Senior management at Seabrook Crisps have led a buy-out of the UK firm, backed by private-equity group LDC. Seabrook CEO Jonathan Bye, appointed in 2012 at a challenging time for the business, is one of the executives involved in the deal and he speaks to Dean Best about the outlook for the Yorkshire-based company.

UK crisp maker Seabrook Crisps, growing solidly after a rocky couple of years at the start of the decade, is looking to accelerate its expansion and has turned to the backing of private-equity firm LDC.

A management buy-out, led by executives including CEO Jonathan Bye, has seen LDC (which has consumer assets including UK foodservice supplier Ministry of Cake) take a majority stake in Seabrook.

The deal, struck for a reported GBP35m, will see chairman Ken Brook-Chrispin leave the business. Brook-Chrispin, son-in-law of the son of Seabrook's founder, led a buy-out of other family shareholders in 2006. The transaction, confirmed yesterday (20 July), follows Seabrook's move in February to appoint corporate finance advisor McQueen to explore "all strategic options" for the business.

Three years after taking the helm at Seabrook, Bye has led a recovery of a company that, in his words, "was in a bad way" but is now seeing sales grow at 14% and, he insists, can expand "significantly in every trade sector".

"It was loss-making," Bye reflected yesterday after the deal was announced. "The cost base was out of kilter with the turnover and because of the competitive nature of the market – bear in mind we are a challenger brand competing with major global brands, such as [PepsiCo's] Walkers – we needed to get the whole cost base of the business appropriate for the level of turnover. We needed to be more aggressive with the trade to be able to compete on promotion etc etc," Bye says.

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After joining Seabrook in the spring of 2012 from UK soft drinks group Nichols, Bye and his team looked at "every facet of the business" over 18 months from sourcing and staffing to products, pricing and promotions.

"We took a huge amount of cost out that was not relevant and necessary in the business," Bye explains, saying a focus on cost was needed "to make sure we were able to start competing again in a market that is about 80 or 90% sold on promotion". He says: "You've got to be able to make a good margin at your promotional price and that was the key within it.

"We also did a lot of work understanding who the consumer was, who buys the product, who doesn't buy the product, we took 20% salt out, we re-did the packaging. It was literally the full range of things and, from March 2013, we went back into profit and we've made a monthly profit ever since. We are growing at about 13 or 14% in a flat category. We significantly out-perform all our competitive set. The trick is you've got to keep on doing that to grow in the future. It's hugely competitive, so that's why we needed the additional investment."

LDC, part of the Lloyds Banking Group, was one of "a number of bids", Bye reveals, adding there was interest from other private-equity firms and from the trade. Seabrook and its new majority owner now plan to "more aggressively drive the strategy", Bye says.

"Primarily what we mean by that is make more people aware of the brand and encourage trial. If you give people our crisps, they eat them and they like them. There's a stronger flavour delivery, a better crunch, so what we're finding is, as we make people more aware of the brand and get them to try it, we are converting that into extra sales," Bye insists. "The next challenge is to make sure you've got enough product in store. In the north, we would have a full bay in a supermarket – five or six shelves. In the south, we might only have one or two. We often run out of sale because there's not enough stock on the fixture. Once we've got people aware of what the brand is and try it, we need to have enough stock on the fixture. It's awareness, trial and availability."

The Yorkshire-based firm does "sell more" in the north of England, Bye concedes, but he says it has secured nationwide distribution. Pushed on whether Seabrook will place more emphasis on certain parts of the sector, Bye insists the company sees "an overall opportunity … we see opportunities to grow all of our core products in all sectors". although he does note potential in growing the firm's foodservice distribution. "A lot of foodservice outlets don't want the leading brands from the supermarkets. They like to sell something that's slightly different and our new lattice crisps are proving particularly popular in foodservice as an example."

Seabrook plans to invest in its infrastructure. Bye says investment was needed to help Seabrook "from a factory, efficiency, flexibility point of view" but refuses to be drawn on the details. "I'd rather not tell everybody else what we were doing," he says. There is similar coyness on NPD but Bye insists there is still "huge potential to grow" Seabrook's core crinkle crisps and the recently-launched lattice line. "That's what we're going to be focused on."

For now, Seabrook, which generates all of its annual GBP28m turnover in the UK, will also remain focused on its domestic market. "We get requests [for export] but I think the focus needs to be on the UK. That's where there's huge potential. If we can add some icing on the cake, fine, but the priority's the UK," Bye says. "If we thought there was a fantastic opportunity, we'd have a look at it. We've got people knocking on the door but I always come back to sticking to your knitting. We think we can do massively better in the UK and that is the priority. You've got to be careful not to get deflected by other things."

Could the backing from LDC present the revitalised Seabrook with an opportunity for inorganic growth? "We have huge scope to grow our existing brands and this is the absolute priority," Bye says. "There are clearly opportunities to add value in other related parts of the category. If we see something that is attractive we will be interested but no specific plans currently that I'd disclose."

Above all, Bye underlines the buy-out and backing from private equity was needed to ensure Seabrook's recovery continues. "As I explained to all the staff, we could have carried on exactly as we were, we were growing extremely well, we were out-performing everyone else and that's fine. What this will hopefully allow us to do is accelerate the rate of growth. We're doing a lot better than our competitive set and we're hoping to do even better but there's no complacency. Yesterday's success is no guarantee of the future. But when you've got products that people like and you've got a brand with 70 years' heritage, it clearly gives you something over other products and we want to take advantage of that."