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Iconic Moray firm Walker’s Shortbread facing myriad challenges in its 125th year

Nicky Walker
Walker's Shortbread managing director Nicky Walker. Image: Walker's

Walker’s Shortbread is celebrating its 125th year. Simon Warburton spoke to the Aberlour firm’s managing director, Nicky Walker.

Former Aberdeen FC goalkeeper Nicky Walker is now leading the eponymous and world-famous shortbread company after spells at the firm including as trainee manager, factory manager and production director.

But it wasn’t just a case of walking straight into the family shoes, with his late father, Joe Walker, deciding what time the new MD would start on his first day in the role.

Nicky Walker in goalkeeper kit
Nicky Walker during his time at Pittodrie. Image: EMPICS Sport

Mr Walker said: “I told my father I was ready to start on Monday morning.

“I asked him what time to come in and he told me 4am. I just laughed but he said he wasn’t joking.

“My dad was putting down a challenge because that is what the business requires.

“He was probably testing to see if I was going to give it my whole heart and attention.”

Soaring energy prices just one of many big challenges this year

Walker’s, in common with every other business in the Highlands, whether small or a giant, is facing myriad challenges in 2023.

Not the least of these are soaring energy bills, with the recent announcement of a “watered-down” UK Government package of support for businesses worth an estimated £5.5 billion for the next 12 months being delivered with a warning the taxpayer’s largesse is not bottomless.

The current scheme, which comes to an end in April, is due to cost the government around £18bn for just six months.

We are not alone in facing these challenges.”

Nicky Walker, managing director, Walker’s Shortbread.

“For our company there are so many factors that can and do affect our operations,” Mr Walker said.

He added: “Some of the most challenging have been staff availability, raw material price escalation and availability, unprecedented utility costs and logistic increases.

“We are not alone in facing these challenges. It will be the same for many other organisations and perhaps even more so for some companies in more rural locations.”

War in Ukraine

As well as the energy cost challenges, there is also the impact of the grinding war in Ukraine – now approaching the anniversary of the Russian invasion in February 2022.

It shows no sign of abating, fuelling rampant inflation and supply chain pressures.

Ukraine may seem a far-off conflict but the interconnected nature of the global economy is impossible to avoid in 2023.

Walker's Jubilee shortbread.
Walker’s celebrated the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee in 2022 with a special biscuit. Image: Walker’s

Mr Walker added: “The current global and national challenges are bound to continue to affect most companies in some capacity and Walker’s Shortbread is no different.

“However, we approach each new year as a challenge and an opportunity to improve as a company, for the benefit of our employees, customers and consumers.”

This year also marks a landmark anniversary for Walker’s, which remains a significant employer in Moray.

Shortbread firm’s 125th anniversary

Mr Walker said: “In 2023 we celebrate our 125th year in business and there is an immense amount of pride in that achievement.

“There is no doubt that along with the longevity and pride comes a great deal of responsibility.

“The last few years have been among the most challenging we have ever faced.

“But, with our recently restructured board and newly updated business strategy, we feel confident we are in decent shape… to face the challenges that 2023 will no doubt bring.”

Walker’s is looking to improve on its 2021 trading performance as it emerges from the twin challenges of the pandemic and supply chain woes triggered by war in Ukraine.

Late last year former joint managing director Sir Jim Walker told The Press and Journal an operating profit margin of 4.4% in 2021 was “substantially short” of what the board considered an acceptable return.

Sir Jim Walker.
Sir Jim Walker. Image: Walker’s Shortbread

The iconic Moray shortbread-maker is focused on a “more profitable future,” he said.

Sir Jim was speaking after the company posted accounts showing pre-tax profits nearly doubled to £6.8 million last year, from £3.6m in 2020.

Soaring energy bills and inflation in double digits have seen the business pass on some of its extra costs to customers.

Sir Jim said it had been a “very, very difficult couple of years” due to Covid and supply problems.

He added: “Pre-tax profits did virtually double (in 2021) but were behind where we were. We are hoping it will gradually build back.”

Butter has soared in price

Just a snapshot of just how challenging the trading environment is right now can be gleaned by the fact the price of butter – a key ingredient in Walker’s recipes – has skyrocketed during the past year, while flour costs have also risen.

Nicky Walker remains confident a post-Covid business landscape will prove more fruitful.

He said: “2022 saw us almost return to pre-pandemic levels of operation.

‘Significant achievement’

“That has been a significant achievement, especially as we feel we have rebuilt the growth in a sustainable manner.

“We have to hope, following the uncertainty brought about by Brexit, Covid and the ongoing situation in Ukraine, there will be a period of more stability as we all strive for a better economy.”

Meanwhile, Walker’s board has acknowledged the 60 years’ service of Sir Jim, who received his knighthood in the late Queen’s Birthday Honours last year.

He and his late sibling, Joe, jointly led the business founded by their grandfather, Joseph Walker.

Walker’s produced a special tin for the Queen’s platinum jubilee in 2022.