Established: 1991

Turnover: £65m

Number of lines: 250 in retail and 700 for suppliers

For nearly two decades RAF Greenham Common in Newbury was home to a camp of women, who protested against the nuclear weapons kept there. The location is now occupied by someone equally reluctant to compromise on his mission - Gary Blake, managing director of condiments and marinades supplier at The English Provender Company, whose factory sits on the site of the old military base. Now a large industrial estate, it houses nothing more controversial than giant vats of mayonnaise.

“The new factory is actually where the old runway used to be,” says Blake. “The female protesters come with tents on the anniversary and are amazed at how the site has changed.”

Changes at the company have been fairly dramatic, too. It was formed in 1991, with a staff of four and was bought seven years later by sugar supplier Billington’s. Since 2002, when Blake came on board, its turnover has increased from £10m to £65m in 2007, following two acquisitions.

In 2004 EPC aquired Suffolk Foods, which makes mayonnaise for manufacturers. The acquisition enabled EPC to “de-risk” by selling to suppliers as well as retailers.

Now Blake is stepping up his ambitions for the company. He is currently keeping himself busy intregrating Chester-based sauces company Alembic, which EPC bought in October 2007. Alembic has a turnover of £31m - almost doubling the size of the business. “So far we have been operating the two businesses separately although we have just merged the commercial team,” says Blake. “We hope to fully integrate by the end of the year.”

Positioned firmly in the premium market, many of EPC’s products are still made by being cooked in large open pans for several hours. The company is best known for its Very Lazy range of products. Sales of Very Lazy Ginger and Very Lazy Caramelised Red Onions have “increased significantly” since Delia Smith name-dropped the range in her How to Cheat at Cooking book earlier this year.

The purchase of Alembic, which produces a similar range of condiments, sauces and pickles to EPC, complements its range. It was also an attractive asset because of its customer base of foodservice companies and manufacturers. “Alembic was a competitor of ours and the aquisition allowed us to access new customers,” says Blake. “We were previously only dealing with 14 of its 84 customers, and they were mostly food manufacturers. Alembic’s customer base is more diverse and we can gain economies of scale.”

Taking the Alembic site into account, about one quarter of EPC’s output is sold to retailers. Of this, 30% are EPC-branded products, and 65% own-label. The company produces goods for the Tesco Finest, Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference and Asda Extra Special ranges. It also makes Waitrose own-label dressings, sauces and chutneys, plus condiments and sauces for Morrisons and Somerfield. “We have a very good relationship with the retailers,” says Blake. “Own label is a collaborative process and if you embrace that, success follows.”

Negotiating prices with retailers may be stressful, but Blake gives as good as he gets. “There is no doubt it gets tougher and tougher,” he says. “I am not going to pretend otherwise. But if you are a strong company then retailers are prepared to pay more. If your product is just about price, margins will be cut to the bone, but EPC focuses on innovation, which is why we have more NPD staff than sales staff. We have always been profitable and are on for a very good year.”

Now the company is looking to move into a brand new area with the development of chilled products. “We are starting work on that now. We are looking at a more upmarket range, potentially chilled dressings,” says Blake. “We are also concentrating on brand development with herbs and spices. We like to keep the retailers on their toes,” he adds.

Meanwhile, there is plenty to keep Blake busy. The Newbury factory, despite having been home to EPC for just three years, is being expanded to cope with growth. But Blake is determined EPC will not dilute its standards as it grows from its artisan roots. “Although we have got bigger, we are sticking to our principles - the supply, the quality and the open-pan cooking,” he says. “There are no compromises.” n

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