Name: Jeremy Dee
Place of birth: Manchester
Family: Married with two children
Potted CV: Degree in chemical engineering, followed by sales management roles in European and US IT and software companies before returning to the family business in 2008
Career highlight: Establishing a clear and ambitious target for Swizzels Matlow, and mapping progress against that target
Best piece of advice: Speak plainly, and stick to the point
Business mantra: Get the basics right and the rest will follow
Business idol: Steve Jobs - look at Apple and the size and scale of the business. It’s truly shaped the world
Hobbies: Eating out in nice restaurants, travelling, tennis, and occasionally skiing
Favourite meal: Middle Eastern and Japanese cuisine
Favourite film: Carlito’s Way
Sugar is big business for Swizzels Matlow - so just mentioning its status as public health enemy number one is enough to ruffle MD Jeremy Dee’s feathers. “Is the end game to have no sweets?” says a visibly frustrated Dee. “I don’t know what the ultimate objective is around a lot of this publicity… our products are sweets. They’re not pretending to be anything else. They’re a treat that is honestly marketed as such and they’re meant to be part of a balanced diet. There’s nothing hidden about what’s in our products.”
The cloying scent of Love Hearts, which forms a haze around Swizzels Matlow’s Derbyshire HQ, means it would be a poorly kept secret anyway. For more than 80 years the family business has catered to the UK’s sweet tooth, with Drumstick lollies, Love Hearts and Parma Violets all achieving longevity. Love Hearts, for example, celebrated 60 years in 2014.
It’s a nostalgia that feeds through into Swizzels Matlow’s brands, and deliberately so, as “products are bought by mums and dads, or grandparents, buying from earlier recollection” rather than kids themselves.
However, nostalgia is not enough to fulfil Dee’s ambitions for the confectioner, founded by his grandfather with the Matlow brothers . Sales have grown 40% since his arrival as commercial director in 2008, from £45m to an expected £63m in 2014. It was, in fact, the UK’s fastest growing confectionery company in 2014, with Dee saying sales are up 21% year on year.
But Dee - promoted to MD in 2012 - wants to grow sales to £100m sales by 2020. For that to happen, NPD is crucial. And the biggest obstacle is not the Victorian factory in New Mills (Swizzels regularly modernises the factory, investing £3m last year). It’s tampering with iconic brands, he explains.
“Keeping that core essence of what people recognise is vital,” he says. “You have to tread carefully and treat these brands with respect. But consumers want to see the brands they know coming up with new and interesting things for them to try. So it’s vital we keep coming up with new products.”
Squashies is the most recent attempt to strike this balance. Gum and jelly versions of key brands - for example gummy Love Hearts - are proving really popular, with Drumstick Squashies now the bestselling product in the portfolio alongside the Sweet Shop Favourites sharing tin, an attempt to disrupt chocolate’s sharing tin monopoly over the festive season, which launched in 2012.
The Squashies concept, 12 to 18 months in development, was born from “insight-led innovation”, which will act as a blueprint for all future NPD, says Dee. It’s one of the key chan
“We needed parameters around what a new product needed to achieve,” he explains. “A new flavour or pack size can add turnover but it can also add complexity. So we needed to understand why we were launching new products, and make sure they fulfilled a need.”
That involves “buying market data and using it properly so that stuff we are doing, be it existing products or NPD, is insight-driven. We went from no real capability to actually having the resources and skills to interrogate it properly.”
It’s even paired up with baby-faced boy band One Direction, releasing branded Love Hearts emblazoned with ‘Liam rocks’ or ‘Zayn for me’. “It felt like a reasonable gamble,” says Dee of the collaboration, as both brands were looking to appeal to a young, female demographic.
He won’t be drawn on numbers, but does admit the licensing deal was “higher than we would normally pay, but affordable”. The band’s management enforce some “pretty stringent rules” on what they will and won’t do, he adds. “I did suggest that signing up was conditional upon them visiting the factory but unfortunately that never happened.”
A rebranding exercise is also under way. ‘Matlow’ has been dropped from packs and the “old-fashioned” font has been swapped out. It was born from yet more market insight, showing consumers didn’t remember the full corporate name anyway. “Dropping the Matlow felt more in keeping with a less corporate, more fun organisation,” says Dee.
As raw lolly mixture wriggles along conveyor belts, state-of-the-art machines spew out double dippers and rainbow puffs cascade down from the floor above, it’s certainly a fantastical scene. But Dee doesn’t dismiss the big corporates. “There are big, powerful brands that we compete alongside,” he says. “Where we differentiate ourselves is variety.
“The variety sector is not the biggest part of the market but it’s growing and we account for about 90% of that. That we have a double lolly, Parma Violets, a bag of jellies, and a fruity pop all together in one pack is what differentiates us.”
In fact the biggest competitor Dee may face is one he has the least control over. With even fruit juices getting a kicking for their sugar content, it’s hard to see how sweets can defend themselves, but Dee puts his faith in customers.
“Our belief is consumers are well placed to make up their own minds,” he says. “Hopefully a bit of context and balance will return.”