By Scott Wright

CLIVE MIQUEL laughs when he is inevitably asked how many of the snowballs his company is famous for are manufactured every year. “A lot,” comes the reply from chief executive

of Lees of Scotland, the Lanarkshire-based confectionery firm. “I’d need to get my calculator.”

In normal times, Lees would be preparing some big celebrations to mark its 90th anniversary. Ongoing restrictions to suppress coronavirus will naturally curb the commemorations, though Mr Miquel said the occasion will be marked, albeit in a lower-key fashion.

“[It is] a period of a lot of reflection on a lot of things,” said Mr Miquel, who has worked for Lees since joining as commercial director in 2004. “Ninety years old as a business is quite a landmark.

“We’re just focusing on the business. On a PR front, we will be mentioning the fact it is our 90th year, but we are a bit limited, given the current circumstances and how you can celebrate it.”

Lees produces a wide array of cakes and confectionery at its 80,000 square foot factory in Coatbridge, including its renowned macaroon bars, meringues and coconut-topped snowballs.

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Although Mr Miquel has seen plenty of corporate challenges in his career with the company, including a boardroom reshuffle that saw him succeed his late father Raymond as chief executive in 2009, followed by a management buyout that saw Lees de-list from the stock market in 2012, coronavirus has brought tests like no other. “There is always something, but what we have got right now, who could have predicted that?” Mr Miquel said. “It is certainly completely different. Let’s hope we get back to some normality sometime soon.”

Like many manufacturing businesses, Lees had implement a raft of new systems to adapt to the challenges posed by the pandemic.

While the factory is now currently running at around 85 per cent capacity, to maintain social distancing, Mr Miquel said the company has seen a fall in sales in recent months. Lees was affected as supermarkets rationalised product lines and curbed promotional activity as they responded to consumers’ panic buying in the early days of the pandemic. The impact on the food service sector, which supplies the “decimated” hospitality industry, has also been detrimental.

“Sales were probably down about 13 per cent, and while we are always looking to grow and develop sales, given the circumstances we weren’t overly disappointed with the results at the end of the year,” Mr Miquel said.

Expressing sympathy for the hospitality industry over its continuing closure, he added: “We are fortunate because a lot of our major customers are open, and they are buying and ordering. Unfortunately for so many people, they don’t have those options and choices.

“There is no business to be had. It is so sad. There is no sign at the moment of that getting back to normal.”

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Mr Miquel has understanding for the difficulties the UK and Scottish Governments have faced in dealing with the pandemic, which have not been helped by the “number of experts giving their opinion”. But he does feel the UK could have protected its borders more effectively. It is only in recent weeks that rules on mandatory quarantine have been imposed for people flying into the country.

“Hindsight is a perfect science, but clearly… we are an island nation and we could have controlled our borders significantly better than we have done,” Mr Miquel said.

“We are where we are, but it seems to be decisions made on the hoof, really, and no longer term looking at some kind of strategy on ways out.”

Lees, which turned over £19.2 million in its most accounts and generates around 80% of its business through the major retailers, utilised the jobs retention scheme after it launched last March. It initially put 40 of its 250 staff on furlough, however in recent months it has brought those employees back as it adapted shift patterns.

“We have been fortunate, but it is only because we very quickly implemented a lot of measures,” Mr Miquel said. “Lanarkshire as an area had pretty high infection rates. It has been a concern for the last 10 months. We have obviously had some instances – that was not unexpected – but we have done pretty well controlling it from a business perspective.”

Mr Miquel said the dramatic rise in video meetings in recent months has been positive, and expects people to continue using the technology even after restrictions are lifted.

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“In some cases it has actually made it easier to get in touch with major buyers of the big retailers,” he said. “A lot of them are working from home, and they are not tied up with internal meetings, etc, so communication has been relatively good.

“I have to say, to me there is no substitute for face to face meetings, but it will definitely change the way we work in future, in terms of communication.”

Brexit has not brought Lees the concern it has for other companies in Scotland, in part because it generates just 5% of its sales from exports.

“I joined Lees and I had visions of taking us worldwide, but unfortunately the products are quite perishable with [a] short shelf-life,” Mr Miquel said. “They don’t travel quite so well.

“We do some exports to Europe but, thankfully, it is not a large part of our business, because that is proving problematic logistically, getting goods in and out. It is fantastic there was a [Brexit] deal, however, it is well documented all the issues people are having moving goods.”
Mr Miquel said recovering sales lost to the pandemic is a major focus, although he is realistic this will be a challenge given the ongoing closure of the foodservice market. 
Sustainability projects, including work to reduce its use of plastic and packaging, will continue to be central to his thoughts, as will product development. “We need to innovate to stay ahead,” Mr Miquel said. 


What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why?

I was fortunate to travel a lot during my days in the whisky industry – India, in particular, is  a fascinating country with an amazing culture. For leisure, 
I’m happiest anywhere sunny, with a beach and a cold pint.

When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal?

I always thought working on a trawler boat would good fun – I used to love watching the fish being unloaded on the dock. I realise life would have been a lot colder and pretty damp if I’d taken that path.

What was your biggest break in business?
I’m not sure I’ve experienced one. Often in business, a “break” is really a sigh of relief when hard work pays off – I certainly felt this way when we completed the management buyout at Lees and came off the Aim market in 2012.

What was your worst moment in business?
Being made redundant in the early 1990s and then finding out my son was on his way. Apart from that, we had a quality issue many years ago that led to the product being withdrawn from the market. That was a very costly and difficult experience.

Who do you most admire and why?
Young people who overcome adversity and have a positive influence on others. Billy Monger is a great example of this. 
What book are you reading and what music are you listening to?
My Kindle only usually comes out on holiday – however, I do have Billy Connolly’s Tall Tales and Wee Stories on my bedside table at the moment. I listen to a range of music now, but I’m definitely a punk lover at heart. We go back a long way.