Fitzbillies Fly with Funding
Mention the name Fitzbillies to anyone living in Cambridge or who has studied at the University and you will be greeted with smiles of fond recognition and praise for their iconic ultra-sticky Chelsea Buns. The company has been in the city for over 100 years and now has a café, a coffee shop, a second branch and an artisan bakery.
The business was initially set up by Ernest & Arthur Mason using their demob money from the First World War and has survived rationing, a fire, bankruptcy and a global pandemic. Since 2011, the company has been in the ownership of Alison Wright, who grew up in Cambridge and left her career as a Marketing Director in the corporate world, to relaunch the business and Tim Hayward, author, presenter and Food Writer for The Financial Times.
Alison describes how they approached the business, after taking it over, “We needed to focus on which elements of the long heritage we needed to keep and how to differentiate ourselves in terms of offer to the customer.” She added that they also needed to keep up with trends in the baked goods market which had moved towards macarons and Viennoiserie such as croissants and brioche. They added bread to the offer in 2018 and business was going well.
During the pandemic, when they had to close the branches, they concentrated on supplying bread to the wholesale market, then gradually opening the café and coffee shops as the lockdown restrictions eased. They promoted online sales of baked goods and in 2020 revamped their website to make the ordering process easier for customers.
Their online sales grew but margins were tight due to the price of ingredients and running costs rising steeply in a short time. Recognising the potential of growing their online sales, they looked for support to help them improve their customer journey, reduce drop-off rates for purchases and create a stronger conversion rate. They also wanted to tackle challenges around recruitment in the industry and grow the talent within their business.
Working with external consultants, they assessed and improved internal HR processes, working with the team to bring real change to the strategic growth of the business. This work was facilitated with a grant from Growth Works and led to the employment of seven apprentices.
Grant money also helped to fund the services of another external consultant specialising in e-commerce who worked with the company to develop their gifting offer and online business. In addition to this, the grant helped to pay for a walk-in freezer room to help with the fulfilment of their potential growing demand.
“As a result of the grant funding from Growth Works, we were able to employ the services of professionals to assist us with key elements of the business to enable growth. The website is now much better designed to attract customers, with a smoother journey through the purchase process, helping to boost our conversion rates. It also identifies where people drop out during their online journey with us, so we can now set up automatic actions to prevent the sale being lost” explained Alison.
In terms of production, they are currently making three and a half to four thousand Chelsea buns a week – all by hand and they are developing new product flavours such as Salted caramel buns and Bake at Home goods.
“Running a small business is tough and sometimes it’s essential to bring in external expertise. The Growth Works grant has enabled us to build skills within the team, develop a more responsive website and be in a position to plan and deliver for times of peak seasonal demand such as Mother’s Day and Christmas”.
“One of our biggest achievements is the apprentice scheme, going from no apprentices to seven, of whom four are bakers, two are management degree students, one is a chef, and we’d love to take on more in the future”.
Looking forward, Alison says they are focusing on maintaining the company culture they have developed over the past two years to ensure staff feel valued. They would also like to expand their market share of baked goods which bring the best returns. For now they are celebrating winning Best Bakery in the Eastern region at the National Bakery Awards!
“The grant made a big difference to our confidence and broke down some of the barriers we faced to grow the business. We aim to grow the online sales to 15% of total turnover, which is the equivalent of opening another branch”.