'I never sit down and relax': the secret of success for New Forest Ice Cream's Christina Veal
THE sweet scent of dairy welcomes visitors to the HQ of New Forest Ice Cream, the family business that has grown from a kitchen in Milford into one of the district’s biggest manufacturers, turning over £5m a year.
From its factory at the Ampress industrial estate in Lymington, it sells across England and is run by 43-year-old twins Christina Veal and Niki Jenman since they took over from their parents a few years ago.
Company legend has it that it was Christina who in 1980 first asked her now 80-year-old dad, Lawrie Jenman, to make her ice cream, and she insists it’s true.
“Mum and dad ran a post office in Everton – which is still there and [the current owners] still sell New Forest Ice Cream. But in those days they could not get a decent supply. The lorry would turn up and there would be nothing on it, the ice cream ran out.
“That’s what started him talking when I said, why don’t you start making ice cream?”
Lawrie and Sue (74) went on to grow lettuces and tomatoes commercially, with the twins helping out. But Christina says: “Whilst they were doing that their minds were ticking away and they thought, we could do this.
“The original recipe came from America and they tweaked it and we still have that as the core of our ice cream. People can see the ingredients on the tub but they do not know how we actually make it.”
The interview is on a bright spring day with a sunny weekend forecast. Office staff are busily phoning round traders checking if they need to buy more stock for what promises to be a profitable few days for the ice cream trade.
It’s busy enough that Christina has already had to cancel a lunch meeting today. Despite the rush she’s calm and is full of smiles. But she says: “My rest time is when I hit the bed. I never sit down and relax.”
It means her husband, Adam, has done many of the family jobs like picking up from school their two children, now aged 11 and 18 – something Christina feels she’s “missed out” on amid her dedication to the family business.
The frantic pace she describes is far removed from a child’s Willy Wonka-style vision of an ice cream factory, and she jokes: “I’m looking forward to retirement.”
She also doesn’t rule out following a similar path to Ben and Jerry’s, the popular, independent ice cream firm that in 2000 famously sold to global consumer goods giant Unilever.
“There’s always a price for everything, isn’t there? But at the moment me and my sister are running it and if we sold up now it would be letting myself down and my dad, even though he would not mind.”
The company shares are held by the twins, their parents and brother Graham who was part of the business for a while but now works in engineering and is a silent partner. “There was another route he wanted to take,” she says.
Things used to be harder when there were five people having to agree things and Christina won’t be drawn on whether there were tensions, but she points out that it’s much easier with two people running the show.
She says: “[Our parents] did not want to retire. They were both over 70 when they retired. At one point one was in one hospital and the other was in another.
“The company has gone forward. There’s a retirement age for a reason: you can’t take the pressure when you’re older – nothing against them. They could do one job at a time but not more than one, not like you can when you’re younger.
“They knew it would be in good hands. They had watched us grow up in it. For them it was easier to get their daughters in.”
Lawrie and Sue like to be updated on what’s happening and are still regular visitors to the factory – when new lorries arrived recently they both celebrated by having their photos taken with them.
The pristine factory and hanger-like freezers combine so that on the busiest weeks the operation employs up to 50 people and gets through 12,000 litres of milk and 4,000 litres of double cream which, with the added ingredients, churns out 55,000 litres of ice cream.
That’s delivered by a fleet of four 7.5-tonne and eight 3.5-tonne lorries which have to carefully navigate the New Forest’s roads.
Among the 34 flavours, the best-selling are vanilla and salted caramel – the latter being Christina’s favourite. New ones are investigated once a year with about 15 people weighing in on what tastes best, including employees, chefs and customers.
There’s factory capacity to double turnover to £10m, Christina says, but she’s not interested in growth for the sake of it.
“We’re happy with how we are going because we’re expanding because of our service. We’re not out there looking for huge contracts; they come to us and then we decide if we take them on. But we will not take anything on that will affect our service. We have turned down a lot of contracts.”
Export offers have also come in, including to India, but she doesn’t want to take on the complexity of shipping abroad. She recalls an order for a Muslim country which had to be ditched after the wholesaler belatedly realised rum and raisin had alcohol in it.
Instead of chasing expansion, the company’s success is centred on nurturing relationships with its existing buyers, says Christina: “We know all our customers, They’re not an account number to us. We know their names.”
The twins’ different characters combine to form a good team too – Christina describes herself as the softer of the two and between them they take on the jobs that suit them best. Both look after sales, with Christina in charge of PR, and Niki purchasing, but they throw themselves into anything.
“We both get involved in the whole way the factory runs. If we are short I will put on my thermal suit and pick orders,” she says. “We’re just too nosy not to be involved in everything.”
As women in what Christina describes as still a “male dominated” industry, they have faced attitudes – and sometimes rudeness – that she thinks men in their position wouldn’t have to put up with to keep the orders coming in.
But she embraces it: “Me and Niki, because we have each other, we’re stronger and we even play on that. There’s nice customers and nasty customers but we deal with that.
“We like being women in a man’s industry; it’s the challenge. We get on with men so if someone approaches me and they are quite demanding my way is befriending them, have a joke and see how far I can wind them up. Niki does not have the tolerance I have got and she’s a bit more short-tempered with them.”
That willingness to fight is what has helped the company become one of the few major brands to emerge from the New Forest, she says. Support from local authority planners has been inconsistent, she feels – an application to build a factory at Gordleton was rejected by the district council in 2008.
Although there is help for start-ups, larger firms don’t get the development flexibility they need, she thinks: “If this place went up in flames we could not start again, we could not start a factory. It took 10 years to get this site and build it.”
The constantly changing flow of regulations is another challenge, which she’s unsure will improve by leaving the EU. In fact, she says, since the referendum there have been “astronomical increases” in the price of raw ingredients which have shot up by as much as three times and forced the business into a 2% price rise.
In her teens, Christina left the firm for a while to become a legal secretary. But despite advancing up the career ladder she says the office politics were too fraught and she returned to New Forest Ice Cream at 19 to work in the office.
Would she like her children to follow the family business? “It would be lovely for them to continue with it but I would want them to look at what I did when I went out and did my own thing and then say they wanted to come on board.”
It certainly wouldn’t be for the faint-hearted. The harsh chill in the hanger-like freezer room, which leaves ice crystals on the eyebrows of the suited-up workers, doesn’t bother Christina as she gamely poses without a jacket for photos among the tubs of ice cream.
As she says: “Me and my sister grew into the company. We were young when mum and dad did it. We were the New Forest Ice Cream twins.”