On the eve of his retirement, Samworth Brothers CEO Brian Stein reflects on breaking into Tesco, the Sudan 1 crisis, pink pork pies, and the search for a magic new product to rival Ginsters

When Brian Stein left Northern Foods for Samworth Brothers in 1995, his then boss told him he was making a big mistake. “We are going to swat Samworth like a fly,” he promised Stein.

Those stinging words motivated Stein to beat Northern at its own game, despite the odds. Before Stein arrived, family-run Samworth had sales of £90m whereas industry powerhouse Northern boasted sales of £2bn. Last year, just before rival 2 Sisters gobbled it up, Northern’s sales had fallen to £977m and Samworth’s sales had ballooned to £850m. “One more year and we would have caught them,” laughs Stein on the eve of his retirement at the end of this month.

Stein admits that making the decision to leave to join Samworth was an easy one as he wanted to join a business with ambition that was “up for it”, not one primarily interested in consolidation. Samworth was almost a perfect fit, but it needed more talents. So Stein poached “a few core people” from Northern. “I knew their best people,” says Stein. “I had a few conversations and persuaded some excellent people to join us.” With his new team, Stein looked to grow the business organically, rather than by acquisition. Gradually he built a reputation for quality and service. And then Tesco came knocking.

“When I started, the people running chilled food at Tesco were Terry Leahy, Richard Brasher, Tim Mason and Philip Clarke,” says Stein. “They were brilliant operators. We just latched on to them. Then Leahy took control. He was looking for partnerships, I was looking to develop our relationship with Tesco. It was a perfect synergy.” Tesco soon accounted for 60% of Samworth’s business and it wasn’t long before other supermarkets came knocking. Waitrose, M&S and most recently Morrisons have called on Samworth to supply own label.

“We’ve seen our M&S business grow by 50% and Morrisons grow by 100% per annum,” says Stein. “We will probably double it again next year at Morrisons.” Sounds impressive, but Stein is keen to exert an air of caution around such eye-catching figures. The last time business growth was this rampant was in 2005. Then Sudan 1 hit and hysteria mounted over the cancer-causing food dye. Ready meals bore the brunt.

“It was a disaster,” says Stein. “Everyone was building factories, then Sudan came along and growth stopped. Sudan 1 was a problem in a range of product sectors, but the press called ready meals ‘evil’.”

With Sudan 1 a distant memory, Stein is predicting “high single-digit or low double-digit growth” for the business every year, particularly from its brands. Ginsters is the biggest earner in the Samworth stable, with sales of £120m, and it has already moved into supermarkets, a strategic decision vindicated by a slump in forecourt food sales as motorists have lost their appetite as the cost of filling up mounts. Stein says Samworth’s eyes are always open for a new “magic product” to extend the chilled brand. “We continue to debate frozen Ginsters,” he explains. “You might see something happen in the next 12 months.”

After the Ginsters brand, pork pies are the company’s next biggest earner, but these are no ordinary pork pies. These are Melton Mowbray pork pies. And Stein accepts no substitute. Traditional Melton pork pies are made with natural pork, so the meat is grey, says Stein. But to make the colour more aesthetically pleasing, manufacturers add nitrite to turn the pork pink - anathema to traditionalist Stein. So when one large retailer requested Stein turn his pork pies pink, Stein “nearly had a heart attack”. The argument went back and forth, before the retailer laid down the law.

“The head of buying said ‘Look. If we f**king say you change it, then you change it!’ So we changed it. We made them pink. We had no choice.” Stein was so appalled he started a 10-year mission to make sure it couldn’t happen again, eventually winning Protected Geographical Indication status for the Melton pie. “If some 24-year-old sprog buyer decides to change something he can, and over time we will lose our food heritage,” bristles Stein. “That’s not right. We stopped the denigration of the pie. People can play with others but they can’t touch the Melton Mowbray pork pie anymore. And we make the best.”

Stein is confident Samworths will grow by staying true to its principles under his “smart cookie” successor Lindsay Pownall. “We will emerge stronger with many of our competitors gone,” he says. Pownall, who got the job following a three-year battle between internal candidates, will have to be “cuter” in terms of seeking new areas for growth in trying economic times, but Stein tips her to be a “huge success”.

And what of Stein’s future? Ten years ago, in an interview with The Grocer to mark his appointment as CEO, Stein said it was his ambition to retire gracefully. Has he managed it? Stein insists he has, but the Samworth family has asked him to remain on call as a consultant. “I am not going to be going in and getting in the bloody way,” he says. “It will be up to them to call me.”

So Stein won’t be making the first move. But will the king of chilled chill out? He plans to do up a house he’s bought in Devon. But he’s talking to headhunters about his options, and has just completed a law degree. We surely haven’t heard the last of Brian Stein.