A tinned history of Crosse & Blackwell (1927 – present)

Part I and Part II of this history.

Crosse & Blackwell established factories in Toronto, Canada and Baltimore, United States, in 1927 with a view to becoming a mass producer in North America. The Toronto factory cost £200,000 and employed 1,500.

Crosse & Blackwell claimed the largest number of product lines of any food manufacturer in the world in 1928.

Sarsons and Champion & Slee were acquired by Crosse & Blackwell in 1928. The acquisition brought together the three largest vinegar producers in the South of England.

The Morrison’s Quay production site in Cork, Ireland, was divested in 1930.

In 1930 company assets were valued at over £6 million and the company had factories in Baltimore, Brussels, Buenos Aires, Toronto and Paris, as well as the original Hamburg site.

The Great Depression hit Crosse & Blackwell especially hard, as so much of its trade was to overseas markets. Export sales declined by 50 percent.

Crosse & Blackwell (Canada) was divested for $800,000 in 1932.

Branston Pickle was the highest selling pickle in the world by 1934. Despite this, the 1930s saw Crosse & Blackwell redirect its focus from condiments to foodstuffs. The company manufactured 50 million cans of food a year by 1936.

By 1949 Crosse & Blackwell employed 3,000 people across its factories in Scotland alone, with sites at Peterhead, Dundee and Paisley.

A factory was established in South Africa in 1951.

In the 1950s the company introduced the “10 o’clock tested” slogan. This referred to the time at C&B factories when products would be taste-tested for quality.

Production of Crosse & Blackwell jam had been outsourced to William Moorhouse of Leeds by the 1950s.

British Vinegars acquired the British assets of Holbrooks of Birmingham for £100,000 in 1954. This included a vinegar brewery in Stourport and a factory in Birmingham.

United States sales amounted to $14 million in 1958, with 150 Crosse & Blackwell products, and 35 Keiller lines.

Crosse & Blackwell had concentrated its focus onto soups, but by 1959 it had been decisively defeated by its American rival Heinz on its home turf. Heinz held 60 percent of the soup market, double the share of Crosse & Blackwell.

By 1959 only one Blackwell remained on the board and a Crosse was among the company executives.

Nestle of Switzerland acquired Crosse & Blackwell for £11.3 million (£227 million in 2013) in 1960. Crosse & Blackwell was the largest canner of fish in Britain, and had six factories in Britain and five overseas. The company held one third of the British pickle market, and a ten percent share in baked beans.

Crosse & Blackwell employed 450 people in America in 1960.

Nestle baulked at the luxury of the Soho Square premises, and relocated the head office to Nestle headquarters at St George’s House, Croydon in 1965.

A factory was opened at Staverton in Wiltshire to cater for the rising demand for baked beans and tinned pasta in 1967.

The condensed soup market was abandoned by 1966, and by 1968 C&B had fallen to a distant third in the British soup market, with a 14 percent share.

In 1969, the main Crosse & Blackwell products in Britain were soups, baked beans, spaghetti rings, snack meals, pickles, salad cream, tomato sauce and Keiller jams, marmalade and boiled sweets.

Nestle closed the unprofitable Baltimore plant in 1972.

Nestle had managed to build Crosse & Blackwell’s market share in the British soup market to 27 percent by 1973. This was followed by disaster, as supermarkets began to rationalise their product lines and introduced own-label offerings. Between 1979 and 1986, C&B’s share of the soup market fell by almost two thirds. In 1982 a company-wide meeting was called to discuss the alarming fall in sales. By 1985 C&B accounted for less than ten percent of soup sales, and had been de-listed by some supermarket chains.

Crosse & Blackwell was identified as a singular misstep for Nestle, a company that had a well-regarded management. A 1976 study in the Harvard Business Review commented, “[Nestle] is by no means flawless in its market moves – for instance, the company probably regrets its acquisition years ago of Crosse & Blackwell.” In the same article, the chairman of Nestle described Crosse & Blackwell soups as a commodity business.

Nestle sold the loss-making Keiller preserve and confectionery works in Dundee to a local company in 1981. The loss-making former Keiller factory at Silvertown, London, was closed in 1985 with the loss of 500 jobs. Pickle manufacture was transferred to Peterhead.

Crosse & Blackwell focused mainly on soup, Branston pickle and sauces, and Waistline salad cream by 1982.

Crosse & Blackwell found itself unable to compete with Heinz and was squeezed at the lower end of the market by supermarket own-label products. In 1994 Nestle announced that it would close two canning operations at its Peterhead and Staverton sites, while a cold sauce factory in Milnthorpe would be closed, resulting in the loss of 515 jobs. All three operations had been unprofitable for some time. Nestle cited cheap supermarket own brand products for the closures. The tomato ketchup and standard salad cream lines were withdrawn.

The CEO of Nestle admitted to a defeat by Heinz in the British soup market in 1996.

In 1998 Nestle closed the remaining operations at the Peterhead plant, with the loss of 170 jobs, and transferred operations to Hadfield in Manchester, citing lower transport costs.

In 2002 Nestle sold the remaining British operations (principally Branston Pickle and Sarsons vinegar) to Premier Foods and the American operations were sold to J M Smucker in 2004.

C&B, along with Fray Bentos, was sold to Princes Foods of Liverpool in 2011 for £182 million. In 2012, Branston Pickle and Sarsons vinegar were sold by Premier to Mizkan Foods of Japan. Branston Pickle and its factory in Bury St Edmunds were valued at £92.5 million, and Sarsons was valued at £41 million. The sale meant that Branston Pickle no longer carries the Crosse & Blackwell name.

Also in 2012, Tiger Brands acquired Crosse & Blackwell’s South Africa operations from Nestle.

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