WALKERS, the 118-year-old shortbread maker, has started the process of succession planning with the firm’s fourth generation.

Joint managing director Jim Walker, 71, said he and his brother Joe, 78, were preparing six of their children to take over the family business, but would not be leaving any time soon.

“We’re both still fully involved and very committed,” said Mr Walker, whose grandfather Joseph Walker founded the Aberlour, Banffshire-based business in 1898.

“We’re feeling fairly confident and our ambition is just to stay independent, to be able to continue what we’re doing and pass the business onto the next generation in good shape. We’re a fair scale now and we’re not owned by banks or wide shareholders, so we can take a long-term view of the business.”

Jim and Joe, the third generation to run Walkers, each have three children in the business. Jim’s children, Jacqui, Bryony and Alastair, work in marketing, sales and exports, while Joe’s children – Nicky, Richard and Philippa – are production director, technical director and brand manager respectively.

“We have no leave date yet,” Mr Walker said. “We’re in the process of going through a transition which is going to take a couple of years – we’re lucky we can look forward to a gradual transition.”

Mr Walker said the business now exported to over 90 countries and was probably one of Scotland’s biggest exporters of branded foods. It produces around 25,000 tons a year of shortbread, biscuits, oatcakes and cakes and employs around 1,500 people – rising to 1,700 at seasonal peaks. Turnover rose 2.7 per cent to approximately £141 million last year, although pre-tax profits fell by 25 per cent to just under £11m. Mr Walker said profits had been squeezed over the last couple of years by the strong pound – which makes its products more expensive overseas – by supermarket price wars and by the cost of raw materials such as butter.

“The pound is very strong against every currency except the dollar and that has a negative effect on sales and it affects our margins,” Mr Walker said. “One of the main challenges is just the competition that exists in the supermarket trade and that affects every food manufacturer, because everybody is being squeezed.”

Mr Walker said the low oil price was a worry, but added that traditional industries in the North-East like food and farming had survived pretty well.

“Many of these challenges are cyclical,” he added. “I think the oil industry will weather the storm and will come through it.” On Europe, Mr Walker said: “There’s anxiety about the forthcoming referendum on Europe and I think coming out of Europe would be very bad for all British businesses, so there’s concern there.

“But if you’re an exporter, there are so many problems that hit you every day – trade wars, food scares, instability in markets – you have to learn to live with them if you’re planning to stay in it long term.”

The romance of shortbread was key to its success, especially in English speaking markets, Mr Walker said.

“It’s not just a packet of biscuits, it’s part of Scotland’s heritage – and the heritage behind shortbread is very important.”

Countries less familiar with shortbread – like South America and India – were harder markets to crack.

“They don’t know shortbread and it takes time,” Mr Walker added.

Last year Walkers launched its first range of gluten-free products with shortbread rounds in plain, chocolate chip and ginger and lemon flavours.