Golden Wonder’s chief executive Ed Jackson says taking Walkers head-on is not an option. But he relishes the challenge of finding a way back to the big time. Simon Mowbray reports.

It’s now 18 months since former Unilever and United Biscuits man Ed Jackson took over at the helm of sleeping snack giant Golden Wonder. Despite a set of sales figures still heading south, he is in remarkably good humour. “We had an away day with the board last week and one of the things I asked them was why they came here,” he says. “I asked them to write down their answers and the same words were used by everyone, and one in particular: ‘challenge’.”
Jackson is relishing the challenge, which tempted him out of self-imposed exile from big company business when a headhunter first came knocking two years ago.
Following his departure in 2000 from United Biscuits, where he had been MD of development operations for McVitie’s, a six-month walking holiday in South America and time as a management consultant made him realise he no longer wanted to return to a multinational like Unilever, which he joined as a graduate trainee in 1978.
“I’ve always had most fun doing the jobs no-one else wanted,” says Jackson a thinly veiled reference to his current role, widely viewed as one of fmcg’s most poisoned of chalices. “I liked the idea of taking a business like Golden Wonder and making it better.”
It is no small challenge. Golden Wonder’s trials and tribulations are well documented.
The comeback trail has been long and hard. And despite the best efforts of business big hitters like Jackson’s predecessor, former chief executive Paul Monk, the company can still only look on in awe at what its arch rival, Walkers, has achieved in the interim.
But there has been progress, insists Jackson. New brands such as premium range Golden Skins have been added to the line-up and established a presence on shelf between Walkers’ Sensations and KP’s Real McCoy’s. And a high profile PR campaign reaped impressive rewards after a Lancashire postman campaigned to bring back former favourite Ringos.
The key Golden Wonder range has been revamped and the company is beginning to re-establish a presence for it south of the border, beyond the brand’s Scottish heartland. The recent advertising and sampling campaign in London for the Golden Wonder standard range has exceeded expectations in terms of generating sales through wholesalers and independents, says Jackson. And the company has even started making inroads into the multiples in England. Sainsbury has started stocking two multi-bag offerings, while Asda is offering the brand in its stores in the north-west. “If that works well, we could go into the north east,” he says. “That would then pick up half of Asda’s estate.”
However, Jackson is the first to admit that progress has been slow, despite a £25m injection from the company’s owner, Longulf.
Losing a brand like Wotsits to Walkers, which bought it from Golden Wonder in 2002, hasn’t helped, although Jackson is quick to assert that he doesn’t blame any of his predecessors for the sale. “If I think about it now, of course it would be great to have a brand like Wotsits, but that’s life,” he says.
There have also been annoying hiccups. Ofcom’s decision to effectively place a children’s TV ban on teenage favourite Nik Naks’ first TV activity for five years (the ad provoked complaints for its graphic ‘Alien’-style ‘Eat the Freak’ commercial, which showed a giant Nik Nak bursting out of a man’s stomach) still rankles. “I find it incredible the TV authorities decided it was too frightening to screen before 7.30pm, particularly when we had gone through the usual procedure of consulting their advisory committee. But we live in a very politically correct world.”
Then there are the figures. According to ACNielsen data, sales still appear to be heading in the wrong direction across most of its portfolio with the company’s standard crisps range even dropping out of the Top 20 bestselling brands. Jackson insists he is not worried, however. “We realised that 90% of Golden Wonder products were being sold on deal, compared with an average of 50% for the category as a whole. That meant the consumer and retailer were benefiting but we were not making any money.
“What we’re trying to do is get the price up, which means volumes have declined but sales are heading in the right direction.”
Part of the new game plan is to listen more closely to consumers. Golden Wonder has even commissioned research into the “perfect nobbliness” of Nik Naks. “It may sound like a gimmick,” admits Jackson, “but 15-year-old kids do have a view about that sort of thing. OK, it’s not life-shattering, but it’s important and gives us a chance to differentiate our products.”
Innovation is also key and Jackson points to newcomers like Golden Skins. “If you come up with something different then you’re making it easier for a retailer to say ‘yes’, whereas it is harder to get standard Golden Wonder back into the multiples. We have to recognise where we can play a role that is in everyone’s interest. What’s important is that we have stopped sitting on our backsides worrying about our business and started taking some initiative, going back to our retail partners and admitting we have been on the back foot for far too long and assuring them it is changing.”
This is a message Jackson is particularly keen to convey. It was only last year that one multiple buyer was seeking assurances the company would still be in business within 12 months. He also pledges to come up with new products the likes of Walkers would never dare to copy. “We cannot take Walkers head-on because they have deeper pockets and more muscle. We need to be faster and smarter and we must always be looking for products and positionings that are different to Walkers’ offerings and more difficult for them to follow.”
A clear example of this, he claims, is Golden Skins and he claims to have it on good authority that Walkers’ plans to launch a range called Skinfulls will turn out to be a rival to P& G’s Pringles Dippers.
“It may seem like it, but Walkers doesn’t always get everything its own way,” says Jackson. “Take something like Cheetos, for example. Walkers relaunched that three or four times but Wotsits never suffered. Walkers Max also failed because The Real McCoy’s was already there. Why has a Hula Hoop or a Wheat Crunchie never been copied? Because they’re original.”
This, he is adamant, gives it the chance to exploit a chink in Walkers’ armour. “As long as we were satisfying consumer demand, there is absolutely no reason why we couldn’t bring out a full-fat, full-flavour product and flag it up on pack. Walkers can’t do that because it is the leading player in the market. I only need to worry about responding to consumers.”
In the meantime, Jackson says he will continue his bid to persuade the market there is room for another big player. “We have warned the trade that if they continue to support Walkers in the way they have been then manufacturers like us will disappear, to the detriment of the category.”
Despite the challenges ahead, he says he is looking forward to the future. “I did not join this business to run a £110-£120m company and I will not be satisfied with just adding 20% to it. I’m already having fun but if I leave this business in 15 years having created a £1bn company, I really will have had some fun.”