UK: Shipton Mill and the tale of the lucky miller. (3 of 3)

UK: Shipton Mill and the tale of the lucky miller. (3 of 3) - In any break-up of the co-operative it was likely that the mill would go to Lister. He had been the driving force behind the project and the man on the spot (except at intervals: as when Colch

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

In any break-up of the co-operative it was likely that the mill would go to Lister. He had been the driving force behind the project and the man on the spot (except at intervals: as when Colchester and another colleague took over "after John fell through the roof and broke a hip"). And so it turned out. From an exchange of shareholdings, Lister and his wife, Siobhan Nolan, emerged as owner-directors of Shipton Mill. Colchester and one other partner officially took charge of the decorating company, which is still called Colchester Lister Associates and still specialises in restoration, operating from a base in Battersea, south London. The two remaining partners resigned. The decorating firm wrote off its entire investment in the mill, whose accounts for the year to April 1986 contain an extraordinary credit of £23,000 against "forgiveness of loan". "It was very, very sad," comments Colchester. "It was a waste of five years in financial terms."

The irony is that no sooner had the split occurred than the circumstances of Shipton Mill began to improve: 1984-85 was the last year to show a loss. The next produced a pre-tax profit of £33,000 on rather more than £500,000 of turnover. Three years later turnover was knocking on £1.5 million and profit exceeded £62,000. Today, according to Lister, turnover is running at around £2.5 million. It is all very small beer in milling industry terms, but Shipton Mill secures a very agreeable living for its owners, and a pleasant country home.

In the main part of the building the wheels on the ground floor pulverise nearly two tonnes of (overwhelmingly home-grown) grain every hour for 16 hours a day, seven days a week. In former times, when water rather than electricity supplied the power, the mill would have produced only about three tons weekly. "This is a very, very small production unit with a comparatively large tonnage," says the miller. The secret lies in the elaborate electronics, which control the bagging plant as well as the production department. Lister was wise enough to accept the Department of Trade and Industry's offer of £5,000 towards a study of plant automation, and has never looked back.

He took part in similar schemes to promote product development and design. Having started out with three grades of wholemeal flour, Shipton Mill now boasts 15 varieties, including white flour produced in a second factory at Yate near Bristol. The company delivers, using its own vehicles, to large independents and local master bakers, to multiple chains and smaller retailers, across a swath of southern Britain extending from London to Cardiff and from Derby to Plymouth. Bread bearing the Shipton Mill brand name is baked under licence by several independents. Last year the company broke into the home bakery market, with prettily designed 2.5kg bags. Lister is well aware of the need for a broad customer base.

Late last year he was negotiating for a third mill, but he still maintains that he is in no hurry: that everything must be done properly and for the very long term. Which explains Shipton Mill's extreme shyness up to the present. Lister is fully conscious of the company's size and vulnerability, and anxious that it should neither overreach itself nor be trodden on by a more powerful competitor. Growth by stealth seems to be his aim. He admits that he has been lucky up to now. So was it cool-headed thoroughness that brought Shipton Mill to the point where growth could be self-sustaining? Or was it the blind luck of an idealist? And was Jonty Colchester right to be rattled? There has not been much contact between them of late, but apparently no ill feeling either. Colchester continues to bake with Shipton Mill flour. "I am very proud of it," he says, "and of John."

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