For consumer companies, manufacturing is increasingly seen as a service to the brand. There is no hiding place for such plants. As if their markets weren't competitive enough already, their intermediate customers are the big retailers, not known for charity to suppliers. Where the industry is in addition consolidating manufacturing, it is increasingly a matter of the survival of the fittest.
Coors' Alton brewery in Hampshire is a good case in point: its history is that of modern brewing. Built in the 1960s to make Harp lager (remember Harp?) for Guinness and Courage, Alton absorbed another Courage brewery, ending up with Bass (remember Bass?) in the 1980s. There it survived repeated rationalisations until the group decided beer wasn't profitable enough and sold its breweries to Interbrew in 2000. Again, it survived Interbrew's cull before the latter, too, put it up for sale in 2002.
Alton is now owned by the US group Coors. Although a surprising number of the 120 or so staff are veterans of several managements, they have little time for the good old days. They are only too happy to belong to a company that values people and quality and is above all committed to beer. 'They're passionate about brewing and want us for our product, not as a cash cow for hotels or some other investment area,' approves general manager Gordon Stirton.
That doesn't mean anyone owes them a living. Coors shut one plant after the takeover, and there is relentless market pressure for improvement.
Alton is right up against its capacity limit, and while it is working on technology to reduce the rate-limiting fermentation period, as a cost centre it can only improve its service to the group by driving costs down and quality up.
Although the plant is technologically advanced - for example, all processes are PC-controlled and it developed and patented an industry-leading yeast propagator - it decided five years ago that its future depended on people and systems rather than computers. If you focus on people to deliver ever-improving quality and customer service, reasons Stirton, then cost performance drops out the bottom.
Managers and unions (the TGWU) signed up to a profound culture change in which staff moved from hourly-paid to salaried status (including a final-salary pension) where improvement is part of the job. Both sides were guided by the European Federation of Quality Management's business excellence model and driven by a set of values - involvement, training and development, recognition, communication and teamwork - generated from the bottom up. In return, pay is performance-related, and performance, like everything else at Alton, is systematically measured.
Team members have the chance to assess team leaders as well as the other way round.
As the jobs become more attractive and offer greater scope for initiative, applicants are queuing up for the few vacancies. In performance terms, meanwhile, Alton proudly boasts that it is best at pretty much everything in Coors UK. And regular benchmarking convinces it that it also stacks up well against any brewery in the country for costs per barrel and quality.
There may be precious few hops left in Hampshire (or Britain as a whole, for that matter), but Alton is determined to make sure that the same isn't true of breweries, wherever the raw materials come from. As Coors' motto has it: Cheers!