Nicholls: strong on quality bread!
It is one of the oldest bakeries on the island; and boasts of producing one of the most loved Bajan treats.
Nicholls Baking Company Inc., one of the few longest operating black-owned businesses in Barbados, has played an integral role in the development of the island over the past five decades. The company was started in 1967 in Tudor Street, but later moved to its current Bibby’s Lane, St Michael location in 1971 after it quickly became popular for its soft delicious salt bread.
In 1990, the business suffered “a minor setback” –– a fire that caused the bakery to close for about five years. The company would be refurbished and reopened on Valentine’s Day. That was when McDonald Nicholls, 57, took over the operations from his father.
“It has been bumpy in terms of getting the business off the ground and trying to get market share [and] trying to get good employees. But at a personal satisfaction level, I would say business is great,” said Nicholls, who is the managing director.
“We didn’t come in necessarily to make money, even though that was important. We came in with the aim to provide the best quality product in the island, and I think we have succeeded in accomplishing that.
“We had some setbacks, but we were always focused. We knew what our goals were and we knew what we wanted to achieve, and, to a large extent, I think we have achieved that,” Nicholls told Barbados TODAY.
Nicholls said he believed the main contribution of the company to the island over the years was inspiring fellow Barbadians to believe “a black company could still be successful and still be one of those companies that Bajans can say is truly Bajan”.
“. . . Since I took over in 1995 until now, we have had a more community-minded spirit. We give a lot to the churches, youth groups. We help a lot of kids; we help a lot of families; and we give a lot to charities, because my philosophy is the strong should help the weak,” said Nicholls.
“There are people who go into the supermarkets, service stations and shops all around the island and say, ‘I want Nicholls bread’; and if they don’t have Nicholls bread. They don’t want any other bread. That for me is loyalty.
“So it is more like a partnership. They help the company to become successful, and we say thank you by giving to people. Personally, I don’t like to see people experiencing hard times. It hurts,” he explained.
Before taking over the company about 21 years ago, Nicholls has always been involved in the business. The Warrens, St Michael resident recalled that in the 1960s and 1970s the competition in the baking industry in Barbados was stiff and there were a lot of consolidations, which had resulted in most of the smaller bakeries going out of business.
“What my father did when he started in 1967, from that time to about 1970 he started acquiring other bakeries; and back then it was easier to do it. When you acquired a bakery, you took over the business and the equipment; but you did not pay for the business; you paid for the equipment,” Nicholls stated.
“In fact, my father merged 13 small bakeries, and he grew very rapidly.”
He explained that as demand for the products grew, the company moved from using only three bags of flour a day to over ten times that.
“. . . Word spread that he was taking over bakeries and acquiring businesses, and so on. Then they would approach him. A lot of these men were old and they would have raised their children and they wanted to get out of baking.
“They made what they could have, and it was time for them to retire. So he took over a lot of these bakeries –– from St Michael, St Philip, Christ Church, St Andrew, and as far as St Peter,” Nicholls recalled.
Besides the bakery in Bibby’s Lane, the company, which employs 46 people, also owns three other outlets, its products distributed islandwide.
The managing director told Barbados TODAY the employees were his most valuable assets, adding they were very loyal and committed to the Nicholls brand.
As the island celebrates 50 years of political Independence, it is Nicholls’ wish to see Barbadians embrace a “can do spirit” and “stay true to their inner self”.
“The problems that we are experiencing now are not insurmountable. We can overcome them. The other thing that I wish for my country is that they start to embrace excellence. That is my biggest problem in that our people tend to think that anything goes; that mediocrity is enough.
“Enough is not enough. When I look at what we are experiencing in our country, people are throwing their hands in the air, and there is this kind of feeling that all is lost and that we can’t do it. No, no, I don’t believe that.
“We are a resilient people; but I think what has happened to us over the years is that mentality that the older people possessed seems not to be in our younger people,” Nicholls offered.
The father of five added that “older people” were thrifty and therefore they “made do with what little they had”.
“Now,” he said, “if people don’t have Government assistance, and I see even in businesses, if they don’t have Government assistance or Government protection, they don’t believe they can make it. I don’t believe in that!”
Nicholls admitted that since the start of the recession there had been a significant fall-off in sales at his company, and he had had to adjust operations.
“Even though our sales have fallen off by about 25 per cent, what we have done, though, is we have re-engineered and adapted. The thing that works in our favour is that we don’t have a heavily layered management structure. It is very simple.
“We can have a problem today and we make a decision today, and keep moving on. So that helps us a whole lot,” he explained.
The top man said that besides making minor changes to the day-to-day operations, he had acquired new technology to help boost efficiency, and had started to see improvements, adding that it was not about making the most products.
From a very young age, Nicholls knew he wanted to be a baker. And his father, now deceased, saw the passion and took him out of school at age 13 to show him the ropes.
He said he cherished mostly the ability to sit with his father over the years and talk the language of baking with “extreme” emphasis on quality.
“I learned at the feet of some of the most brilliant bakers. We had some of the best bakers, and my father always looked to employ the best bakers,” Nicholls said.
While the company started out baking breads and cakes, it has added a range of items over the years, mainly owing to customer demand.
“We make sure this product is good to be on the market before we put it on the market; and if we put it on the market and we are not satisfied, we pull it,” Nicholls asserted.
After a few years of helping his father at the bakery, he then attended college where he pursued studies in philosophy. But even after he had finished his studies, Nicholls knew “there was only one direction” for him, and so he went right back into the business.
“The day I came home from college I was in the bakery . . . because that is where my heart was; and still is. I don’t know when my heart would not yearn to be in bakery. I can’t foresee that day.”
And he said his outlook for the company was “very, very positive”, based on what plans he had in store, “and based on what we are doing”.
“There is a lot more in store. I will not discuss it now; but there is a whole lot more in store,” Nicholls promised.
“I can honestly say this without fear, that in the baking industry, this is the real Bajan tradition. We still stick to our core product: salt bread, and turnovers and those kinds of things, and sweet bread,” he said, adding that the salt bread was the king of all the products.
Although Nicholls is not help much these days with the actual baking, he still oversees the day-to-day operations, ensuring close attention is paid to quality.
“I get very annoyed and upset when I am not satisfied with the quality. I will be the most miserable. Nobody is going to bash Nicholls because of poor quality salt bread. Nobody is going to bash us because of that!” he insisted.
It is no surprise then that his greatest joy lies in when he goes into the bakery and sees “a lovely” product coming out of the oven.
“My satisfaction is not at the cash register and hearing chi-ching, chi-ching, chi-ching. It is rolling out consistently, day in, day out, quality products. That is my greatest joy. That is my passion,” said
a fervent Nicholls.