Face to face...
Published:  17 August, 2007

Q How did you come to be involved in the baking industry?

A I joined the baking industry in 1948, when I was 15 years old. I left school on a Friday afternoon and started work on the Friday evening! I come from a long line of bakers. My grandfather, father and three older brothers have all worked in the baking industry, as well as my own sons.

Q What were the origins of J McDonald & Sons?

A In 1963, a lawyer and I opened a business in Kirkintilloch, Glasgow, called Dainty Cakes, but it felt like I did all the work and he kept all the money! After we parted company in 1965, another baker in the town offered me the use of a van. I baked in my own house for a year and also did some baking for him, before setting up in my own shop in the east end of Glasgow in 1966.

After a few ups and downs, the business grew quite steadily. I acquired five shops between 1972 and 1980, and then built up to 10 shops during the '80s after moving to a new bakery in Govan. During this time, we tried our hand at wholesale, but it didn't work for us and so we refocused on retail baking.

Q But the 1990s brought a change of direction?

A Yes. With the decline of the traditional high street, we sold five of the shops, upgraded the bakery with new technology, and moved in the direction of bakery/coffee shops. We spent a lot of money on buying a shop in Glasgow city centre; some people thought I had lost the plot, but it was the best move I ever made and the shop is still going great guns to this day.

It was also around this time that we streamlined our product lines - for example, we had been producing 10 different types of scone, but reduced this to just one, and we sell more of them now. Overall, the company is busier than ever it was. Two of our five shops are in Glasgow city centre and all of them are within six miles of our bakery at Govan.

Q For what products is the business best-known?

A We are very well-known for our fresh goods - our filled rolls, Danish pastries and savouries. Our best-seller is rhubarb & apple pie.

But running coffee shops is not just about bakery products; you must offer a good cup of coffee. We are in the shops on a regular basis checking the quality of the coffee and we sell thousands of cups a week.

Q What does a typical working day entail for you now?

A I was supposed to have retired three years ago, but I am still the chairman of J McDonald & Sons and come into the office every day around 9am to sort out phone messages, for example. I now spend a lot of my time mingling with customers in the shops. I never got to do this before and it's now my favourite part of the job. It gives us great feedback on what products are working for us.

Q You obviously believe it's important to get this feedback on the business?

A Yes. Bakers are the hardest-working people I know, but they don't always take the opportunity to stand back for a moment and look at their businesses. We also keep an eye on our competitors, such as the supermarkets, and keep a look-out for their new products and prices, and this can lead to change in our own business.

Q What do you regard as some of the key issues facing the baking industry?

A There are so many to choose from - technical, financial, training and legislative. There is a huge amount of unnecessary bureaucracy and the government seems to have made no effort to look at deregulation. That attitude has really got to change. I think bakers should be focusing on addressing customers' concerns about diet and health, and the role of bakery products in a balanced diet.

Bakers also need to do more to expand the industry's pool of labour, particularly on the craft side of the business.

Q How important is the SAMB in meeting these challenges?

A I have been a member of the SAMB for more than 40 years and realise that, by working together, we can achieve so much more.

The association can offer help on legislative, environmental and a whole range of other issues - it's a real safety net for companies in the baking business. It's also a marvellous vehicle for speaking with a single voice to government departments, for example. You have only to look at the recent opening of the Scottish Bakery Training Centre at Larbert to understand what the SAMB can achieve. This is just one of many outstanding successes.

Q What ambitions do you harbour for your year as SAMB president?

A I would like to pass on my experience to a younger of generation of bakers where possible. I would also like to help develop the SAMB's membership: there are a lot of smaller Scottish bakery firms out there who do not think the SAMB is for them, but who could really benefit from being part of the association.

For example, by using the insurance company recommended by the association, I have saved 40% on my insurance over the last two years. And that has paid my SAMB membership dues for years to come.

In my year as president, I would also like to get across the point that baking should not occupy 24 hours a day of your life. Bakers need to have time to spend with their families and on other interests.

Q Have you managed to sustain a number of non-baking interests over the years?

A Yes. I did my first marathon - in New York - when I was just short of my 50th birthday and went on to do 16 marathons in total, with a personal best time of three hours and 29 minutes. Nowadays, I cycle for at least an hour a day. I have also been involved for a number of years in raising money for orphanages, poor houses, children's hospitals and so on in the Ukraine. The money collected from contacts and friends in the Glasgow area - as well as from bakers in Scotland and England - helps to pay for everything from beds and food to medicines. I have been across to the Ukraine 10 times now and it's magic to see the help we are able to give them.

Since last year, I have also been supporting the Scottish International Relief's 'Mary's Meals' project; this was started in Malawi five years ago and now provides meals for 170,000 children every day when they go to school. Again, I have had plenty of support from friends in the baking industry and plan to visit Malawi some time soon.




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