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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).

During the First World War, W G Weston joined the Canadian Army 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 assessed that production methods were inefficient.

After the war, W G Weston persuaded his father to import machinery to manufacture English-style biscuits. Following this $1 million investment, the business began to flourish. W G Weston assumed full control in 1924, following the death of his father.

Weston commissioned a report on the British biscuit industry in 1929, with an eye to making his first acquisition overseas. The report determined that, with 120 manufacturers, the British market was saturated, and ought to be avoided. Weston disagreed, and saw an industry that was ripe for consolidation.

With the financial backing of a Wall Street trader, Weston acquired Mitchell & Muil, a small Aberdeen biscuit manufacturer, in 1929. He immediately closed the loss-making company’s antiquated factory, and relocated production to a new site at Edinburgh. Weston then utilised fully-automated production to reduce costs, and Canadian sales techniques to undercut his competitors.

Weston soon acquired other loss-making British biscuit manufacturers.

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.

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 in 1943.

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

In 1948 the company gained control of Burton’s Gold Medal Biscuits, and in 1953 of the Caledonian Oat Cake Baking Company.

In 1954 the company acquired all of the public shares of Meredith & Drew, although the founding families retained overall control.

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

Garry Weston assumed control of the business in 1967.

Weston Biscuits had assumed the name of Burton’s Biscuits by 1981. It was the third largest biscuit manufacturer in Britain with a 12 percent market share. Burton’s had a workforce of 3,530 by 1982.

The Slough factory was closed in 1982 with the loss of 440 jobs. It was too small to be suitable for modernisation.

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

Associated British Foods (controlled by the Weston family) sold their British biscuit operations (now called Burton’s Foods) to Hicks Muse Tate & Furst in 2000 for £130 million. 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.

In 2003 the Burton’s Foods board of directors was ousted by its new owners.

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

Burton’s Biscuits sold the rights to Cadbury biscuits to Mondelez for nearly £200 million in 2016.