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Gray samples life at forefront of gluten-free development

AS a former drinks industry executive Martyn Gray acknowledges his trade visits used to take him to pubs.

ALL GO AT THE OATCAKE CORRAL: Nairn's managing director Martyn Gray is looking eagerly to the future after his first year at the helm. Picture: Gordon Terris
ALL GO AT THE OATCAKE CORRAL: Nairn's managing director Martyn Gray is looking eagerly to the future after his first year at the helm. Picture: Gordon Terris

But things are a little bit different now with Mr Gray in his first year as managing director at Nairn's Oatcakes following three in the marketing director role.

These days he is more likely to be found checking how the company's oat cakes, porridge, crackers and biscuits are displayed in supermarkets than checking measures behind the bar.

As well as its own brand the business also produces white label products and Mr Gray said: "My wife says she has never seen me in a supermarket so often. And there is usually a request to pick something up while I'm there."

Mr Gray, who worked for Scottish and Newcastle prior to joining Nairn's, appears to be settling in nicely after taking over the day-to-day running of Nairn's from Mark Laing in June last year.

He said: "I've thoroughly enjoyed it. That is the most important thing. I came in as marketing director then my announcement [as managing director] was made a year in advance. There was no big surprise and I was allowed just to sit very closely to Mark.

"I learned a lot in that year so it didn't feel like a massive step. When I took over in June it was just a natural progression. That was a great way to get knowledge about the business rather than it being a big shock on day one."

While Mr Laing is still a major presence in the business as chairman and a shareholder, it is clear that Mr Gray has been given the freedom to implement his own ideas.

Mr Gray said: "Mark is always around. We meet bi-monthly for a board meeting to show the performance of the business and talk about strategic issues.

"Obviously, having run the business since 1996 he has a view. He has stepped back and let me get on with it but is always available should I need to ask advice."

There were undoubtedly cultural changes in moving from a large corporate organisation like S&N to a smaller concern but Mr Gray is quick to point out the advantages of his current position.

He said: "In a smaller business the decision making process is much quicker. You can make things happen much more rapidly.

"There is a joy in seeing a product where you have been involved in creating the idea, the recipe, the delivery of the package and then seeing the consumer going and buying it from the shelf.

"It is a pleasure of the job that you see something from inception right the way through to the sale."

Even with the additional responsibilities of the managing director role Mr Gray still tries to get out to trade events and samplings held around the UK.

He believes the "instant" feedback people give in those type of situations is invaluable and allows him to keep in close contact with corporate customers and consumers.

Mr Gray, who was born in Newcastle and retains a mild Geordie lilt, highlights an increased pace of product development as one area he has been keen to push since taking over the day to day running of the company.

After solid early progress he wants to maintain the pace which has built up.

He said: "It has been our biggest year ever within Nairn's for new product development.

"We have two or three products already to market this financial year and another two or three which will hit by the start of the next financial year.

"I don't think it is a big secret that we have a lot of ideas in gluten free which will carry on that growth."

Nairn's sees its gluten-free range as a major driver of growth in the coming years and has recently committed to spending around £600,000 in this financial year to expand capacity in its specialist facility in Edinburgh.

That follows a six-figure investment in a gluten free cracker production line in the last financial year.

The latest investment includes taking on an additional building to allow more baking space to be allocated in its main gluten free site where workers are already working across 24 hour shift cycles to keep up with demand.

Mr Gray said: "If we hadn't expanded gluten free then we would have been running out of capacity towards the end of this calendar year.

"The investment has given us the platform to grow for the next [few] years. Then after three years it allows us to put a foot on the ball and see where this gluten free trend is going and whether it is going to expand exponentially or whether it is going to plateau."

The oats used in the gluten-free products are provided by US based Seaton Smith who began growing and milling them on his land in Wyoming as his own family were coeliac.

Mr Gray said: "He felt he could not trust oat suppliers in the area so did it himself. He has been a brilliant supplier for us and has really expanded his business.

"He has a hugely intensive process to make sure everything is gluten free and we have a huge level of trust in his ability to produce gluten free oats."

That trust in Nairn's gluten free products is one reason why Mr Gray believes the firm, which is starting to export its gluten-free range into Ireland and the US, is doing well in that market.

He said: "There are a few things you have to get right. Being gluten free is the obvious one and we get everything tested down the supply chain. It is almost like a hygiene factor you have to get right.

"Where we do well I think is the taste. In the past a lot of the gluten free products were masked with all sorts of products which hid the taste. Now the market is getting much better and the product quality is improving significantly almost to the point where if you looked at some of our gluten-free products and our standard products you might struggle to tell the difference."

While Mr Gray doesn't quite rule out acquisitions to meet expansion targets he signals that organic growth is a path the business is more likely to follow.

He said: "We have a strategic plan which outlines where we can grow. If the right acquisition came along that matched where we wanted to go in the future then we would look at it.

"We are not aggressively targeting other people but are reacting to what is available on the market."

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