A famous shortbread company is facing labour shortages after a year said to be the most difficult in its 120-year history.
Walker’s Shortbread, famous for its tartan souvenir tins, was founded in 1898 but the business has struggled following a dip in tourists visiting Scotland during the pandemic.
It suspended production for three weeks after the first lockdown in March 2020, and is now facing 200 vacancies – an eighth of its 1600-strong workforce – despite paying wages “above union rates”.
Joint managing director Jim Walker said the most recent accounts was “the most challenging that the company has ever faced”.
He said a combination of the pandemic and Brexit had weighed heavily as the accounts show that sales fell by 11% to £132.4m, while pre-tax profits dipped from £7.64m to £3.57m.
Recruitment has been further hampered by Walker’s rural location in Aberlour, Speyside.
Mr Walker said: “We were hoping to make a good recovery this year, but we are now in a situation where we are very short of staff.
“That’s making the recovery much more difficult to achieve.
“So this year is not going to be much better.
“We had hoped to get back up this year again, but it is going to be tough.
“Shortage of labour is our biggest issue now, and some problems with supplies as well.
“But mainly labour is our biggest problem.”
Asked if the labour shortage was connected to Brexit, Mr Walker said: “Yes, that is more or less the situation.
“We used to employ people from overseas.
“They haven’t been available this year and we haven’t been able to replace them.
He said: “We are in a position here where there is a very small community.
“There’s only about 800, 900 people in Aberlour so it is hard getting the people we need.
“The labour thing, it is hard to see how we can solve that ourselves.
“We pay above average rates for food production, we pay above the union rates and we believe we look after our staff very well.
“But there are just so many alternatives.
“We were very well organised for Brexit. Our exporting team did a fantastic job.”
Walker’s had sent extra supplies into Europe in the month before the UK exited the EU on January 31, in a bid to mitigate potential disruption to its supply chain,
Mr Walker added: “There were many, many problems with Brexit and we didn’t get any goods into Europe until February.
“There are still some countries that it is very, very difficult shipping goods into.
“France is tricky, Spain too. It’s been very difficult.
“We are quite a sound, well-funded business and we have always been very cautious.
“We are not highly geared and we tend to invest as we go along.
“But instead of recovering in a year it is going to take a few years to recover to get back to where we should be. I think the whole food industry will have challenges with [its] supply chain.”
“We are 120 years old, we will survive.”