Chris Holland meets the boss of an award-winning food producer who has survived the hard knocks of running a small business

FIDDLE player James O'Dwyer never set out to be an entrepreneur. His goal was to be a folk music star.

Indeed, it was music that brought him to West Yorkshire from the Midlands where he joined friends in a folk band to seek fame and fortune.

That eluded him but the subsequent success of his business must seem like icing on the cake - especially as making cakes is what he has been doing for more than 30 years at Shipley-based Just Desserts.

Although he left school at 16 and did a two-year catering course at Loughborough Technical College while working as a waiter at a local restaurant, James had no strong desire to work in catering or related industries.

His career has involved stints in a quilt factory, mixing glue at a Keighley tube maker, several years at Keighley Library, working in the office at Sharpes greetings cards (now Hallmark) in Bradford before two or three years as a salesman for foot products firm Scholl.

The only sign of any entrepreneurial spirit was a small picture framing business he ran as a sideline.

So, it was a big leap into the dark when James packed in his job at Scholl, especially as he and wife Carol had a six month old baby at the time.

"I had never really settled at Scholl and liked the idea of doing something for myself . The spur was the Government's Enterprise Allowance scheme which paid new start-ups £40 a week for 12 months.

" I felt that I had enough experience, skills and resourcefulness to make a go of working for myself. The original plan was to make frozen shepherd's pies, lasagne and so on to sell to freezer shops," said James.

He initially started in 1985 in a small unit at Salts Mill as part of the Bradford Microfirms initiative run by businessman and University of Bradford School of Management MBA course lecturer Frank Kuhne, who became a key mentor to James as the business developed.

James said: "Looking back, it seems as though all the stars were aligned. The chap in the unit made quiches but as a sideline produced fudge cake for extra money. He offered me the fudge cake recipe and a mixer as well as two customers for the cake.Then, an ice cream maker offered to sell me a freezer.

" The pie business wasn't doing much so I decided to take that on and the first week's turnover was £158 and I thought I'd arrived. Everything came together at the same time and I was in the right place.

"Frank Kuhne, who remains a friend, is one of the most inspirational people I know and was invaluable in helping guide me towards becoming someone with an idea of how to run a business."

Once the fudge making was established James gradually added to the range of products and took on more customers as well as a part-time assistant.

But it was not all plain sailing.

As is the case for many SMEs, Just Desserts was busy but not making money.

James recalled: "What we made was good but the pricing policy was bonkers. The busier we were the more money we were losing. We'd clinched a contract to supply Harry Ramsdens at Guiseley with apple pies, which was great. But when we analysed it, we were losing 50p on every pie.

"Frank Kuhne educated me about product profit contribution and that helped stabilise the business. I think fondly of those days working with Frank, including on one occasion working through the night until dawn on statistical analysis and other issues."

As business grew, with clients including The Connection in Shipley and the Damn Yankee at Guiseley, Just Desserts signed a 15 year lease for a 1,800 sq ft unit in Shipley in 1989 and has since occupied two more units.

Just Desserts was also supplying Selfridges deli counter in Manchester's Trafford Centre three times a week - but that contract disappeared when the retailer switched its operation to a Patisserie Valerie outlet. A big knock.

"That was not due to anything we did but rather the result of a change of policy by the customer but it is the sort of blow you learn tod eal with," said James.

He says one of the biggest lessons he learned was how to delegate rather than doing everything himself as the business grew.

"For someone who has started a business it's one of the hardest things in the world. It's like giving away your kids," he said.

Just Desserts supplies farm shops, including Keelham Farm in Bradford and Skipton garden centres Asian dessert bars, delis, hotels, restaurants cafes. pubs and outside catering companies.

It's delivery fleet of four freezer vans covers and area form Nottingham in the south to Stokesley in the North and east-west from Hull to Manchester. An external carrier is used for deliveries further afield.

"Doing our own deliveries has enabled us to keep control. First impressions are extremely important and our drivers wear collars and ties and look smart as they are our interface with customers. They are our ambassadors and their appearance reflects our commitment to product quality and customer care,"said James.

Just Desserts has continued to invest in its operations, with capital expenditure in recent years of more than £100,000 in new ovens, freezers, freezer vans and other infrastructure in the business which now employs around 25 people.

James is considering expanding baking capacity with a twilight shift to boost production without a major rise in overhead costs .

Last year Just Desserts enjoyed sales growth of more than 30 per cent which enabled it to expand into the third business unit. It saw sales increase across its foodservice customer base, particularly in the independent, farm shop, National Trust properties and garden centre sectors.

Investment in new equipment doubled bakery capacity and increased efficiency with improved warehousing and office space and upgraded IT systems. The expansion created jobs for two more bakers to make its 130-strong product range.

James said: " I was delighted with the significant upsurge in sales in 2015-16 and they are continuing to increase, although not at the same rate .

“We were also cited among small manufacturing firms set to benefit from domestic sales in an expanding economy in the 2014 Manufactory Advisory Service barometer and we are certainly enjoying an increase in home grown business.

“A combination of improved marketing, better sales materials and getting to market earlier in key selling seasons, has contributed to this success, allowing us to respond to customer needs. Continuing to improve our facilities in Shipley has supported our growth strategy,”

James is also looking at making products for retail sales, which would mark the next major expansion of the business.

Testing of the retail market is under way and James hopes this new enterprise will be up and running before long.

"We are looking to develop a retail brand w aimed at independent stores and higher-end supermarkets. We have some products that fit that market and we are exploring that

with potential retail customers we make a treacle tart in a 12 protion size for foodservice clients. That can be reduced to a family sized tart for retail sale.

" We need to look at suitable branding and packaging which are key to retailing whereas we supply our foodservice customers in plain boxes. It's vital the the quality and design of the packaging for retail reflects the quality of the product inside and stand out on the shop shelves," said James.

Although excited about such prospects, James is keeping a level head.

Previous ups and downs mean he is determined to keep any expansion under control .

"I'm looking to remain good at what we do, to be profitable and provide secure employment for people as we grow. If going national is part of that then we'll look at it

but we need to consolidate what we have and not extend ourselves too far too quickly.

"I'd prefer to under promise and over deliver that the other way round, which would be bad for business.

"I'm a glass half full person but we operate in a challenging market and things won't get easier so we must raise our game . There's lots of demand out there and we have a strong track record and the quality products to take advantage of that," he said.

Meanwhile, one of Just Desserts best sellers, its Yorkshire scallywag - posh scone- is the latest product to be shortlisted for recognition in this year's Deliciouslyorkshire awards. James will learn today whether it has won.