Rising to the occasion

Jamaica’s National Baking Company has long established itself as the country’s leading bakery, with continuous, environmentally-friendly development at home and controlled expansion in the UK and the US now topping the agenda for the business

From time immemorial and across many cultures, bread has held an enormous significance way beyond its nutritional values. A rather simple product, it has been a staple in the human diet for centuries. What is more, its symbolic meaning has been such that it has become common to use the concepts of ‘bread’ and ‘food’ interchangeably, with the presence of bread on the table indicating that an individual or an entire household have all the essentials for a decent living.

Around the world, bread comes in different types, depending on the ingredients used, the cooking techniques, or the shapes it can take. For nearly seven decades, the tradition of bread making in Jamaica has been upheld and evolved by National Baking Company, whose success story on the Caribbean island has now seen it expand into the gigantic UK and US markets.

An astonishing business acumen and the wise adoption of new technology to increase productivity are the two factors that have repeatedly been cited when trying to explain the remarkable growth achieved by the company. In the early 1950s, the baked goods industry in Jamaica was developing, but was lacking in efficiency. It came down to Karl Hendrickson – son of National Baking Company’s founder, Reginald Hendrickson – to deliver a masterstroke that would transform the production and distribution methods of the young business.

The new technology introduced by Karl in the fully-mechanised Half Way Tree plant in Kingston made it possible for the company to produce sliced bread, while the packaging machine also made a big impression to consumers as, previously, bread had only been wrapped in drab brown paper. These innovations quickly lifted National Baking Company to a different level, unassailable for its competitors. Shortly, the demand grew so much that the company started baking other products, too, cementing its position as Jamaica’s undisputed number one bakery. At approximately the same time, it began developing its delivery network and by 1959, National Baking Company had become truly ‘national’, having developed the capability to supply every corner of the Jamaican land with its goods.

Invaluable feedback
Since 1994, the organisation has been spearheaded by Karl’s son, Gary ‘Butch’ Hendrickson. Under Butch’s leadership, National Baking Company has continued to reinvent itself. “You cannot stay static and hope to grow, because the market is not going to wait for you,” he insists. “We are continuously looking at how to develop new products and market the existing ones better. The rule of the thumb for us is to keep things simple and get the basics right. We look after our staff to ensure that the quality of our products is unrivalled and we always deliver on time. Above all, customer service is paramount. We talk to customers all the time and it has become a common practice for senior managers to hit the road to any destination if there is an issue, so they can see in person what needs to be done. The strong bond that we have established with people means that they are not afraid to tell us what they want, providing us with invaluable feedback that cannot be obtained by simply sitting at a desk and staring at a computer.”

Historically, the hardo (or hard dough) bread has been National Baking Company’s bestselling item across Jamaica. In addition, the business has also become well-known for its buns produced under the National and HTB brands, and its crackers and biscuits. For their production, it uses the Half Way Tree Plant where it has installed multiple lines. As Butch himself admits, however, the company is finding it hard to cope with current demand, as the facility is very close to reaching its maximum capacity. To overcome this challenge, it has the firm resolution to break ground on a new $70 million plant within the next 24 months.

“Over the years, we have extended our property on multiple occasions, but we were not ready to build an entirely new plant,” Butch says. “Now that it has become clear that we cannot go on like this forever, we took the decision to go ahead with the construction of a brand-new facility. At the current unit, we have done everything in our power to keep up with technology and install as much modern equipment as possible, but for the new facility, we are going for cutting-edge machinery straight away, so that we can increase our efficiencies considerably.”

Expansion plans
National Baking Company’s successful exploits in its home market, have filled the bakery with confidence that it can take its products to the Jamaican diaspora around the world as the first step to popularising the taste of Jamaica to other cultures. The company has already opened distribution centres in London and New York, whose growth so far has been more than satisfying for Butch.

“I am pleasantly surprised by the level of success we have had in the UK, in particular, which is a market we have targeted with our buns. The growth has not been too fast, but our performance has exceeded the initial expectations we had. Either way, we are in this business with a long-term vision, so we will continue to invest and penetrate the British market slowly but surely,” he reveals.

That Butch’s plans for National Baking Company’s expansion across Britain are serious, is confirmed by his intention to set up a second warehouse in the country in the next five years. “One of the options we are considering, is to have a new distribution hub in the North, in order to serve that region a bit better, as we are now based in Croydon. Such a development will also require the purchase of new vehicles for our UK fleet 49and the hire of new employees, as well.

“As for our US operation, it is much younger than the UK one, but it, too, is growing very well. We are very keen to establish a presence in South Florida and, just like in England, we will have to invest in infrastructure to achieve our goals,” he adds.

Alongside the continuous development of its UK and American distribution hubs, National Baking Company is investing in another three in Jamaica, all of which are projected to use ‘green’ energy for their operations. “This is just one of the initiatives we are launching to reduce our environmental impact,” Butch claims. “For instance, we are currently in discussions with our fleet supplier to provide us with new hybrid vehicles. In the meantime, we are working closely with our packaging suppliers, who are monitoring the developments in legislation across the EU, Britain, the US, and other key regions. We want to stay in line with the new regulations and as such, our remaining non-biodegradable packaging will shortly be 100 per cent biodegradable.”

In Butch’s opinion, the next five years will be transformative for National Baking Company. Taking into account the various ongoing developments at the company in each of its locations, it is easy to believe him. He concludes: “Within the next few years, we will implement certain changes that will enable us to make the most of some good opportunities we have spotted. These may include company acquisitions and the development and release of new products that are slightly different to the ones we have become known for. In any case, one thing that will never change, is our gratitude to our customers and the National family who make it all possible. Going forward, we hope that we will continue to meet and exceed expectations.”