A feature story in April Confectionery Production magazine.
Having grown up in the sugar industry, there isn’t much, if anything, that Ben Eastick doesn’t know about it, from sourcing through to formulation and logistics. In fact, as sugar has become a buzzword in the consumer press, he’s increasingly found himself fielding questions from the media on sugar related issues.Despite its position as a leading sugar producer and manufacturer – Eastick’s family has been involved in the sugar industry since 1880 – Ragus is still family run. “My cousin Peter runs the production side,” says Eastick. “He’s been working in the business since the 1970s. My brother James deals with sales, and I manage the marketing.”
The services offered by Ragus span the sugar supply chain, from sourcing raw natural materials to delivering to clients globally. All three have worked across the business, giving them an invaluable insight that enables them to manage potential issues as they arise. “We have all worked on the shop floor, we have all worked on the sales side, and we all still manage our key accounts,” he says.
Raw materials are sourced from certified suppliers. The company’s cane sugar comes from African, Caribbean and Pacific countries, while its beet sugar is sourced from within the European Union. “Our manufacturing standards are to BRC and ISO9001,” says Eastick. The applied expertise of a highly specialised team produces a diverse range of products. “With longevity in the sugar industry comes a wealth of knowledge of how different sugars perform, hence we are often called upon to advise both suppliers and customers,” he adds.
Ragus specialises in producing three types of natural pure sugar, from crystalline sugars and refinery syrups to custom formulations – the different products vary widely in colour, taste, texture and application.
Apart from Candico in Belgium, which according to Eastick produces similar products, Ragus is unique in the industry in that the company does not make white sugar. Instead it has focused on making specialist sugar syrups for the confectionery, bakery, brewery and pharmaceutical industries since 1928. For the confectionery market this includes molasses, treacle, blended sugars, golden syrups and liquid sugars.
The company’s pure syrups range from familiar ingredients such as golden syrup to highly specialised products for industrial use, and a team of sugar specialists create and source specialised products to match specific customer requirements.
Overall, 30 per cent of what the company produces is made up
of bespoke blends. “Our product formulations are tried and tested, but we can tailor make our product and unlike other suppliers we can deliver to meet the customer’s needs,” says Eastick. “By staying specialist we have remained profitable and have controlled our market,” he adds.
A focus on the future efficiency of the business resulted in a multi-million pound investment in a new factory at the end of 2012, with the capacity to double production. “When we took over the business from the previous generation, we needed to save enough money to move the business forward,” says Eastick. “And we managed to do it without borrowing vast sums of money,” he explains. “We also felt we needed a cash reserve.”
But far from having been adversely affected by any of the big stories in the news relating to sugar prices, or indeed the potentially bad publicity generated by stories relating to the need to reduce our sugar consumption, business at Ragus is good.
Most sugar refineries were originally attached to breweries in the 1800s, and the shiny and efficient new production facility at Ragus’ headquarters has been designed to meet its every need and deliver the utmost efficiency. The bespoke syrup plant was designed and fitted by UK brewery supplier Musk Engineering.
On 22 June 2005, the European Commission released its plan to reform policies on sugar, the last major crop programme to face changes under an overhaul of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) initiated in 1992. “Keeping our heads below the parapet until the reforms had happened allowed us to expand,” says Eastick.
Raw sugar is sourced from various countries depending on factors including price, logistics and what the end product will be used for. “It is a constant battle moving supply chains due to problems with efficiency, seasonal crops and so on,” says Eastick. However, traditionally, most of its supplies for crystalline sugars have been sourced from Mauritius to avoid logistical problems that are likely to have an impact further down the line. “Pretty much every country outside Mauritius has challenges with supply,” says Eastick. “Although it is more expensive, other countries have shipping issues. The African and Caribbean mindsets are to produce sugar pretty much on their terms.”
Ragus is also able to provide full traceability back to the field. “This has benefitted us, but was more fortuitous than planned,” Eastick admits.
Fairtrade and organic currently make up three to five per cent of what the company produces. About 200,000 tonnes of organic sugar produced on the world market is split between Europe and the US in terms of consumption each year. “Organic
is becoming stronger, but the market has been stagnant,” says Eastick. “The price of organic sugar rose two years ago, but buyers agree it was too much. Growers need to reduce volumes now due to an excess of stock.”
Although the company has considered introducing sugar substitutes to its range, the decision has been made not to go down this route and so far, it’s a decision that is paying off. “We believe in the product. It’s a natural product,” Eastick insists.
“There is a lot of misinformation in the press about sugar and fructose, but natural pure sugars are healthier than all the other available processed sweeteners and chemical sweetener replacements,” he explains. “And, a teaspoon of sugar contains only 16 calories, which is less than a carrot,” he adds.
“We make a lot of products that go into the dietary industry. Sugar is about colour, binding, moisture and shelf life.”
Sugar is the second most important traded commodity after oil, which means that forward planning for the business means keeping abreast of what’s happening in the global markets. In terms of future sales growth in the confectionery market, Eastick predicts this will be in treacle. “Only Ragus and Tate & Lyle make it,” he says. “This is because it is a volatile product and most don’t want to handle it,” he adds.
And with regard to the wider issues relating to reducing sugar consumption in general: “You can eat a lot of sugar, but there’s a lot to teach people and they’re going to get harder to convince,” he says. “We have to be sensible about our intake. The consumer will wise up,” he concludes.