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

This is Part III of my history of Crosse & Blackwell. (Links to Part I  and Part II.

The Crosse & Blackwell brand rights are owned by various companies across the world. The brand is most closely associated with tinned soup in Britain. In America it is a specialist purveyor of English style sauces, pickles and chutneys. In South Africa it is the highest-selling brand of mayonnaise.

Exports to North America were sufficient for Crosse & Blackwell to establish factories in Toronto, Canada and Baltimore, United States, in 1927.

The Toronto factory cost £200,000 and employed 1,500 people.

The Baltimore plant cost US$1.5 million, covered five acres, and also employed around 1,500 people. Baltimore was chosen for its strong transport links.

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.

Crosse & Blackwell operated factories in Baltimore, Brussels, Buenos Aires, Toronto, Paris and Hamburg. Company assets were valued at over £6 million in 1930.

The onset of the Great Depression took its toll on Crosse & Blackwell, as so much of its trade was to hard-hit overseas markets. Export sales consequently 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. However Crosse & Blackwell redirected its focus from condiments to foodstuffs in the 1930s. The company manufactured 50 million cans of food a year by 1936.

With sites at Peterhead, Dundee and Paisley, Crosse & Blackwell employed 3,000 people in Scotland by 1949.

A factory was established in South Africa in 1951.

Crosse & Blackwell introduced the “10 o’clock tested” slogan in the 1950s. 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.

A vinegar brewery in Stourport was acquired from Holbrooks of Birmingham for £100,000 in 1954.

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 the company had been decisively defeated by its American rival Heinz on its home turf by 1959. Heinz held 60 percent of the British soup market, double the share of Crosse & Blackwell.

Only one Blackwell remained on the board of directors by 1959, and a Crosse was among the company executives.

Crosse & Blackwell employed 450 people in America in 1960.

By 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.

Nestle of Switzerland acquired Crosse & Blackwell for £11.3 million (£227 million in 2013) in 1960. Nestle was the largest food company in Europe.

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 Crosse & Blackwell had fallen to a distant third in the British soup market, with a 14 percent share.

Nestle invested in the Peterhead plant to make it the largest Crosse & Blackwell canning factory by 1969. The site covered nearly ten acres and employed a staff of around 1,000.

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.

The Baltimore plant became outdated and unprofitable, and it was closed by Nestle in 1972. About 350 jobs were lost.

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 introduce own-label offerings. Crosse & Blackwell’s share of the soup market fell by almost two thirds between 1979 and 1986. A company-wide meeting was called to discuss the alarming fall in sales in 1982. Crosse & Blackwell accounted for less than ten percent of soup sales by 1985, and had been de-listed by some supermarket chains.

The acquisition of Crosse & Blackwell was identified as a singular misstep for Nestle, a company that had 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, an admission that the brand could no longer command a premium price among consumers.

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 with the loss of 500 jobs in 1985. 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 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.

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

Crosse & Blackwell, along with Fray Bentos, was sold to Princes Foods of Liverpool in 2011 for £182 million.

The Branston Pickle and Sarsons vinegar operations were sold seperately to Mizkan Foods of Japan in 2012. Branston Pickle and its factory in Bury St Edmunds were valued at £92.5 million, and Sarsons was valued at £41 million. Due to the change in ownership, Branston Pickle no longer carries the Crosse & Blackwell name.

Tiger Brands acquired the South African operations of Crosse & Blackwell from Nestle in 2012.

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