Mackie’s of Scotland’s MD Stuart Common has been busy in his first year – slashing carbon use, building exports and raising awareness south of the border
Mackie’s of Scotland boss Stuart Common is talking over the noise at its Aberdeenshire HQ. And there is plenty of noise. The roof is undergoing repairs, guttering is being installed and an office wall is being demolished. It all adds to the cacophony of the 300-plus mooing cows at the Mackie family dairy farm, which sits alongside the office.
“This is a comedy situation,” laughs Common. But the unusual disruption has a positive side. This is a sign of a business that is going places.
Last year, it was one of only two top ice cream tub brands – the other being Unilever’s Swedish Glace – to grow volume sales. It shot up 10.5%, fuelling a 15.3% rise in value to £19.4m [NIQ 52 w/e 10 September 2023].
That growth has required some tough decisions from Common, who was promoted to managing director 12 months ago. Not only was he the first boss outside the Mackie family – his predecessor Maitland ‘Mac’ Mackie was the great-grandson of the original Maitland Mackie, who began work on the Westertown farm in 1912 – but he also took the helm in the midst of a cost of living crisis.
“Traditionally, Mackie’s made great products, but we probably didn’t shout about them enough”
In dairy, in particular, that has fuelled a sharp rise in input costs. Common made the call to absorb as much of those extra costs possible. “Because we’re a private company, we’ve tightened our belt, and we’re making less profit ourselves to protect the consumer,” he says.
Indeed, the average price per litre of Mackie’s is £2.72 – 57.2% cheaper than the average for brands, according to NIQ data for The Grocer’s Top Products Survey 2023.
That has helped grow volumes but, as Common admits, it’s come at the detriment of profitability. Pre-tax profits tumbled 20% to £1.3m in the 12 months ending 31 May 2023. Still, Common defends the decision.
“Shoppers of Ben & Jerry’s, Carte D’Or and Kelly’s have been switching from some of these bigger brands to Mackie’s – they’ve seen their penetration decline.”
Plus, he points out Mackie’s is in a better position than many rivals to cope with rising costs. “Mackie’s is an unusually vertically integrated business, not only in producing the ice cream from the cows on site, but also producing our tubs in a production facility on the farm,” Common explains.
The facility is home to four injection moulding machines, which can produce up to 30 million ice cream tubs a year. Even the extras – such as fruit sauces and honeycomb – are made on site.
Name: Stuart Common
Born: Ratho, Edinburgh
Family: Married, with a six-month-old daughter
Potted CV: My career at Mackie’s started as a work experience placement when I was a university student. I was appointed supply chain co-ordinator in 2006 and worked my way up the ranks, becoming sales director in 2019
Career highlight: Securing my first UK national listing
Best business advice received: Never leave until tomorrow what you can do today
Hobbies: Family, food, football, fitness
Favourite book: Shoe Dog by Phil Knight
Favourite film: Home Alone
Favourite ice cream flavour: Mackie’s Indulgent White Chocolate & Raspberry
The business has also been protected from soaring energy costs, due to its long-standing focus on sustainability. This focus was ramped up under the leadership of Mac, who stepped back into the role of executive chairman last year.
Under his leadership, four wind turbines were installed – as well as a 10-acre solar farm, which, according to Common, was “the largest solar farm in Scotland” when it was built in 2015.
The business is now able to generate “more than twice as much energy as we use”, Common points out, and sells the excess back to the National Grid.
Mac also installed a low-carbon refrigeration system in 2021, as part of a £4.5m investment in partnership with the Scottish government’s Low Carbon Infrastructure Transition Programme. The move has got Mackie’s “closer to our goal of being as near to renewably self-sufficient as possible”, says Common, reducing its refrigeration-related energy consumption by over 70%.
Common is keen to continue this sustainability drive, which he sees as crucial to the ethos of Mackie’s. It’s an ethos he is well placed to understand, having started his career at the business two decades ago as a work experience student. He went on to secure a permanent contract as supply chain co-ordinator in 2006 and worked his way up to become sales director in 2019.
He’s so much part of the furniture that, at the time of his appointment as MD, Mac described Common as someone who “embodies the culture that underpins everything we do”.
Not that Common is averse to shaking things up. Together with Angus Hayhow – Mac’s nephew and part of what he dubs the “new generation now looking after the company” – Common has been working hard on a new marketing strategy. The aim is to boost brand awareness in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
“Traditionally, Mackie’s made great products, but we didn’t probably shout about them enough,” Common admits. “We’re Scotland’s favourite and we have been for a while, but the recent goal has been to grow sales south of the border.”
To that end, Mackie’s launched its first nationwide TV campaign for a decade in July. The ad, which hammered home its family farm credentials on ITV and ITVX, aimed to get shoppers unfamiliar with Mackie’s to “recognise the tub, know its quality and to think they can use it for all sorts of occasions”.
It’s part of a strategy to build trust among target consumers rather than making attention-grabbing moves. As Common puts it, Mackie’s is happy to leave standout formats and flavours to the likes of Little Moons and Ben & Jerry’s.
“Our focus consumer is an ABC1 female, who tends to be shopping for a family,” explains Common. “Twenty-five-year-olds sitting with a tub in front of Netflix are not our consumer… Over 45-year-old ladies in particular buy a lot of our ice cream. We used to think ‘oh, that’s not very trendy’, but actually, now we know who we’re going after.”
That demographic is also likely to have been receptive to Mackie’s national TV appearance in February 2023. Its farm featured on an episode of BBC Two’s Inside the Factory, starring Gregg Wallace.
A month later, Mackie’s revealed its Honeycomb and Strawberry Swirl tubs had been listed in 500 Sainsbury’s stores across England and Wales.
From Taiwan to Japan
Not that Common’s ambitions are confined to the UK. He is keen to grow the Mackie’s export business, which currently accounts for 10% of sales.
While shipping has admittedly “become a lot more complex” in recent years – the pandemic and Brexit have triggered a series of delays – Common stresses exports are a key part of the brand’s success.
Mackie’s started sending its ice cream to South Korea more than 20 years ago, ahead of the 2002 FIFA World Cup. Other markets have opened up since. “Taiwan’s now our biggest market and we’re working in the likes of China and Japan,” he says.
As he puts it: “We don’t want to be viewed as this little quaint company from Scotland.”
So it may not be long before this Aberdeenshire ice cream business is making noise that goes well beyond its HQ – to be heard on the global stage.