There aren’t many farms that have their own machines for making plastic tubs. But, then again, there aren’t many farms like Westertown, the home of Mackie’s of Scotland, a dairy business that’s successfully diversified into ice cream, ice, crisps and now chocolate.
The company is run by managing director Maitland “Mac” Mackie, marketing director Karin Hayhow and development director Kirstin McNutt, three siblings who form the fourth generation of the family to own the business, which now employs around 60 people and turns over about £11m a year. This autumn, the company will take its first steps into retail when it opens an ice cream parlour in Aberdeen’s flagship Marischal Square development, which could become a beachhead for expansion into other cities.
Tucked away in the rolling farmland surrounding Inverurie in Aberdeenshire, the 1,500 acres at Westertown not only house the family’s 330 milking cows, but also an ice cream factory, a chocolate manufacturing facility and a renewable energy powerhouse consisting of four wind turbines and a 7,000-panel solar array. Soon bees may be buzzing between the panels to make honey, while a field of mint is sprouting with the intention of being added to the chocolate, all part of the family’s strategy of growing and making as much as it can on the one site.
And that’s exactly where those machines for making ice cream tubs fit into the story. Previously, Mackie’s imported its plastic containers from Sweden, before deciding to invest £1m to buy its own injection moulding equipment, cutting its supply chain’s carbon footprint by 50,000 miles a year.
Each of the two machines applies two-and-a-half tonnes of pressure and 250C of heat to turn plastic granules, a touch of colouring and a pre-printed label into the familiar one- and two-litre tubs that grace supermarket freezers throughout the country. It’s not what you’d expect to find in a former barn on a farm.
Mackie’s passion for innovation doesn’t end there though. Step through another doorway and members of staff are making honeycomb, with the bigger pieces going into the ice cream and the smaller pieces going into the chocolate.
“We haven’t found a way of using the honeycomb dust yet,” chuckles Karin. “At the moment, it goes to a local piggery.”
There must be some happy pigs on that farm. And the cows at Westertown look pretty content too, with a robotic milking system that lets the ladies choose when they want to be milked while also monitoring their output and their health, and another robot that trundles along the byre’s floor, sorting out the food when it’s needed.
Inside the new product development or “NPD” kitchen, members of staff are busy creating the ice cream flavours that will form the backbone of the offering at “Mackie’s 19.2”, the name given to the parlour at Marischal Square that will remind visitors of the short distance in miles between the farm and the shop. Plans include around 20 new flavours, alongside some of the brand’s existing best-sellers, as well as crepes, waffles and “ice cream lollies coated in Mackie’s chocolate”.
“We couldn’t simply sell our existing ice cream flavours at our flagship store,” explains Karin. “Instead, we wanted to develop new products that would give customers an exciting reason to come and visit us then keep coming back.”
The company’s innovations also involve working with partners. Mackie’s has a knowledge transfer partnership (KTP) with Abertay University in Dundee focused on its chocolate development, which has involved a study on the size and dispersion of particles at the micron or micro-metre level and how that affects the taste and texture of its chocolates, while it’s also working with Edinburgh Napier University to recover heat from its equipment, making the site even more energy-efficient.
Chocolate making also takes place in a factory built in a converted tractor shed on the farm. New flavours and different sizes of bars are in the pipeline, along with gift boxes containing a new range of fresh cream ganache-filled chocolates that will feature at Mackie’s 19.2.
For all the technology on the farm, the Mackie’s business started from very humble origins. The company began producing ice cream in 1986 in response to changing milk trends. “At that point, we had a milk retail business, supplying bottles to supermarkets and customers on about 60 milk rounds,” Mac explains. “During the 1980s, semi-skimmed milk started to become popular and so we were left with lots of cream that needed to be used.
“An ice cream company in Aberdeen had recently folded and one of its workers approached Dad and asked if he’d be interested in making ice cream. He saw the potential and so bought the equipment.”
The sibling’s father, Maitland, was chairman of the company until he died in 2014, just months after the death of his Norwegian-born wife, Halldis. Maitland was born at Westertown and worked all his life on the farm, and is buried in the arboretum that Halldis planted after retiring, with 147 trees of 112 species adding to the 150 acres of the farm given over to woodland.
During the early days, managing director Brian Pack – another of the North-East’s best-known business and farming faces, who went on to become chief executive of Aberdeen & Northern Marts and chair the Rowett Institute – was also instrumental in developing the ice cream brand, along with sales director Denis Emslie, who signed the company’s first supply contract with supermarket chain William Low and after whom the fourth of the family’s wind turbines is named in tribute.
Today, ice cream remains at the heart of the business. Mackie’s traditional cream flavour still accounts for 67% of sales, but has been joined by a host of permanent and limited-edition tubs, including this summer’s “St Clement’s Ripple”, which featured orange and lemon-flavoured ice cream with an orange ripple.
As well as producing frozen treats under its own brand, the company also makes some own-label dairy ice cream for upmarket grocery chain Waitrose. The farm has its own water source and so making ice seemed like a natural extension, with the cubes packaged under both the Mackie’s brand and the Co-op’s own label.
While the transition from dairy business to ice cream maker – and the subsequent sale of the retail milk business to Wiseman Dairies – was Maitland’s great contribution to the family’s legacy, the further diversification has been down to his impressive children. Mac, Karin and Kirstin teamed up with George Taylor at Taypack in 2009 to launch Mackie’s at Taypack, a joint venture that produces the Mackie’s of Scotland-branded crisps and turns over about £5m a year.
Founded as a 50-50 partnership, the joint venture is now 75-25 in Taypack’s favour, with Taylor growing the potatoes and producing the crisps, with a joint focus on marketing and a continued license to use the Mackie’s of Scotland brand. “The crisps have opened a lot of doors when it comes to exports,” says Mac. “They’re exported to around 25 countries, with the Philippines and Ukraine being the latest places to be added to the list. We also export our ice cream to a number of markets in the Middle East and Asia – Costco takes around £500,000 of ice cream each year for its stores in South Korea and Taiwan.”
Chocolate followed in 2014, marking a natural progression from ice cream and allowing the family to manufacture another product on site. The chocolate is made using raw ingredients of cocoa liquor and cocoa butter, meaning Mackie’s has the equipment to refine, “conche” – kneading or grinding the chocolate to remove some bitter tastes and aromas and create the desired chocolate taste – and “temper” – perfecting the crystal structure that gives good chocolate its “snap” and gloss – the ingredients before adding flavours to the final mix.
“The chocolate and the crisps could work well together in export markets,” Mac adds. “For example, we can now offer a mixed chocolate and crisps shipment – a container full of chocolate would be too high in cost for some of our customers.
“The other benefit is that we can partially insulate the chocolate from excess heat with the crisp boxes. The customers benefit from a wider brand selection and a higher margin on the total container.”
Mac’s son, Maitland Mike Mackie, is the fifth generation of the family to be given Maitland as his first name. So, has the fifth generation of the family shown any interest in joining the business yet? “Well, we have nine children between us, so we’ll have to grow the company if they all want to get involved,” laughs Mac. “Mike has just left school, so it’s early days yet.”
It’s not just the family that’s dedicated to the business though. In the ice cream factory, one of the walls is decorated with plaques that salute members of staff who have served with the business for 20 years and more.
The hard graft of those workers and their colleagues is also now celebrated on the company’s website, which features a “Faces of Mackie’s” page, containing photos of everyone who works for the firm. From operations director Rhona Wight playing her drum kit through to sales support executive Sadie Barrie pictured with a foal, the images tell the story of the staff behind the brand.
Judging by the smiles on their faces, the firm is well on the way to delivering its mission statement, which hangs on the wall of its boardroom: “to be a global brand from the greenest company in Britain created by people having fun”.
Published: 11 September 2017