BELLS of Lazonby employs 240 staff and supplies some of Britain’s best-known retailers, including Costa and Sainsbury’s. All from a remote village in the Eden Valley.
“Really we shouldn’t be in Lazonby,” says managing director Michael Bell. “The fact we are is testament to our ability to change.
“You have to think about how you can be competitive on the national stage. We work hard. We innovate – we spend a huge amount for a business of our size on innovation. We’re constantly working on new concepts.”
Bells was born this way. The bakery business was founded in 1946 by John Bell – Michael’s father.
“He began with a fleet of mobile shops, 60 years before Tesco started going around the countryside,” says Michael. “He thought about different ways of doing things.”
A more recent innovation was the company’s decision to create the country’s first purpose-built gluten-, wheat- and dairy-free bakery.
Some of these products are sold in Sainsbury’s Freefrom range.
In 2006 Bells won the Queen’s Award for Enterprise for its allergy-friendly products, which now account for half of the company’s turnover.
Another major client is Costa. Bells makes many of the coffee chain’s cakes.
Bells currently has more than 80 products in development. Members of staff have their palates tested to see if they’re suitable to take part in taste tests.
“Unfortunately my palate wasn’t sophisticated enough!” laughs Michael. The company has also used a panel of 50 regular Costa customers to test potential Costa products.
Michael says such attention to detail is one way of competing with bigger rivals.
“Competition should never frighten anyone in business. It helps you understand what you can do well or better than anywhere else.
“Greggs has done a fantastic job. If you want three sausage rolls for a pound, you wouldn’t dream of going anywhere other than Greggs. But they make it easy for other businesses to differentiate.
“The harder something is to do, the more reason for doing it. We make hand-finished cakes for the coffee market. That’s what sets us apart. We do it because it’s difficult, which restricts other people doing it.”
As well as its base at Lazonby Station, Bells has shops in Carlisle, Penrith, Wigton and Workington, and also owns The Village Bakery at Melmerby.
John Bell is now 90 and still comes into the business he created. “We’ve got three generations of some families working here,” says Michael. “We are a local business in the true sense.”
In 2004 the company sold a plot of land below market value to Eden Housing Association to build five affordable homes for local people.
“Being where we are has defined who we are,” says Michael. “We don’t employ any agency staff. If I can’t make a commitment to a member of staff, how can a member of staff make a commitment to Bells of Lazonby?”
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