How the cookie crumbles: United Biscuits (Part II)

Part I of this history of United Biscuits.

United Biscuits produces McVitie’s Digestives, Jaffa Cakes, Jacob’s cream crackers and Carr’s water biscuits.

United Biscuits is formed and becomes the largest biscuit manufacturer in Britain
Two Scottish biscuit manufacturers, McVitie & Price and Macfarlane Lang merged in 1948 to form United Biscuits, with a capital of £3.5 million. The businesses continued to trade under their respective names.

The Harlesden, North London, facility became the first fully-automated biscuit factory in the world in 1948, increasing output by 1000 percent.

United Biscuits produced 384 biscuit varieties in 1955. In order to cut costs, this had been streamlined to around 30 high-selling product lines by 1965.

United Biscuits held nearly 70 percent of the digestive biscuit market by 1959. It was also a leader in the sale of Rich Tea biscuits.

United Biscuits was the largest biscuit manufacturer in Britain by 1962.

William Crawford & Sons, the largest privately-owned biscuit manufacturer in the United Kingdom, was acquired in 1962 in a mostly share-based transaction which valued the company at £5.9 million.

United Biscuits increased its capital from £9 million to £13 million in 1963.

Hector Laing drives growth at United Biscuits
Hector Laing (1923 -2010) became managing director of United Biscuits from 1964. He would oversee a period of continued growth at the company.

United Biscuits entered the packaged cake market in 1964. The company had taken a 14 percent share of the market by 1968, winning market share from J Lyons.

United Biscuits held around 30 percent of the British biscuit market by 1965. The Harlesden site was probably the largest and best-equipped biscuit and cake factory in Europe by the mid-1960s.

William Macdonald & Sons of Glasgow was subject to a friendly takeover for £2.8 million in cash and shares in 1965. The firm had introduced the Penguin chocolate-coated biscuit in 1932. It was experiencing strong growth, and held almost 20 percent of British chocolate biscuit exports.

The United Biscuits subsidiaries were absorbed into a single operating company in 1965. This lowered costs, and increased competitivity.

The company announced plans to close four of its nine factories, and to greatly increase production at Glasgow and Liverpool in 1966.

The McVitie & Price factory in Edinburgh was closed in 1967 with the loss of 541 jobs. The Macdonald factory at North Cardonald, Glasgow was closed with the loss of 497 jobs. The Crawford factory in Leith was closed in 1970 with the loss of 703 jobs, and the Macdonald factory at Hillington, Glasgow was closed with the loss of 497 jobs. The factories that were closed had no room for expansion, and it made economic sense to rationalise production at a smaller number of larger sites.

The Macfarlane Lang factory at Tollcross, Glasgow was doubled in size at a cost of £2.3 million in 1969. The labour force was increased from 250 to 1,350. The factory would supply the Scotland, Northern Ireland and North of England markets.

The Crawford factory at Liverpool increased capacity by 50 percent following a £2 million investment in the 1970.

Sales of the McVitie’s brand doubled between 1962 and 1967. The McVitie’s Chocolate Homewheat (a chocolate digestive) was the highest-selling biscuit in Britain.

Meredith & Drew was acquired in 1967. Following the acquisition, United Biscuits produced over one third of all biscuits consumed in Britain.

Kenyon, Son & Craven, with the KP salted peanuts brand, was acquired in 1968 in a share exchange which valued the private company at £3.5 million.

United Biscuits was the largest biscuit manufacturing company in Europe by 1969.

Hector Laing was appointed company chairman from 1972. That year, United Biscuits took over the biscuit interests of Cavenham, which included Carr’s of Carlisle and Wright’s of South Shields, for £4 million in cash.

The South Shields factory was closed with the loss of 823 jobs in 1973.

A total of four factories and four offices were closed in the early 1970s in a spate of rationalisation. The McVitie, Crawford and Macfarlane sales teams were merged in the early 1970s.

United Biscuits acquired Keebler, the second largest biscuit manufacturer in the United States, for £23 million ($55 million) in 1974.

United Biscuits employed 36,000 people in 1976. Its products were sold in 92 countries. The company controlled 41.6 percent of the British biscuit market, and boasted eight out of the ten highest selling products.

Not every venture was a success however, and United Biscuits was prepared to admit defeat when appropriate; the company withdrew from the packaged cakes market in 1977.

United Biscuits sold 75 million biscuits every day by 1978.

The former Macfarlane Lang factory at Osterley, West London, was closed with the loss of 2,000 jobs in 1980.

The Hobnob biscuit was introduced from 1985.

Hector Laing retired as company chairman in 1990.

Recent history
After initial success, United Biscuits began to struggle in the United States, amidst strong competition from larger rivals Nabisco, as well as lower-cost supermarket own-label products. Keebler was sold to Flowers Industries, a breadmaker, for $500 million in 1995.

United Biscuits employed 22,500 people in 22 countries in 1999.

Jacob’s, a Liverpool biscuit manufacturer, was acquired from Danone of France for £200 million in 2004.

United Biscuits was acquired by private equity firms Blackstone and PAI Partners for £1.6 billion in 2006.

The snacks division of United Biscuits, including Hula Hoops crisps and KP nuts, was sold to Intersnack of Germany, manufacturer of Pom-Bear crisps and Penn State pretzels, for £504 million in 2012.

United Biscuits was sold to Yildiz Holding of Istanbul for over £2 billion to create the third largest biscuit manufacturer in the world, behind Mondelez and Kellogg, in 2013.

United Biscuits rebranded all of its sweet biscuits under the McVitie’s name, and all of its savoury biscuits under the Jacob’s name from 2014. McVitie’s gained the Club, Fig Rolls, BN and Iced Gems products from Jacob’s, whilst Jacob’s gained the Cheddars snacks products. The Crawford’s name was repositioned as a value brand, and products such as Family Circle were rebranded as McVitie’s.

The Harlesden site remains the largest biscuit factory in Europe as of 2017. The facility employs 580 workers. 22 different lines are produced, including Digestives, Hob Nobs and Mini Cheddars.

The Macfarlane Lang factory in Glasgow is set to close in 2022 with the loss of 472 jobs.

5 thoughts on “How the cookie crumbles: United Biscuits (Part II)”

  1. Used to work in Edinburgh office of McViti e & Price for 8 years till 1960. All my training done there. Left to go to Canada for a few years! Shame British companies like that no longer around. We give away out future prosperity to other countries. But hey, someone makes money!!

  2. Hello, Im interested in knowing more about James Lang’s history.
    I have a James Lang in my Ancestry born around 10/04/1757
    His son and Grandson and GG Grandson were all bakers in and Lanarkshire, some of the family were also fish buyers and fish mongers around 1880s.
    My Grandfather was Robert Lang and also a baker, he worked at his uncle and aunts Bakery as a young man and served his time in the bake house. He moved and worked in a Bakery in Perth, then onto Inverness and lastly moved to the Highlands and owned his own bakery and shop around 1940 to 1967
    Could you give me any information about James Lang, DOB, marriage, kids, siblings or death Cert.
    Kindest regards

  3. My Auntie Priscilla Middleton Docking was a Supervisor at
    Crawford’s Elbe Street ! My Mum , Mary MacDonald Walker Wood worked on the production lines ,there!
    I remember Chocolate Viennas being a favourite ! When they
    we’re on I remember my Mum coming home ,with a rubber hot
    water bottle full of Whisky from the Bond (9 maybe)!Our dog
    used to lie about after teatime ,but you could just about set
    your watch by him going up on a chair to see her and run down
    the stairs to greet her at 1, West Pilton Road !

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