Hilton Food Group plans to make more than 20 staff redundant at its UK seafood operations where CEO Steve Murrells has invested in automation.

Just Food understands talks will begin with 24 manual filleting workers at the UK-based company’s Grimsby site on the east coast of England with a view to redundancies, although alternative roles will be offered.

Hilton Food has two processing facilities in Grimsby, trading as Hilton Seafood UK, supplying fish and shellfish products to retail. The private-label business said last week the category had returned to profitability after earnings were hit by inflation and supply-chain disruptions.

“In order to maintain its market competitiveness, Hilton Seafood is planning to introduce new filleting equipment to its Grimsby site,” a company spokesperson said in a statement.

“Regrettably, as part of this, we are proposing to remove specific filleting roles, which we expect to result in a number of redundancies.”

Murrells, who became CEO last July, told Just Food in a recent interview that more than £21m ($26.6m) had been invested in automation and robotics at one of the Grimsby plants, which would provide “opportunities to grow volume”.

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The other Grimsby facility is also earmarked for investment this year. Murrells said that would “provide a reduction in our cost profile so that we can support our fish partners during the next 12-18 months and beyond”.

Just Food has asked Hilton Food if further seafood job losses could be on the cards as a result of those projects.

However, this publication understands that there will be no implications beyond the filleting job losses on the wider Hilton Seafood business.

The spokesperson added: “This is not a decision we have taken lightly, and it in no way reflects the hard work of everyone within the filleting department.

“Our number one priority is in supporting those affected colleagues, all of whom will be offered alternative roles within Grimsby.”

Discussing Hilton Food’s annual results last April for the 12 months to 1 January 2023, Philip Heffer, Murrells’ predecessor, said the company’s seafood business had been hit by a “perfect storm”.

Heffer pledged to reduce costs through automation with a new seafood team in place to “rebuild profitability”.

The UK seafood business returned to the black in the new year to 31 December 2023, helping drive up Hilton Food’s group adjusted operating profit by 33.5% to £95m. Statutory profit before tax rose 64.2% to £48.6m.

Revenue for the year climbed 3.7% to £4bn, with group volumes up 0.7%. UK volumes, however, dropped 3%.

Hilton Food supplies other protein categories such as private-label meat and vegan and vegetarian products. As well as the UK, it serves other European markets and the APAC region, operating 24 plants in ten different countries.

“We’ve got our mojo back” in seafood, Murrells told Just Food in a discussion of those results. “We’ve got a very firm platform for growth.”