to work from home as a lot of businesses did, which was the right thing to do. And what quickly became obvious to us was the, you know, that group of colleagues really needed to understand what was going on at the site and in the business because it was, you know, it's fast moving anyway on a normal sort of week or month. But with what was happening with COVID, it was vital that there was much better communication to link those working from home to what was happening at sites. And then, of course, being a bakery business in a manufacturing business, you know, nothing happens with us unless we're baking. And, you know, it's one of the unique properties about Soreen. It's, you know, it's freshly baked every day we're baking, you know, 20 46 and we just break to to make sure everything's cleaned before going again in that first few weeks of COVID. Nobody wanted to be there at site if we're being genuine. People were scared. People were concerned. People didn't know how close they could get to colleagues in those first few weeks. So as a leadership team, we took a decision. You know, we were we were going to be in and we were going to be there because, you know, we wanted to help colleagues find out about this thing together. People had lots of questions. So we spent an awful lot of time again, you know, at the right distances, talking to colleagues, trying to reassure them as much as we could because we didn't have all the answers, but just trying to be there for them because it was an incredibly stressful time. And it's only in, you know, spending time with the colleagues that we could work out how we could help. And one of the things that came out just from a technology point of view that a lot of businesses had been doing is I started to do a weekly video at the end of the week just to let people know, you know, what happened business wise. But more importantly, it started off just letting people know what the latest rules and guidelines were around COVID and to be able to flash pictures up and show those working from home the sites. So when we put screens up and you know, to make sure that people were working close together when we put one way systems in, obviously people were coming to site for the first time. We gave them a mind's eye of what to expect. There were a lot of signage and communication around the two meter distance, and it was important that people both onsite and offsite saw. And it's something actually the weekly video that we've continued on right the way through because we had such positive feedback about it. It's now just become part of the working week, both for me to make it got a hell of a lot quicker, making it than the first one. But also people you know between four and 5:00 know that they're on a Friday, that they're going to get a bit of an update and when they can plan their week around it.
00;13;58;04 - 00;14;05;00
Brilliant. Brilliant. And so engagement is incredibly important, presumably to your organization.
00;14;05;15 - 00;15;30;05
Hugely so. I mean, we we pride ourselves, you know, 160 colleagues on on it feeling like a family business. And I think there's nothing worse than than working in a business when you don't know what's happening. And I think that's true. You know, just in a normal year. But in terms of the COVID discussion we had, it's vital that everyone feels they're up to speed because it's changing so quickly. And people that work in manufacturing businesses or a leading manufacturing business all know too well. It's it's a really easy environment for rumors to start. And, you know, some of them are fun and rumors, and. Some sometimes, you know, your sales are going fantastically well. But there's a group of people that might think, Oh, you know, sales haven't gone well that week. And therefore that means X or Y about the. It's really important that you sort of find out about those things quickly and reassure people and, you know, make sure that some of the, you know, the far fetched rumors don't gather pace and everyone's on the same page. And we really like to be open and just tell people how it is. So whatever questions are going on around the business. You talk about them. We want people to know because, you know, 100, 160 colleagues, everyone should know everything. So we look at different communication techniques to try and do that.
00;15;30;05 - 00;15;47;11
Fantastic. one of the things I thought was really powerful when I heard about it was that when you launched our platform, you actually stopped production. Which sounds pretty cool and sounds a big thing to do. Tell me a bit about how you how and why you did that.
00;15;47;27 - 00;20;00;26
Sure. Well, Soreen, as I say, we're running 24 hours a day and we use three operations teams to try to cover that over sort of two week pattern. And when we realized, you know, that we wanted to roll out this communications app and we had a couple of other messages that we wanted to give as well. Of course you evaluate different ways of doing it. You sort of get people into rooms in small groups. And we just thought this was so important that, you know what? We're going to the bakery for a whole day, which course costs the business thousands and thousands of pounds. But we wanted to have some impact. We wanted to show we were serious about this. We wanted to show it was an important landmark for the business, but we didn't want one group to be in the know and others not, and it sort of take a month to do it. We wanted to just have a, you know, a big, impactful session. And we did it in October of this year. So, you know, from a sort of COVID rules point of view, it was possible. So what. We did is we shut the bakery for 24 hours, closed the gates and we actually did a conference at Lancashire Cricket Club. Where we took in in an enormous room. It's like an aircraft hangar, the room so that we could, you know, socially distance everybody. And we had sort of big stage for four presenters. I'll always remember literally, we set it up in like three weeks in terms of from start to finish. So, you know, the presenters did a great job because it was, you know, all on in those few weeks to to get everything learned. And the best thing was that it was literally the first time that people can remember in the history of the in business that, all three of the operations chefs were together in the same place at the same time because we have quite a small site. So, you know, then they're on nights or they're on, you know, on rest days or whatever that they're not in. So that was fantastic to have just the energy in the room and the people connecting. And it was, you know, getting towards the end of the the the worst of 2021 in terms of the COVID pandemic. So, you know, colleagues seeing each other, if it might be the first time in six months or first time in a year. And we have that great dynamic of the office colleagues and the operations colleagues, all in one room, all together or one business and one team. And that's why it was so important for us to do that is there was no better signal of one team than having everybody together in one room. So we got great feedback. Yeah, people were able to sort of, you know, we didn't do one big social thing afterwards. People sort of went off in their different departments, but there was such a feel good factor to the couple of, you know, good announcements we were making about the business. But connecting people you know with this app was was one of the headlines of the conference and we had a big chat about how do we get as many colleagues as possible onto the app, which obviously runs on on your smartphone as quickly as possible. And you know, if we did it on an email or video or team meetings, we just thought, Look, this is can take a year before we get everybody on. So at the October conference, Paul Stefan that works in our marketing team was given the task of how do we do a live onboarding? So we offered up 100 pounds prize for the colleagues who registered and then was then randomly drawn. So Stefan, gets everybody through the screens over a sort of 15 minute period. Tom Boyd and Stefan did a great job, but it just meant that we had 90 people register instantly that day and it just gave the app real momentum. And it just meant that the first few posts and the first things that we did, yeah, everybody saw you and you know, people could start talking about it. So, yeah, that was one of the ways that we we launched the app.
00;20;00;26 - 00;20;19;26
Brilliant. That sounds really good. We talk about engagement across five pillars. The first one is our comms or communications pillar. It strikes. I kind of already know the answer, really, having listened to what you just said, but we talk about the power of fostering your own social network inside of your business. How important do you think that is for Soreen and how well is that going?
00;20;26;06 - 00;21;44;22
Really well. From a communication point of view, one of our main reasons for looking at this app was so much of our communication was on paper, and especially with COVID going on, I sort of would walk around on. Corridors and look at our notice boards and there's just paper everywhere, and there were signs everywhere, you know, one way systems and do this do that because of COVID. It was nigh on impossible to work out which notice was new and still relevant and which was obsolete and been put on maybe several weeks ago. So we wanted to use the app to make sure that everything was in one place. And it's much more controlled from a document point of view where people would only see the most recent information. And so that was one element. And of course, to get colleagues communicating with each other via some of the messaging capability in the app was really, really important to us. To try to get feedback from the app was was really important to us. So, yeah, from a communications point of view, we really wanted to upgrade the way that we communicated with our colleagues and move off paper. For not only environmental reasons, but a quality of communication and reason as well.
00;21;44;22 - 00;21;58;15
That's good. And obviously in the environment you work in there, not everybody's going to have access to computers or laptops, so you certainly won't provide them. How important is it that that mechanism then is accessible on the mobile?
00;21;59;06 - 00;22;16;23
Definitely. Again, one of the key reasons for looking at this was accessibility, and to be able to talk to more people more frequently. So, you know, if I'm doing a weekly video and sending that out, of course, our office colleagues have got a work email address. We'll all get that. But in our business. As we've already said, you know, a really, really important group is our operations team in the bakery, and nothing happens. If you know. They're not OK and things aren't working well with them and they don't have a company email address, they don't have a laptop or a PC that they work with. And it just struck us that it was a bit old fashioned, having to almost sort of write documents that were briefed out to them with, you know, their line manager standing in front of them. It's a very formal way of communicating and very yeah, perhaps once a week or once every couple of weeks. And we want it all communication communications would be much better than that. And of course, most people have a mobile phone and most people now have a smartphone. So to be able to to carry an app that was on people's personal phones and for them to want to do this themselves. So this really wasn't us pushing this app to say, you know, you must do this and we want to give you messages the way we positioned it was, you know, we want to hear from you. We want you to be up to date and you know, basically by just putting this app among all of the other apps on your phone, you can just stay up to speed with what's happening and you can talk to your colleagues. So that was one of the core reasons for looking at it is we could communicate with everybody in the business. And it wasn't just those that worked with a computer. And as I go back to the ratios that meant, it opened up great communication with two thirds of our colleagues that perhaps, you know, wasn't as good as it should have been.
00;23;54;23 - 00;24;13;21
Yeah, no, that makes sense. I mean, one of our other pillars is enablement, and that's more where you can drive digital changes through the organization. So I know you've mentioned getting rid of paper as part of that, and this is facilitated that looking at health and safety audits that were paper based, maybe moving those across to more digital mechanism.
00;24;15;24 - 00;24;22;23
Yeah, I mean, health and safety is the top priority of any manufacturing business. And again, there's a lot of what we call tool box talks, which is health and safety updates and advice that you have sent out on a weekly basis just to, you know, make sure things are top of mind. And that was paper based and people would have to literally physically sign and we'd have 160 people, you know, with signatures. Of course, it's very clunky, very time consuming. So now we're using the app, we can send out a health and safety briefing, and somebody just needs to press the button that they've acknowledged that they've read it and they understand it, and that automatically just registered in one place. So in a small business like ours where you have this this day, if our health and safety manager, that's just transformed his working week and you know, he's not got hours and hours and hours of admin, this has made his life much, much simpler. And we have a number of audits that we will do it safely and having those on the phone and an audit schedule that people can see what's been done and what still needs to be carried out in the week is another thing that we've taken from paper and straight onto the app. So it's enabled and it's enabled a number of things to be streamed. Lined and a lot quicker.
00;25;40;18 - 00;26;15;07
That's really good during COVID, I can imagine the next pillar recognition is particularly relevant given how hard it would have been. I mean, it makes me feel guilty that I was able to work from home when you had to go in every single day and make make food, you know, which fueled the whole country. While we were all most of all, a lot of us were working from home and the like, having a mechanism to stimulate that recognition piece that peer to peer sort of recognition. How useful was that?
00;26;15;07 - 00;27;47;03
Definitely, that was starting to use. The app coincided with us launching a recognition scheme where we really wanted colleagues to feel fantastic about their work and fantastic about their colleagues work and, you know, to refer colleagues to be rewarded. So we launched a colleague of the month scheme around the same time we used the app, and it just enables people to fill in the referral forms. And again, it's all in one place and it all works. And I guess that's a sort of more formal recognition level. The other thing that's great about the app is you can just send simple thank you messages as quickly. As you know. You just attach a badge or an icon or thank you or a symbol or just an outright thanks. And you know, you just literally pulled out the employee's name and send it off. And you know, it's the quickest WhatsApp type message you've ever sent. But we've got such fantastic feedback of how that makes people feel that people in the project team are saying great job. People who have gone the extra mile to really help out the bakery are sort of inundated with little messages from people because it literally takes three minutes. And so sometimes it's not the big sort of scheme an employee of the month, it's just that little virtual pat on the back that comes from your colleagues that our team is told us means so much.
00;27;47;03 - 00;28;18;05
Yeah, it is a we see that across our client base is really powerful. Yeah, it is. In fact, I actually think that recognition as a concept is overtaken reward because the, you know, used to sort of get, oh, here's a 20 pound M&S voucher or whatever. And that was a very physical thing often given to you in a one to one setting. But then the whole organization didn't get to know about that, and you didn't have that socialization of of the recognition. And I think that's actually more important for most people than being taken into a room and given a voucher, isn't it?
00;28;18;05 - 00;28;31;25
I agree. It's who it comes from. So, you know, it's not it's not line managers or leaders. The power of it is when it comes from one of your colleagues, and they've not only recognized what you've done, but they've taken the time out to say Thank you.
00;28;32;08 - 00;28;50;12
That's great. And that's our last pillar feedback, and we've touched on that quite a lot there. So I'd say our most successful clients engage with us in the boardroom, and that's one of the reasons why we're doing these this podcast series, where within story do you think the responsibility for engagement sets?
00;28;52;22 - 00;30;33;03
I think that's a really interesting question, I think to a degree, it sits with with everybody in the business, you know, a small business. Whether there is a family feel to it, to the culture. It's really important that people feel they can come to work. It's it's a safe environment. And everyone is treated with respect. The right behaviors are being observed. And you know, we really would like colleagues to engage with us on a frequent basis on on a daily basis. And this has really enabled us to collect more information, be it the odd WhatsApp message, be it formal surveys that we might put out weekly. We've always done a sort of annual engagement survey, but this enables is now to do much more frequent, smaller, maybe specific subjects. Surveys has been one of the key things. I think responsibility for engagement sits with all the heads of department. And yeah, we've really tried to use this up to share good news to make sure that everyone's connected and you don't get that siloed view of the world, particularly when you've got some groups working from home and disconnected from the main business. Clearly, as a board of directors, you know, engagement is a pivotal and people are the thing that we spend the most time talking about and making sure that we're looking after our people. So you can make an argument that it's everybody in the business plays their part. And I think this app really helps give a voice to people in the business that perhaps haven't had one before. And I think that's one of the main benefits.
00;30;33;03 - 00;30;59;11
That's brilliant. That's really good to hear. Thanks. So we talked there about colleague engagement. Just touch on briefly before we finish on customer engagement. Obviously, in a manufacturing environment, the opportunity for people to liaise with the end customer in the traditional sense is maybe somewhat limited.But do you see the internal and external external engagement relating to each other in any way?
00;30;59;11 - 00;32;31;16
Yeah. I mean. We obviously communicate via advertising to our consumers. And, you know, a great deal of what we do is a social media lead. And so as with most food brands, we'd be on all the popular platforms. So the thing that the two worlds of external comms and internal comms have got in common is, you know, content. And some of the technology that's now used and the skill sets that we use for perhaps putting together a film or visuals that might have been advertising in the past. We're now using the same people in the business to craft our internal comms. And I've already mentioned that, you know, we're using video much more than we ever have done and In-house designed communication. So you do end up saying not only things on the same mediums, more and more, the messages are the same because I think technology's brought a real transparency and visibility and consumers actually want to see into your business about, you know, who who is the baker that controls you, how house or interface and how soft as well. Who is that and what are they like? You know, I think websites can be a bit sort of one dimensional in terms of what they can show. So the technology we use for both internal and external comms, I think he's bringing it closer together because increasingly it's the same methodologies that we use and in the same technology.
00;32;31;16 - 00;32;47;08
Well, that's really good. Thank you. Mark, thank you so much for joining me today, and I really appreciate the insights and experiences you've shared. You do have a fantastic business. And I have to say, though, with all that talk about food, I can't wait to grab a Soreen bar and jump on my bike.
00;32;47;29 - 00;32;50;08
Thank you feel. Really appreciate that I was going to say thanks a lot.
00;32;50;15 - 00;32;51;04
00;32;52;17 - 00;33;04;12
Thanks for listening to engage in conversation. It was presented by our CEO Phil Wedgewood and produced by Kari Bolden's. And for more news and updates on Engage. Visit our website at engagingly since great icon.