Volac Upbeat about the whey ahead for its dairy products
The dairy nutrition experts of Orwell have set high standards for nearly half a century. The pay-off? Healthier customers and a desire to improve standards in the industry.
Volac, the Orwell-based dairy nutrition firm, has a unique perspective on the farming industry thanks to expertise acquired over almost half a century – and never has that expertise been more in demand.
Founded in 1970 in Wendy before moving to Orwell in 1978, the company quickly hit its stride making feed ingredients and milk replacers for animals.
In 1991 came the introduction of whey, a valuable protein source which became a dietary supplement for human consumption in 1998.
Today, the firm has 330 employees in sites in Wales, Liverpool and Sleaford in Lincolnshire, and turnover stood at £197million for the last published accounts, in 2015.
Diversification has been one of the key ingredients to this success story, as head of corporate affairs Andy Richardson explains.
“We aim to produce products that have real value for our customers – we’re not producing commodity products,” he says.
There are three income strands to the core business: “milk replacements for animals, seed fats – feed, mainly for cows, which helps increase yield – and forage products ... the inoculants you put on grass to enhance it.”
There’s also The Good Whey Company, the division which makes Upbeat, the fresh dairy protein smoothie drink.
One of the things that Volac is most respected for is its refusal to compromise on quality, which does not always make for an easy life.
“What we’ve got is a very good product and it’s engaging with the consumer – it’s 20g of protein in a fresh product. It’s not UHT, it’s a chilled product,” says Andy.
Upbeat has just had a packaging rebrand which ensures it sits very nicely on the spectrum of sports nutrition drinks, a sector enjoying increased demand from those attempting to adopt healthier lifestyles.
“We want to have a conversation about what you can eat rather than what you can’t eat,” is how Andy puts it. That conversation has led to some interesting discussions.
A recent study with the University of Cambridge looked at the impact of dairy on natural capital – natural capital being soil, air, water and biodiversity.
Andy, who is on the Food & Drink Industry Board in Wales, has a wider role to play in promoting good practice in the industry. This includes taking on board the Protein Challenge 2040.
“It’s an idea of how to balance and sustain the supply of protein while focusing on outcomes – for people on the planet, if you like.”
This forum for the development of a sustainable supply chain engages with companies such as Hirsch’s in the USA, Tesco and Quorn in the UK, and Iconic and Bula in Europe. Oh, and the World Wild Fund for Nature.
“The point being is what we’re trying to do is keep it simple,” Andy says, “so there’s three work streams. The first is scaling up plant-based protein. The second is that given that animal protein – milk and meat – is going to be more in demand, we need to do that in a more efficient way and, thirdly, we need to encourage closed loop production.
“There’s so much we throw away, not just in terms of food from the shop, but harvesting things like sugar beet tops. They get thrown away, but they have protein in them, so could they be used for something else?”
The NGOs and charity agencies are involved because the question today is about educating people on how to get the best protein intake for the lowest cost, both financial and in terms of resources.
“The industry is listening to the NGOs. People realise that it’s an issue we need to talk about. It was slow to start with, but now it’s a global initiative and we need to join up the supply chains.”
One of the ways that this could happen is through sustainability ratings, so consumers would be informed about the quantity of raw materials involved in bringing their food to the checkout desk.
The issue of feeding the planet in a sustainable fashion clearly involves protein and this in turn involves Volac.
The other big issue facing the sector is Brexit, of which Andy says: “It’s clearly a challenge for the majority of businesses in the UK, and of course any change presents an opportunity, but right now it’s hard to find the opportunity.”
Clearly the industry is on the front line of any changes to migration and trade laws: the main redeeming factor is that as the exchange rate falls our exports become more competitive. “If the exchange rate stays OK,” says Andy, “we’ve got to focus on innovation.”
Innovation, of course, isn’t a problem for Volac. It’s constantly on the lookout for opportunity and invests to ensure it achieves maximum benefits. Forming strategic alliances where appropriate is part of the mix.
“We have joint ventures with MilkLink in the Taw Valley in Devon, in Hoogeveen in the Netherlands, we’ve got a partnership with Wilmar International in Singapore for sustainable oils for the animal feed market, so we’ve got manufacturing rights out there.”
As consumers become more aware of the price and nutritional value of food, companies which operate to high standards and have considerable experience, like Volac, are seeing their stock rise. And that’s just how it should be.
• Interview in association with Grant Thornton’s Vibrant Economy initiative