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Crumbling empire: Weston Biscuits

Weston’s became the largest biscuit manufacturer in the British Empire and introduced the Wagon Wheel and Jammie Dodgers.

Canadian businessman George Weston (1864 – 1924) established a bakery business in Toronto in the late nineteenth century. Latterly he was assisted by his son, Willard Garfield Weston (1898 – 1978).

W G Weston enlisted in the Canadian Army during the First World War, and served in France. Fascinated by business, during his periods of leave he toured English biscuit factories. He appreciated the quality of British biscuits, but determined that production methods were inefficient.

W G Weston returned from the war in 1919, and persuaded his father to import $1 million of machinery to manufacture English-style biscuits. The business soon began to flourish. W G Weston assumed full control of the business following the death of his father in 1924.

Weston commissioned a report on the British biscuit industry in 1929, with an eye to making his first foreign acquisition. The report determined that, with 120 manufacturers, the British market was saturated, and ought to be avoided. Weston reached a different conclusion, instead identifying a fragmented industry that was ripe for consolidation. Furthermore, the Great Depression meant that solid businesses could be acquired at a discounted price.

Weston acquired the loss-making Mitchell & Muil biscuit business in Aberdeen in 1933, with financial backing from a Wall Street trader. The business was able to re-enter into profitability after just one month, after Weston streamlined the product range of 150 biscuits to just 50.

Weston closed the antiquated Aberdeen factory in 1934, and established a new, fully-automated plant on Slateford Road, Edinburgh, which reduced production costs.

Weston soon acquired other loss-making British biscuit manufacturers. British technical expertise in biscuitmaking was used to improve manufacturing in North America.

The Weston interests in the United Kingdom became independent of the North American business from 1936.

Weston maintained scrupulous cost control. A visitor to a Weston plant in Slough in 1937 noted a jet of air that was thinning the chocolate coating on the production line biscuits. The visitor commented, “that’s blowing the chocolate off”, and Weston replied, “No, it’s blowing the profit on”.

Weston Foods Ltd was formed in 1938 to acquire the four Weston biscuit companies as well as a number of bakery and confectionery firms. By this time Weston was one of the wealthiest men in the British foods industry.

Weston Foods was acquired by Allied Bakeries, also controlled by the Weston family, in 1939.

W G Weston donated £100,000 to the British government to acquire RAF aircraft during the Battle of Britain in 1940.

Weston Biscuits claimed to be the largest biscuit manufacturer in the British Empire by 1943.

Garry Weston (1927 – 2002), the son of W G Weston, invented the Wagon Wheel biscuit in 1948.

Burton’s Gold Medal Biscuits was acquired in 1948, followed by the Caledonian Oat Cake Baking Company in 1953.

The Jammie Dodger, a shortbread biscuit with a jam filling, was introduced from the 1960s.

Garry Weston succeeded his father as chairman of the business from 1967.

Weston Biscuits had assumed the name of Burton’s Biscuits by 1973.

Burton’s Biscuits was the third largest biscuit manufacturer in Britain with a twelve percent market share in 1982. A workforce of 3,530 people were employed.

The Slough factory was closed in 1982 with the loss of 440 jobs. The site lacked sufficient space to be suitable for modernisation.

By the 1980s the most popular brands produced were Wagon Wheels, Jammie Dodgers, Viscount mint biscuits and Edinburgh shortbread.

Wagon Wheels were among the most popular biscuits imported into Russia by 1994.

Associated British Foods (controlled by the Weston family) sold their British biscuit operations to Hicks Muse Tate & Furst for £130 million in 2000. The company had sales of £171 million and 2,500 employees. Hicks Muse already owned Cadbury biscuit brands and Maryland Cookies, and the merged entity controlled 20 percent of the British biscuit market.

The Burton’s Biscuits board of directors was ousted by its new owners in 2003.

Burton’s Biscuits, with over 2,200 employees, was sold to the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan for £350 million in 2013. There were manufacturing plants at Llantarnam in Wales, Edinburgh and Blackpool, and a chocolate refinery at Moreton, Merseyside.

Burton’s Biscuits sold the rights to Cadbury biscuits to Mondelez for nearly £200 million in 2016. The following year, the licence to produce Mars biscuits was acquired.