Fourth prestigious award for Corby fruit firm that does things differently

Blue Skies in Corby works closely with its global workforce

Sunday, 19th September 2021, 4:46 pm
Updated Sunday, 19th September 2021, 4:48 pm
Lord Lieutenant of Northamptonshire James Saunders-Watson with the Blue Skies team

From the outside, Blue Skies looks like any other Corby food production warehouse.

But inside, things are done differently.

The wellbeing and happiness of the company's global workforce is at the heart of everything that is going on here - with 5,000 staff across Africa, South America, Europe and the UK working closely to create a unique culture that fosters fairness, respect and trust.

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James Saunders-Watson meets Blue Skies Chair Anthony Pile and his son Hugh, CEO of the firm.

Which is one of the reasons that firm has been handed its fourth prestigious Queens Enterprise Award for Sustainable Development.

During seven years running Orchard House in Corby, Blue Skies founder Anthony Pile realised there was a dearth of genuinely fresh-cut fruit.

So in 1997 he set up his own company to do, in his own words, "something nobody else was doing."

"Rather than a race to the bottom, we thought we'd have something that distinguishes us from everybody else," he said.

Anthony Pile and James Saunders-Watson admire Blue Skies Queen's Award flag outside the building in Saxon Way East.

"The whole industry has misused the word 'fresh'. It means something else.

"You can kick something to hell, then cool it, then call it fresh. We mean fresh from harvest.

"Our customers just can't get the same quality anywhere else."

The firm has factories in Benin, Egypt, Brazil, South Africa and Europe and is also the largest private sector employer in Ghana. It supplies packaged, cut fruit, juices and ice cream to more than 20 major global retailers including Tesco, Waitrose, M&S, Amazon and Aldi.

Staff in Africa are paid three times the minimum wage and Blue Skies invests in community projects and training for its staff.

"It's our responsibility to be a real part of the communities where we are based, said Anthony.

"We add value at source."

Factories are all managed by local staff, most of whom have worked their way up through the company, which means that there is an implicit trust between bosses and workers.

"You can't just send a white, middle-class man over there to run things," said Anthony. "You have to have that trust."

While many UK fruit providers cut un-ripe fruit before shipping it to the UK, ripening it here and preparing it, Blue Skies has factories close to where the fruit is grown which do most of the work, which means that there is real investment in the local economies.

"People told me that was a very risky way to do things," said Anthony.

"But our Joint Effort Enterprise model means that our employees know that we're there forever. We're a forever organisation. Our shares are owned by lots of people in the business and there's no intention to ever sell.

"It's the dream to get bigger and bigger until we're as big as Unilever.

"We're Northamptonshire-based, but we're a very global company.

"We have more than thirty nationalities working for us and that's really, really important to us because it enables us to think outside the box."

The firm is determined to become a zero-waste, zero-emission, zero-poverty, zero-biodiversity loss company, and uses cargo holds of passenger planes to bring its fruit to the UK within 24-hours of it being cut.

Spending so much time in African nations has given Anthony a unique insight into the reasons why so many young men from the area attempt to migrate to the UK to find a more prosperous life.

He believes that paying his African workers a relatively high wage means they will be less likely to attempt the dangerous journey to the UK and be more likely to stay at home with their families.

"If they get across the Sahara, to northern Africa, then somehow they've got to get across to Italy and through Europe before attempting to cross the channel before Priti Patel says 'back you go'," said Anthony.

"The people we employ will probably use the money they earn to send their children to university. That is what they talk about all the time. And if it gives them a chance to make a real difference in their communities to why, then, would they choose to go anywhere else?"

The firm has just opened a new factory in Benin which it is using as a prototype for sustainable and environmentally-friendly production. A series of top-secret innovations could be rolled out to other factories if they prove to be a success.

Lord Lieutenant of Northamptonshire James Saunders-Watson visited Blue Skies in Corby on Friday (September 17) to hand over the latest Queen's Award. It was granted in 2020 but due to the Covid pandemic, the ceremony was delayed until last week.

The Queen’s Awards for Enterprise was instituted by Royal Warrant in 1965 and is the highest official UK award for British businesses. Businesses are awarded in three categories, International Trade, Innovation and Sustainable Development.

The latest award is in recognition of the company’s pioneering sustainability plan, called the ‘Blueprint’. This is a set of commitments for People, Planet and Profit, designed to ensure the business can meet the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.