FOSTER CLARK'S

1891 to1965

FOSTER CLARK LTD.

Ron Bingham's Story


Interview with Ron Bingham

The following are extracts from emails exchanged between myself and Ron starting in February 2005. I found Ron when I replied to his advert on a BBC website searching for friends he had when he worked for Foster Clarks in the 1950’s. Explaining the research I was doing he was very pleased to help out. If you are keen to contact Ron I know he would love to hear from anyone he knew back then and you can contact him via us at info@fosterclark.info . Also please use that address if you have anything to add to Ron’s story.


“I found the Company a most fascinating place to work in. Being a Scot my introduction to this very Conservative ("old Fashioned" would have been a better way to describe my first impressions of the Company) not the technology but the hierarchical structure of management from the Chairman down!
I joined them as Canning Process Manager in April 1955 and left their employment just before they were taken over by St. Martin in 1959.”
Ron explained in his first email.
“I loved the Company! As for the senior management not a happy work environment!! Please understand I have no axes to grind and I will tell you how I saw Foster Clarks in my day to day ups and downs as a production manager. With up to a peak of nearly 600 mainly female employees and lots of variable products to place in cans, working long hours mainly in the summer months it was quite a hard job!”
Ron goes on to mention the other side of the company,
“I kept a keen interest in the other side of the business, the Eiffel tower range of powders, the custard powder and jellies and the other odd for their time quite unique products.”

From this early email it was clear that Ron had some strong views and opinions which I knew would make interesting reading and be a wonderful incite into one employees opinion.

I decided to ask a simple question to start with which was how Ron, a 26 year old Scottish married man had come to work in a factory in Kent. I could tell at this early stage that Ron was concerned about offending anyone, but I am glad to say his next email made clear he would speak as he found.
“I have come to the conclusion that at my age in this particular case that I could be a sole survivor, although I hope this is not the case. Many of the people we will talk about were my personal friends and for years I have been trying to find some of them from the Foster Clark Days. Most of them were older of course, hence the worry about their possible ages!!”

How were you recruited for the post?
“Quite conventional, paper advertisement, seeking a Canning
Process Manager, I think initially this was PA Management Consultants in London. My first interview was with them. The next was in London with Kenneth Proctor who was the factory manager. I will find his proper title from some records I have somewhere. Onto a short list, then a final interview in Maidstone with Proctor and the Chairman. My new wife was invited to come along which was very promising!! Got the job and started in March 1955.”

What were your first impressions of the factory?
“I can still see the lovely old red brick three storey office building on that interview day , a cold early spring with snow on the ground but the warm carpeted stairs leading to the chairman's office set that standard of something that was old but with lots of quality and a little different from my usual work place. And of course the smells, if you know anything about food factories they all tell you what they make by the smell!!
Custard powder or was it blancmange?! Strawberry jellies mixed with fresh lemon powder drinks, a hint of baked beans or was it green pea brine, I could go on about how this first impression comes back to me when I think about this business.”

The canning side of the business was reputed to be one of the best in the country, how was this set up?
“One person, who played a very important role in the post war development especially the new cannery, was a consultant, Arthur Locke. He wrote a book on canning practices. He was employed to set up the new cannery and was a regular visitor in my first year with the company.
He later started his own company in either Barming or West Malling and employed Stanley Chantler as his manager after FC collapsed.”

Were any other companies brought in on the project?
“Other important players were The Metal Box Company(London branch ), Mather and Platt (machinery Radcliffe Manchester) still going I think. Food Machinery Corporation (FMC), and others who supplied labels , spices etc , Tate and Lyle who supplied the liquid sugar to the cannery and of course lots of well known families who supplied produce to the cannery.”

Who did you report to regarding standards in those days?
Tthe Fruit and Vegetable Canners Association at the research station at Chipping Campden in the Cotswolds. We sent weekly samples of a range of fruit and vegetable canned products for scoring on a quality assessment scheme which all our top competitors contributed to.”

What league did you see Foster Clarks being in?
“When I joined them they were in my opinion part of an elite group of old, mainly family businesses and I would include Companies such as Chivers jams in
Histon Cambridge, Shippams pastes, Cadbury at Rowntree, Kunzels cakes
in Birmingham, Birds Custard,Birds Eye Foods, Batchelors , and my old friends Baxters in Fochabers Scotland. Some of these were contemporaries of FC
others came much later, notice I have not included Heinz, or Smedley ( who I worked for ) and others such as Campbell soups etc they were in a different league and were mainly group or foreign owned subsidiaries.”

We see many of these names still today, what do you think happened to Foster Clark’s?
“If you look at the names you will see that these companies were all going through a very competitive period in their existence in the 60s particularly. The group companies were closing down units, take-overs were common and some house hold names were going to the wall. So is it surprising that FC joined so many others of its size?”

Do you believe there was one reason why some failed while others survived?
“The tragedy is, I believe that one man at FC set the scene for the eventual demise, and the Board of Directors can not remain blameless if policies in the day to day running of the Company were not questioned in time to prevent the Company being vulnerable for a take over. Would it have happened anyway? Possibly yes but new competitors were entering the field all the time this was going on and some are still in
business today.”

So you feel that it was more of a management issue?
“We had a good quality image, a good pricing structure, we had started to do own label business with Marks and Spencer, we had reasonably modern machinery and a dedicated staff, we were in a good location for expansion with a sympathetic Council, we had no serious union and although labour was difficult to recruit in the Summer, this was not a major problem in the 60s and 70s in the UK.”


To be continued

 


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