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Q&A: E&R Moffat’s MD on making a mark in manufacturing

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The catering manufacturing sector has undergone tremendous change over the past 50 years but one company that has been there through all of it and survived to tell the tale is E&R Moffat. With the Scotland-based outfit making it a half-century in business this year, Catering Insight thought it was a good time to ask managing director, William Moffat, what the operation looks like today.

Moffat celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. What do you regard as the company’s main strengths today?

I think we are one of the main catering equipment manufacturers in the UK right now and we are very proud of that. Certainly local authority work is probably one of our key areas — we have been quite strong in schools catering, particularly. We aim to maintain that and hopefully grow that in the coming years as things begin to pick up again. Over the 50 years I think we have established a good reputation for quality equipment; we are not the cheapest people in the market place but we believe that we provide good quality and good value for money. I think we have got a good reputation and strength in after-sales service, too. We back up our equipment with our own fleet of Moffat-trained engineers.

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The business was founded by your father, Eddie. Have you always been involved in it?

I’m not embarrassed to say that even as a kid during school holidays I used to come up and knock on the door and ask if I could come in and work in the factory. Current health and safety legislation wouldn’t let you now, but probably from about the age of 12 I spent four or five weeks of my summer holiday working in the factory. I did it primarily for selfish reasons — I was earning a few quid doing it and went back to school feeling like a millionaire! Over the years I had a brief grounding in the factory but when I actually started here in 1983 it was straight into the office and I have been involved in all sides over the years, from just basic administration to the accounts, purchase ledger, wages and sales.

What is the scale of the manufacturing operation that Moffat has in Bonnybridge?

We have got 97 employees in the factory itself, and 136 in total. The factory is just under 110,000 square feet, so it’s a fair size. On our current turnover, which is just over £10m, there is definite scope for growth. We are in the fortunate position here that we own our own premises and about nine years ago we secured the land to the other side of ourselves. So as we continue to grow and expand into the future, we have got more than an enough space here to potentially double the factory size.

Have you been investing in the actual manufacturing plant?

In the last three years I would say no. But in the last 10 to 12 years we have invested significantly in plant and machinery, probably to the tune of about £1.5m. We put in a laser machine about nine years ago and we’ve got a Salvagnini folding and bending machine, which is about seven or eight-years-old, as well as a couple of CNC bending machines, which are about four and five-years-old. They are big investments, but if you have got the work there to put through them they ultimately pay for themselves. As a company — and probably one of the reasons that we are here 50 years from inception — we have always reinvested and put back into factory plant, machinery and development. That has been the company ethos of old and it will certainly continue into the future.

Do you do all of the fabrication yourself or do you outsource some of it?

We don’t outsource anything. We do everything from tables, benches, sinks and basic fabrication, right up to full-blown bespoke servery counters. Everything that Moffat produces comes out of our factory here at Bonnybridge, and that is something we are very proud of. We do manufacture for others, as there are other manufacturers out there that will buy things from us and put their own badge on it. To be honest I don’t have a problem with that. For us, work is work.

At the start of this year when you froze your prices, you made a point of stating that you hadn’t increased prices since 2009. How sustainable do you think it is to maintain that stance going forward?

If I could turn back time I’d like to put our prices up about three years ago! Again, it is a competitive world we live in just now. To be honest, I think we will be able to see that out until the end of the current calendar year, but I would anticipate that into next year we will probably look to do something on some of our prices anyway.

Is there much fluctuation happening on the stainless steel side at the moment?

Just in the last month there has been an increase in 304 and a smaller increase in 430. At the moment we can buffer that, we can sustain it. Steel has been relatively stable this year, there has not been a great deal of fluctuation but I think that as the economy hopefully picks up and things start to move forward again we will start to see more volatility there. And often that is upwards volatility as opposed to downwards volatility — you very rarely see the price coming down.

Do you source from multiple steel suppliers?

We single source just now, but we are always checking the market, and obviously as a manufacturer steel is by far our biggest spend because it is our core product. We have got good strength when it comes to buying and I think we do buy well and we manage to get good deals, but we have always got an eye on the market there.

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What are the biggest challenges facing the business?

Lead times are always getting shorter for everyone, whether it’s the manufacturer, distributor or consultant, and that is something we have been talking a lot about, especially over the course of this year. Ultimately as a manufacturer, though, there is still a finite time that you need to make a product, whether it is three or four days to make some fabrication or four or five weeks to make a full-blown servery counter. Lead times getting shortened is one of the challenges facing the market in the current time. Everyone is getting squeezed on that.

What are the main priorities for the business moving forward?

We are always looking for growth, but I have always used the term ‘sustained, controlled growth’ in all my days here. We are not a company that is looking to say, ‘well, we are doing £10.5m just now, so next year we want to be doing £15m and the year after we want to be doing £20m.’ Over our 50 years we have enjoyed steady, organic growth as a company. We want to grow, we want to expand, we want to be here for another 50 years, but we want to do that in a controlled and managed way. We are always looking to go forward. You can never sit back, put your feet up and think everything is fine. The day you do that is the day you’ve got problems.

Turning back the clock: Founder’s diaries offer a rare glimpse of industry past

E&R Moffat’s founder Eddie Moffat began keeping memoirs of his experiences in the industry when he set up the business in 1963, capturing the state of the market and industrial conditions of the time. CESA recently presented Moffat with a special leather-bound copy of his diaries, which it said provide an “important record and insight into the early years of the catering manufacturing industry”.

With Moffat celebrating its 50th birthday this year, here is an excerpt looking back at 1966 when the company’s status as a catering equipment manufacturer really began gaining momentum:

“In 1966/7 we really took off, we were still getting work from Smith & Wellstood, Chatelaine and Falcon, but we also started marketing and manufacturing our own products, mainly stainless steel tables, benches and sink units.

“Robert [Eddie’s brother who joined the company the year before] at this stage was doing a bit of canvassing; he called on several catering equipment distributors and landed quite a few new orders. Our very first direct order was for a sink unit from a company called Brown and Harris in Manchester, quickly followed by others from Peter Nisbet in Bristol plus a lot of work from a good friend, George Millar, managing director of Scobie and McIntosh in Glasgow.

“One product we made for Chatelaine worthy of a mention was 60-gallon steam jacketed boiling pans. They were quite a challenge for us as they were made of 3mm thick stainless steel, were 36” in diameter and the bottom profile was a complete semi-circle. The outer jacket was the same shape, forming a steam cavity of 1” and having a draw off passing through from the inner pan.

“Chatelaine had a machine — I can’t remember its name but it was made by the Pullmax company — for blocking out the bottoms but it was a difficult job and required several annealing operations. The finished job was good considering the process, but left much to be desired.

"When we took the job, we purchased an ancient turning lathe, redundant from a ship yard, for spinning the bottom — it had a turning head of about 48”. We made a cylinder the same diameter as the bottom and fitted it to the turning head. We then fabricated the bottom of the boiler in four parts into a flat based cone, bolted it to the cylinder, and spun it into shape following a profile with a revolving steel ball and the tool holder.

“It took a bit of trial and error to get the shape right but it proved very successful. We must have made about 100 of the pans over the next two years. Of course, there is always a problem, and in this case it was that while we were spinning the whole building shook and was in danger of falling down.

"Around this time, Freddie Forrest’s foundry that occupied the other half of Bonnymuir Brickworks folded, this wasn’t a great surprise as it could hardly be called a professional operation. Fortunately George Carins, the secretary of Glenboig Fireclay Co., who owned the brickworks, lived in Bonnybridge. He had been very helpful to us in the past and offered us the lease of the full building. We were happy to accept as we were bursting at the seams.”

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Andrew Seymour

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