Exports key to future of Watton pork processing plant after £6m upgrade

On the production line at Cranswick's plant in Watton. Picture: Matthew Usher.

On the production line at Cranswick's plant in Watton. Picture: Matthew Usher. - Credit: Matthew Usher

The completion of a £6m upgrade at pork producer Cranswick's Norfolk plant will accelerate export growth to the Far East, open the door to the US and ensure its future as a key site for the company, said its boss.

The assurances from chief executive Adam Couch came as he revealed that first-half revenues at the EDP/EADT Top100 firm had risen 16% to £580.8m, with adjusted pre-tax profits 24% higher at £37.9m.

But Mr Couch sounded concerns over any measures that could restrict Cranswick's workforce – which includes 1,000 at Watton and 400 at Crown Chicken near Diss – as Britain disentangles itself from the EU, and called for clarity over the government's negotiating position.

The company has seen export growth of 23% compared to last year's first half, with revenues from the Far East up 83%, and Cranswick believes it can push that higher.

'Watton is a very strong area for us, and provides 40% of our exports. We are making investment in infrastructure, people and training,' said Mr Couch.

'We have three processing plants now with our acquisition in Northern Ireland, but Watton is a key part of our growth and sustainability across the group.'

The £6m upgrade, which includes the replacement of the abattoir at Watton, has increased capacity and improved efficiencies, and underpinned a drive for accreditation from the US Department of Agriculture, he said. That would allow Cranswick to scale up exports of products such as baby back ribs, which are in high demand on the other side of the Atlantic.

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'We will hopefully progress that over the next 12 to 18 months, but approvals can take some time,' said Mr Couch.

The accounts detail a busy period of corporate activity for Cranswick, with the £39.3m purchase of Crown Chicken in April, and the £16m sale of its sandwich business in July.

Since the end of the period, it has acquired Northern Ireland processor Dunbia Ballymena, which yesterday's announcement revealed was for an initial cash consideration of £16.9m, with up to a further £1.25m payable.

However, Mr Couch admitted Brexit negotiations were a cause of uncertainty, especially with regard to freedom of labour.

'We would be very keen to see what the government's outline proposal is. We have an international staff and we value them very highly,' he said.

'We have got a loyal workforce but we do have some headwinds as since the fall of sterling, after conversion, sending the pound home is not worth what it was a year ago.' A dividend of 13.1p per share was announced, up from 11.6p.

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