Why former Villa Drinks factory in Southwick is having best results in 135-year history as Clearly Drinks

If you could bottle the loyalty and enthusiasm of Clearly Drinks staff you’d be on to a winning formula.
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Better known for its days as Villa Drinks, the Sunderland bottling plant has a history that dates back 135 years and some of its workforce, 90% of which are from the city, are into their fifth decade working for the factory.

Like many businesses, there’s been plenty of peaks and troughs over the years, but 2019 proved the best performing year in the Sunderland business’s lengthy history with 54 million litres of waters and pop flowing out of its doors in Southwick.

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Chief executive Mick Howard says the key to the success is the workforce, which has increased from 70 to 110 since 2018.

Clearly Drinks, Riverside Road, Sunderland.. Production Manager Tracy MallamClearly Drinks, Riverside Road, Sunderland.. Production Manager Tracy Mallam
Clearly Drinks, Riverside Road, Sunderland.. Production Manager Tracy Mallam

Speaking at the factory in Riverside Road, he said: “We’ve had a tough time over the last decade and I think we lost sight of the fact that the business is only as good as its people, they’re the spine.

“Yes, changes had to be made, but retention is really important to us and we have people here who’ve worked for us for up to 43 years. You have to retain the culture of a business, that’s what makes it.”

It’s a rise from the ashes for the company which lost the much-loved Villa name in 2008 when Villa Drinks went into administration. The household Sunderland brand was bought by a Yorkshire company, but Villa pop is still being made - in flavours, lemonade, cherryade, orangeade and dandelion & burdock - right here in Southwick. (For those wondering, popular flavour sarsaparilla can’t be produced because of an EU directive on one of its ingredients which was key to its flavour.)

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“Villa still maintains a strong regional presence and it’s a brand we’re proud to produce. Our history makes us who we are,” explained Susanne Wright, head of marketing at Clearly Drinks. She added: “Villa is particularly popular in chip shops and the food service sector in the North East and Yorkshire and, although we don’t own the name, it’s still very much made here.”

Busy production lines at Clearly Drinks in SouthwickBusy production lines at Clearly Drinks in Southwick
Busy production lines at Clearly Drinks in Southwick

Other drinks made on the factory’s three production lines (one glass and two plastic) are its four own brands - Perfectly Clear flavoured water, Northumbria Spring natural water, Revolution Waves flavoured water and Upstream sparkling flavoured water – as well as 600 other drinks for 130 clients, including big names such as Sainsbury’s.

It’s a huge scale production, the largest of its kind in the North East, but it’s a far cry from the company’s humble beginnings.

Copying the Coca Cola model, founder James Fenwick (no relation to the department store family) began making carbonated drinks in his kitchen in 1885, using the town’s water to make products such as ginger beer and lemonade.

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It proved so popular, he bought the former Villa bakery in Roker, kept the name, and began a factory to meet demand. The same family ran it for five generations, expanding into the export market following the Second World War when its workers returned from war and enjoying huge success in the 60s, 70s and 80s, when production moved to Southwick, and the demand for fizzy pop was at its peak.

Clearly Drinks still make the much-loved Villa brandClearly Drinks still make the much-loved Villa brand
Clearly Drinks still make the much-loved Villa brand

Following the trends of the day, Villa had ‘pop men’ to deliver direct to your door in the 70s, before the rise of supermarkets in the 80s meant more people wanted to buy in store.

Pop’s popularity has fizzled slightly in the 21st Century and today customers are more health-conscious, leading to a boom in low-calorie drinks made with natural flavourings, as well as spring water.

Responding to the needs of customers has been an important part of the bottling company’s evolution, as well as becoming Clearly Drinks in 2017 in a management buyout which put them on a growth trajectory. A major investment made by private-equity firm NorthEdge Capital allowed for renovations to be made to the site, as well as sinking a second borehole last year, with plans in the pipeline for a third.

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The first borehole was sunk in 1982 which meant the company could branch out from carbonated drinks into water sourced from deep underneath the layers of granite and limestone beneath its factory, and they are now a leading flavoured water expert, extracting 20,000 cubic metres an hour from the wells.

Clearly Drinks, Riverside Road, Sunderland., Mick Howard, Chief Executive Officer.Clearly Drinks, Riverside Road, Sunderland., Mick Howard, Chief Executive Officer.
Clearly Drinks, Riverside Road, Sunderland., Mick Howard, Chief Executive Officer.

The 21st Century has also seen the historic business focus more on its social responsibility too, using recyclable materials where possible and reducing its plastic use, with a pledge to reduce a further 160 tonnes of plastic by the end of 2020 while also working with nearby Southwick School to educate children on plastics.

As part of its drive to invest in its people, the company also works with local charities, including the North East Autism Society and Moving on North East, to provide work placements and job opportunities for people with physical and learning disabilities. Weekly donations are also made to city food banks.

Mick said: “A lot of people know the Villa name but we want people to know we’re still here, just with a new name. We’re very proud of our Sunderland heritage, and our 135 year history. We wouldn’t dream of being anywhere else.”

*See our round up of retro Villa Drinks pictures here.