Bigger fish to fry?

In the latest in our Growth Stories series, Victoria Hopkins explains how she got involved with the family firm by accident - then ended up running the show and leading it into overseas markets.
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FISH and chips: Delicious, satisfying and quintessentially British but not – you might think – a strong base for international trade.

Tell that to Victoria Hopkins, whose family business has customers as far afield as the US, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Tanzania, Abu Dhabi, Ukraine and even Australia.

And the 43-year-old managing director has plans to double the company’s £5.5m annual turnover within five years – with at least 30% of total sales attributable to export.

It’s not food but frying ranges on which the Yorkshire firm – celebrating 50 years in business – built its reputation. Over that half-decade, it’s not only reinvented its fish and chip fryers to reflect Briton’s changing tastes in takeaways but also developed a range of catering equipment and specialised in bespoke commercial kitchen design.

“We’ve probably reached capacity in the UK, so there’s not much potential for growth here,” says Hopkins. Contrast that to the US, however, where she says one customer is desperate to get hold of potato chipping machines for his 900-strong chain of restaurants.

“They currently cut fries by hand, so they looked at our machines that can chip a sack of potatoes in a minute-and-a-half and saw the potential savings,” says Hopkins. Depending on approval from US public safety bodies, fulfilling that demand could mean “some serious training and recruiting” to bolster the 65-strong workforce at the Pudsey plant, near Leeds.

Victoria Hopkins

These machines are “built like a tank” by hand, and Hopkins says she doesn’t expect the to need replacing within 15 years. It mirrors the build-to-last philosophy of her grandfather, Vince.

A motor mechanic by trade, he set up the company as an electrical goods shop before spotting a niche when a customer asked him to refurbish a potato peeler.

Refurbishment soon became manufacturing and the company specialised in fish and chip fryers and specialist refrigeration, while also converting equipment from town to North Sea gas.

As more Chinese and Indian takeaways cropped up on high streets, the company adapted its offer. And when hit by the Third Cod War and potato shortage of the mid-1970s, Vince set his men building narrowboats for Yorkshire’s inland waterways rather than lay them off.

He remained in charge until 1992, when his son Chris took the helm. The fish and chip trade continued to decline, from 35,000 shops in the 1930s to about 11,000 today. But Vince’s granddaughter says the firm continued to adapt, realising early the importance of a website and branching out into e-commerce, and developing complex bespoke models or prototypes.

“What our craftsmen can do with stainless steel is amazing, when so many of those skills have died in the UK because of automation,” says Hopkins. “So we are more and more looking at selling our skills. People can come to us with a back-of-a-fag packet idea and we can build it.”

Not that pressures to adapt always go down well on the shop floor. Since stepping up to run the business jointly with her father five years ago, Hopkins has implemented a Lean culture to increase productivity by 20%.

Many workers might have come to see her as “a bit of a tyrant”, she accepts.

“It’s difficult when you’re a small family business,” she says. “A lot of the guys have watched me grow up from being a little girl running around the factory. I’ve lived a charmed life because of the work they’ve done and I know all their kids’ names.”

But, noting that only 12% of third-generation family firms survive, she adds: “You can’t be relaxed about changing the culture of a business. You’ve got to bring people on board. I’m really transparent with my staff… they see what I’m doing. They’ve got my back.”

Workers in the Hopkins factory

So what would Vince have made of his granddaughter running the show?

“I really wasn’t supposed to work here,” she confesses. “My granddad was a traditionalist. This was an engineering company, not a place for women. There were seven grandchildren and I was the only girl. He thought I should run a tea shop.”

For her part, engineering “wasn’t really my thing” either. Instead, Hopkins’ earliest endeavours were as a scuba diving instructor in the Caribbean. She only returned home for a couple of weeks to wait for a visa to visit the Philippines when her dad sent her to the family firm for a fortnight.

“Being a typical Yorkshireman, he said I might as well make myself useful. I was literally just answering the phones,” says Hopkins. But she never left, gradually moving on to selling catering equipment and then – still with an eye to working abroad – undertaking an accelerated business degree at Leeds University which inspired her to get more involved in the family business.

These days Hopkins’ eye for foreign horizons is limited to export. She was recently selected as an Export Champion for Commonwealth First, an initiative to help SMEs grow internationally with the help of the Commonwealth Enterprise and Investment Council.

It will allow the firm “huge possibilities” to enter new markets, through targeted trade missions, mentoring and high-level networking.

While international trade is very much part of Hopkins’ plans, the firm’s initial foray into export was just as unintended as her involvement in the business.

“We grew into export by accident,” she says. “One morning, we had about 40 email inquiries from Australia. It turned out there had been a TV documentary over there about a guy who’d opened a fish and chip shop.”

The inquiries led to firm orders. “We’ve just installed our 20th range out there,” she says.

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