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.)

Crosse & Blackwell grew to become one of the largest food manufacturers in the world. It remains best known for tinned soup in Britain, English-style condiments in America and mayonnaise in South Africa.

Crosse & Blackwell continues to expand
Increasing sales as well as rising import tariffs in North America saw Crosse & Blackwell 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, low wages and competitive taxes. Its principal lines were jam, marmalade, pickles, soup, mayonnaise and canned meats.

Sarsons and Champion & Slee were acquired by Crosse & Blackwell in 1928. The acquisition combined the three largest vinegar producers in the South of England. Vinegar production was consolidated at the Champion & Slee site.

Williams & Woods, the largest jam manufacturer in Ireland, was acquired in 1928.

The Lazenby’s Chef line of moderately-priced condiments and tinned goods was introduced from 1928.

Crosse & Blackwell was the largest food manufacturer in the world by 1928, with over 40 factories across the world. Company assets were valued at over £6 million in 1930.

Plaistowe, a Bermondsey jam manufacturer, was acquired in 1930.

The Great Depression and a transition from condiments to foodstuffs
The onset of the Great Depression took its toll on Crosse & Blackwell, as much of its trade was to hard-hit overseas markets. Exports declined by 50 percent, and Crosse & Blackwell lowered home market prices in order to increase sales. The Great Depression was the catalyst that saw Crosse & Blackwell transition from a condiment manufacturer to a mass producer of foodstuffs.

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

The Canadian business became loss-making, and control was sold to local investors for CA$800,000 in 1932. The factory had been poorly located, as its rivals had their sites in smaller towns where taxes and minimum wages were lower, resulting in estimated annual additional costs of CA$75,000. The National Post commented, “given good management, the company would have made money, instead of losing it”. Competition was also intense from Heinz, Canadian Canners and Campbell’s Soup.

The Plaistowe factory was closed in 1935.

Crosse & Blackwell manufactured 50 million cans of food in 1936. The canning factory in Peterhead employed over 300 people.

The Silvertown factory was destroyed by German bombing during the Blitz of 1940, and was subsequently rebuilt.

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

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.

Jam decreased in importance to the company, and production 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.

Branston Pickle was the highest selling pickle in the world by the mid-1950s.

United States sales amounted to $14 million in 1958, with 150 Crosse & Blackwell products, and 35 Keiller lines. Crosse & Blackwell was one of the four largest producers of tinned soup in the United States, and concentrated on the premium market.

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 had six factories in Britain and five overseas including the United States, Australia and South Africa. It was the largest fish canner in Britain and held one third of the pickle market, 30 percent of the tinned soup market and a ten percent share in baked beans.

Crosse & Blackwell is acquired by Nestle
Nestle of Switzerland, the largest food company in Europe, acquired Crosse & Blackwell for £11.3 million in 1960. Nestle was motivated by a desire to increase its presence in the British tinned soup and vegetables market and the tinned fruit juice market in the United States. The two companies’ portfolios were largely complementary, with Nestle strong in milk products, instant coffee and confectionery, although it did have a presence in dried soups through the Maggi brand.

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

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

Crosse & Blackwell had fallen to a distant third in the British soup market, with a 14 percent share, by 1968.

Nestle closed the Bermondsey factory with the loss of 1,300 jobs in 1969. Production was transferred to Silvertown and Peterhead.

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

The nine-acre Baltimore plant had become outdated and unprofitable, and it was closed by Nestle with the loss of around 350 jobs in 1972. Certain product lines were discontinued and others were transferred to other Nestle factories.

Crosse & Blackwell loses market share to supermarket own-label products
Nestle had built Crosse & Blackwell’s share of 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. Crosse & Blackwell accounted for less than ten percent of soup sales by 1985, and had been delisted by some supermarket chains.

Nestle was identified as a company with well-regarded management, but its acquisition of Crosse & Blackwell was identified as a singular misstep.

The Keiller preserve and confectionery works in Dundee became loss-making, and were sold to a local company in 1981.

The factory at Silvertown, London, also became loss-making, and was closed with the loss of 500 jobs in 1985. Production of Branston pickle and other condiment lines were transferred to Peterhead.

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

Unable to compete with Heinz, and 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. The tomato ketchup and standard salad cream lines were withdrawn.

The CEO of Nestle conceded defeat to Heinz in the British soup market in 1996. An analyst commented, “why pay more for a product which isn’t the brand leader and is of no better quality than the own-label [products]?”

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

Nestle divests its Crosse & Blackwell businesses
Nestle sold the remaining British business (principally Branston Pickle and Sarson’s vinegar) to Premier Foods in 2002. The American subsidiary was 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 separately 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.

Nestle sold Crosse & Blackwell of South Africa to Tiger Brands in 2012.

Nestle continues to own the Crosse & Blackwell brand in Mexico, where it markets a popular brand of Worcestershire sauce.

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