One of the more bizarre company visits I’ve made recently was to a
spanking new, world-class nappy factory. It was set on a windswept plain
- and run with awesome efficiency by a near skeleton staff of hand-
picked managers, who gave every appearance of being ready to jump off
the Humber Bridge if the parent company decided to put it in their job
Such is the state of the art in the nappy world, they can now make one
almost as fast as an infant can mess it up. Only the plant’s commendable
devotion to environmental concerns betrays the real problem - that once
nappies are dumped in landfill sites they still have a half-life of
around a hundred years.
Marketers often seem to work in the dark and could learn a lot more
about their products and their clients if they spent more time at the
On another occasion I was mesmerised by a white gloopy mixture being
extruded out of a pipe at varying pressures so it rippled on to a tray
and got a dollop of brown stuff every few seconds. From that day on,
Wall’s Vienetta will never seem quite the same.
Let’s not forget the time when I stood at Vergze in the South of
France, where once upon a time what’s now called Perrier used to dribble
out over the vineyards and run into the sea.
The French Perrier executive at the plant gave me an interview through
an interpreter - professing not to speak English. Funny that, because
when I asked him about the benzene affair, he suddenly found he could,
and said ‘no comment’.
Mind you, these days anyone can get inside British industry - or at
least a virtual representation of it. In fact, so many people have done
all the existing visitor tours, it’s only a matter of time before they
open up heritage tearooms in many of the light industrial units closed
since the mid 80s.
Maybe it was the not-unpleasant whiff of solvents in the air, but my
most memorable tour was to a family-owned paint factory in the north of
England. A chat with the workers revealed that previously some long-
serving staff had been caught stealing materials. When the boss found
out he didn’t call the police, but treated them like wayward children -
even encouraging some to leave by offering them gifts.
This not only left the remaining innocent workers with a sense of
injustice but clearly revealed that this was not so much a business at
all but a family dynasty, where maximising earnings and a conventional
code of ethics sometimes came secondary to other goals. The next
generation will undoubtedly be less sentimental.
Meanwhile, don’t expect special treatment on your factory walkabout. I’d
travelled over 200 miles from the crack of dawn on three trains to see
that nappy factory, and I wasn’t offered so much as a cup of tea. If
it’s freebies you’re after, stick to visiting breweries.
Nigel Cassidy is business correspondent of Radio 4’s Today programme