From a £50 loan and a small Scottish village bakery, to an iconic multinational household brand, the Walker’s Shortbread family business continues to grow as they celebrate 125 years of their original recipe. In the last financial year, the business recorded a 16% rise in turnover as export revenues boosted by almost 10%. Australia has played a significant role in the growth of the business since its inception in the market in 1972, with Australians consuming the most shortbread per capita outside of Scotland, three times as much per capita than the US. The Scottish Banner spoke to Jim Walker CBE, Director and third generation of Walker’s Shortbread about the iconic product, brand and his love of Speyside.
In 1898 your grandfather Joseph Walker opened the doors to his very first bakery at just aged 21 with a loan of £50 and the ambition to bake “The World’s Finest Shortbread” using just four ingredients. Do you ever wonder what he might think of the Walker’s global brand today? And how does it feel to be a part of such a legacy?
JW: My Grandfather was a very down to earth man, and he would likely have said, “Well done and now let’s get back to work!” It is a great honour to be a part of this business today and see what we have made of it so far. I have also made many friends around the world because of our products and it has been a wonderful business to be a part of.
Shortbread dates back well into Scottish history, with even Mary Queen of Scots being a fan. What is it about shortbread do you think people love so much the world over?
JW: I think it is the simplicity of shortbread that makes it so loved. If you make it well and keep to the true recipe people will love it. It is a fantastic treat and filled with history and a beautiful taste. Shortbread can be enjoyed at any time of day and at any occasion.
Walker’s Shortbread is an iconic Scottish brand. How does it feel for you to know your family business has not only been such an international success story but that it also represents Scottish quality on the world stage?
JW: It is both wonderful and also a big responsibility. We are determined to keep our independence and keeping the product tasting as good as it has been each and every time. We are one of the largest Scottish ambient food exporters and are a brand now recognised across the world. By doing a simple thing well, being consistent and ensuring the product tastes the same every time in every country is what we strive for and achieve.
Many generations of locals have worked for Walker’s creating a special and unique Highland community. Walker’s is one of the largest employers in the local area. How does it make you feel to have such a positive impact on the local economy over several generations?
JW: It makes us very proud, and we are determined to support the local community in every way. We are so dependent on the local community for a supply of first-class people who give a fair day’s work and for many it is more than a job it is a way of life. Often two or three members of the same family will work at the company, and we try and work with our workers to be flexible as the locals are so valuable to us. I think there is an inter-dependency between ourselves and the local community, and we both greatly benefit from each other. We have wonderful staff, and we strive to create stable employment for generations of workers.
Walker’s is today the largest family-owned biscuit manufacturer in the UK. How much of the company’s success do you put down to being family owned and operated?
JW: A lot of our success comes down to us being a family owned and operated business. Much of our longevity is from being family owned, if we were a normal corporation, it can be all too easy to sell. For us we are just custodians of this generation, and each generation is responsible to run the business and hand it over in a better condition in which they got it. So, we don’t care how much we sell this year, or next year, we care desperately however how much we will be selling in twenty years’ time. A huge order that is a one off is not that attractive to us, but an order that will run for years is the type of business we like and always look for.
The red tartan of Walker’s packaging is so very iconic. How important is it for Walker’s to include it and be known as a true Scottish company regardless of where their customers may be?
JW: Tartan for us is extremely important it is one of several things that defines us and our identity. We use tartan heavily and we always will. We are proud of our use of tartan and certainly not ashamed to incorporate it. Our products lend themselves well to a good strong tartan, partly because the product is indigenous to Scotland but also because we are a proud Scottish business. Tartan compliments our brand, however anyone who thinks they can make shortbread and put some tartan on the box and it will sell is wrong. It will always be the product itself that will bring success in the long term.
Walker’s Shortbread calls Aberlour on the banks of the River Spey in Speyside home. For those who may not have yet visited this area can you tell us about this beautiful part of Scotland?
JW: We are in the epicentre of the Scotch whisky industry. Four of the world’s top five selling whiskies are within five miles of our factory. My office looks on to Macallan Distillery and many of the world’s best distilleries are just nearby. Someone once asked me if Aberlour was like heaven as you have a shortbread factory at one end and whisky distillery at the other, and in between you can fish in the River Spey for next to nothing. It really is a beautiful part of the country with lovely valleys and the stunning River Spey, which is extremely clean and why we have so many distilleries there. The river water has a peaty flavour which is an extremely soft water. If you like the outdoors and nature, you will love coming to Speyside as we have many varieties of birds and wildlife and walking tracks. It really is a true nature paradise.
In 2022 you were awarded a knighthood from His Majesty King Charles III. Just how does that make you feel to have been honoured in such a way, and as part of a multigenerational family business do you somewhat share that honour with your family members past and present?
JW: Absolutely, I am very honoured and proud to have received it. I received this because our company has been successful exporting and for employing so many people in our local area. I do recognise I received this because of the efforts of my grandfather, my father and uncle (James and Joseph) and my brother, my sister and myself. Sadly, my brother Joe passed away in October 2021 and my sister Marjorie, who so loved Speyside, has only very recently passed away. The award really was because of the efforts of so many people and I am so very fortunate it was presented to me.