Tradition and continuity are obsessions with the siblings who run Walkers Shortbread. Belinda Gannaway met them There are family businesses, and there are family businesses.Some 102 years under three generations of the same family undoubtedly qualifies Walkers Shortbread for that distinction. And if that wasn't enough, it boasts entire families from the neighbouring village of Aberlour-on-Spey in its employ. As a prospering firm tucked into the splendour of the Scottish Highlands, the third generation of Walkers bakers have a lot for which to thank their environs. There is a mutual dependency between the factory employing some 700 and the local village where each of the three directors James, Marjorie and Joseph grew up. Through the generations the firm has provided solid and consistent employment for the village which, in turn, has imbued the company with a committed workforce. That relationship, the Walkers believe, is the single most important factor in putting Walkers Shortbread on the map in 60 countries worldwide. "We need the village and the village needs us," joint md James says. The siblings still live in Aberlour. Before being dispatched to boarding school ­ the company made significant leaps in fortune after the war years ­ they were at school with many of their current employees, as were the nine-strong next generation. "We're more than an employer to a lot of people," James says. "We're often good friends, and have grown up with a lot of them." The Walkers built their first operation in Aberlour in 1975 and the most recent development was a factory in Elgin only 15 miles down the road. But they have no plans to build outstations elsewhere despite expanding markets ­ the company has won Food from Britain export awards on two occasions and also boasts three Queen's Awards for Export Achievement. "We're almost fanatical about tradition, continuity and consistency," says Joe, who looks after production and purchasing. "We never make changes unless absolutely necessary. The objective is to make everything in a simple, straightforward fashion." Everything from the packaging to the traditionally modelled factory machinery smacks of the firm's history. And the recipes haven't changed either. James says: "Tradition is an obsession and quality is a god. And I don't say it lightly. We can maintain that because the three directors are so close to the company and the product. The product has been run by bakers, not accountants." Administration and finance director Marjorie even retains the village bakery where it all began. Partly, she admits, for "sentimental reasons" and because it's "a part of village life". New products are still tested in the shop before reaching the factory. But after nearly 40 years in the family firm, are the ties that bind the three to the business, the village and each other never a little overwhelming? They work long hours. James puts in a 14 hour day but says he feels "incredibly lucky" and never tired at the end of it. "It's work and a hobby," he says. And Marjorie is up walking the dogs at 6am before coming into the office. The three joined the business within five years of each other at the end of the 1950s although they were involved from an early age. Marjorie says her father and uncle ­ James and Joseph ­ "had difficulty keeping us out of the bakery as children". Their father remained in the business until he died in 1987. He was, Marjorie says, "a charming man, much like James". Not so their fiercer grandfather Joseph, who founded the business. He was highly critical of his sons. "He gets the credit for founding the company which is a difficult and brave thing to do. But the biggest credit should go to our father and uncle who had to put up with him for 30 years," James says. Today, the three run a tight ship. There's never been any question of any spouses coming on board although three of Joe's four children are in the business. Marjorie's son farms Angus Aberdeen cattle while James hopes his four children may choose to come in when they have finished their education. But while the Walkers network doesn't exclude outsiders ­ as long as they've got a "hardworking culture"­ the familial ties within the business are strong. And that is a business asset in itself, the three agree. The near telepathy between them cuts out a lot of formality and bureaucracy, making decision making quicker. So what is the secret of such a happy three-cornered partnership? Contrasting personalities, they all agree. James' "outgoing and flamboyant" nature complements the more reserved Joe. And Marjorie, she says, is somewhere in the middle. As in any family, there are disagreements. But at the end of the day, "as long as you realise the business is above any personality, you make the decision that's right for the business", Marjorie says. The key, James says, is simplicity. "There's very little politics in the company because it's clean cut and straightforward and everyone knows what they're doing. "We're very lean so every day is busy, and that's good in one way, although it can create problems with communication. No one's got time to communicate as well as perhaps they should." And in true Scottish fashion, the real secret behind the partnership is straightforward hard work. "That's important for bonding a family," James says. "If you're equally bonded and committed there's more chance everything else will fall into place and you'll all get on well." The communication bottleneck ­ never a breakdown ­ is a small price to pay for quicker decision making. Acting quickly to turn around orders and answer questions about new specifications has been a key driver of the firm's export success. Overseas business has grown from zero in the early 1970s to 45% of the company's output today, the highest percentage in the UK biscuit industry. And having families working together across the rest of the plant adds an extra level of discipline to the workforce. Joe explains: "If a lad starts in the warehouse and his mum is on the product line, there's maximum pressure on him to shape up." So how do the family plan to shape the business for the next generation? Continuing to grow overseas markets is a prime driver. But while he may be the sibling responsible for sales and marketing, James is not a slick operator but puts success down to a flexible factory rather than clever sales techniques. "We don't need a clever script writer. We just tell the truth. We are 100 years old, we do operate from a little village in the Highlands, we do employ whole families, and have been making the same recipe for 100 years. "That's the way it is. It speaks volumes for the integrity of the company that we can tell the truth and write a good marketing story in the process." When the current team came in they followed a tough period during the war years focused on survival rather than growth. But the company was stronger for those hard times. "It was fairly easy for us to come in and develop it because there were good firm foundations there," James says. They will hand over the business in even better shape. The Walkers enjoy being small in a big industry ­ how many players can say that? They believe its values stand up and will carry it forward to an even grander future. James says: "The challenge will be to preserve order, continuity and tradition in a sea of change." With the remote peacefulness of the Highlands as a backdrop, those leading the company forward should at least have the same inspiration as their forefathers to guide them. {{PROFILE }}