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Best Weston: a history of Burton’s Biscuits

Burton’s Biscuits introduced the Wagon Wheel and Jammie Dodgers product lines and became the second-largest biscuit manufacturer in Britain.

Canadian origins
George Weston (1864 – 1924) established a bakery business in Toronto, Canada in 1882. He ensured its success by introducing mechanisation and mass production.

Weston had began to focus on biscuit manufacturing by 1911. He was latterly assisted by his son, Willard Garfield Weston (1898 – 1978). W G Weston was a man with a missionary zeal.

W G Weston (1898 – 1978)

W G Weston enlisted in the Canadian Army during the First World War, and served in France. He was fascinated by business, and during his periods of leave he toured English biscuit factories. Weston 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 in order 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. Within two years profits had quadrupled.

Weston enters the British market
Weston was keen to enter the British biscuit market, which was the largest in the world, and had a reputation for manufacturing products of the highest quality.

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 around 100 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. The seven largest biscuit manufacturers held less than 60 percent of the market. Furthermore, the Great Depression meant that solid businesses could be acquired at a discounted price. Weston determined to “make a better and cheaper biscuit”.

Weston acquired Mitchell & Muil, a loss-making but well-regarded Aberdeen biscuit manufacturer, in 1933, with financial backing from a Wall Street trader. Weston streamlined the product range of 150 biscuits to 50, and the business had re-entered into profitability within just one month.

Weston closed the antiquated Aberdeen factory in 1934 and established a new, fully-automated plant on Slateford Road, Edinburgh. This lowered his manufacturing costs. He also imported Canadian wheat to lower his production costs.

Weston established a factory in Slough, Berkshire, close to the large London market, in around 1935.

A biscuit factory was established in Belfast from 1936.

British technical expertise in biscuit-making was used to improve manufacturing methods in North America.

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

Weston saw great potential in the British market, and relocated to the country with his family on a permanent basis.

Weston also acquired bakeries. By 1937 he was the second largest purchaser of flour in Great Britain.

Weston maintained scrupulous cost control. A visitor to the Slough plant 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 employed 13,000 people by the end of 1937. His business was the third-largest biscuit manufacturer in Britain.

A factory was established at Llantarnam in Wales from 1938. It was a depressed industrial area, and the construction received financial support from the Nuffield Trust.

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

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

Weston Foods held 19 percent of the British biscuit market by volume by 1939, narrowly behind Associated Biscuit Manufacturers.

W G Weston donated £100,000 to the Royal Air Force to acquire six Hurricane and six Spitfire fighter planes in 1940.

Post war: new products and acquisitions
Garry Weston (1927 – 2002), the son of W G Weston, invented the Wagon Wheel biscuit in 1948. He placed two Marie biscuits around a marshmallow filling and covered it with chocolate.

The Llantarnam factory in Wales employed 1,000 people by 1949.

A view of the Llantarnam factory in Wales (2010)

Burtons Gold Medal Biscuits of Blackpool was acquired in 1949, followed by the Caledonian Oat Cake Baking Company in 1953.

The Belfast factory was closed down with the loss of 175 jobs in 1958.

The Jammie Dodger, a shortbread biscuit with a jam filling, had been introduced by 1966.

Garry Weston becomes chairman
Garry Weston succeeded his father as chairman of the business from 1967. He was an unassuming and down-to-earth man.

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

Viscount mint chocolate biscuits had been introduced by 1978.

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

A Jammie Dodger biscuit

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

By this time the leading lines were Wagon Wheels, Jammie Dodgers, Viscount mint biscuits and Edinburgh shortbread.

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

Garry Weston retired in 2000.

Sale to private equity
The Weston family sold their British biscuit operations to private equity firm Hicks Muse Tate & Furst for £130 million in 2000. The company had annual sales of £171 million and 2,500 employees. Hicks Muse already owned Maryland Cookies and the licence to produce Cadbury biscuits, 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 was the second largest biscuit producer in Britain by 2011.

New owners, present day
Burton’s Biscuits was sold to the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan for £350 million in 2013. There were over 2,200 employees, and manufacturing plants at Llantarnam, 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.

Burton’s Biscuits sold its chocolate plant at Moreton to Barry Callebaut in 2018.