The departing boss of Marks and Spencer was given a stirring send off at a North Wales bakery by a choir singing Bread of Heaven.
The visit by chief executive Steve Rowe to the Jones Village Bakery’s headquarters on Wrexham Industrial Estate was his last official call before stepping down from the helm of Britain favourite retailer.
It was also a touching occasion for two members of the 50-strong Rhos Male Voice Choir, firefighters Paul Scott and Tim Williams.
On August 19, 2019, they were part of the crew from North Wales Fire and Rescue Service who were called to tackle a devastating blaze that destroyed the family firm’s flagship bakery.
Fast forward nearly three years and the choir was performing in the lobby of the replacement bakery which at 140,000 sq ft is four times the size of the original.
The Jones Village Bakery have invested £16 million in installing a state-of-the-art production line to make a new range of sourdough bread for M&S in a move that will ultimately create100 new jobs.
As Steve Rowe arrived through the door, the choir burst into a rousing rendition of Guide me, O Thou Great Redeemer, with the famous Bread of Heaven chorus and set to the anthemic hymn tune, Cwm Rhondda.
He said: “That’s probably the finest welcome I’ve had in a factory ever in my 40 years of retail.
“I’ve never actually seen a male voice Welsh choir live before and that tone of music, the sound, the power of the sound was fantastic.
“Bread of Heaven was absolutely appropriate for what I believe is one of the finest bakeries in the world.
“The reason I think this bakery is so special is that it has all of the values that I believe Marks and Spencer have.
“To come back to this factory after what was a terrible fire back in 2019, to see the level of investment that’s been put in to create a world class facility with fantastic products is a great way to finish my time with M&S.
“We’re growing our food business substantially and we want the Village Bakery to be a major part of that.
“We want the most sophisticated facilities because they produce the best products and this has a new sourdough plant here. It will be the finest in the market.”
The occasion was in stark contrast to the previous visit to the Jones Village Bakery by Paul Scott and Tim Williams when fire ripped through the old bakery.
According to the firm, the most important thing was that everybody evacuated the building unhurt which meant they were able to turn their attention immediately to a recovery plan.
The result is the new complex which also includes a new Baking Academy and Innovation Centre – both twice the size of the previous ones – as well as a new office complex.
Paul, the North Wales Fire and Rescue Service’s area manager, was the incident commander on the day of the blaze.
He said: “It was an absolutely devastating fire which was through the roof upon arrival.
“I seem to recall we had about 10 fire fighting appliances, three arial appliances and other specialist vehicles, which is a considerable deployment for a fire service our size.
“Nearly three years on and it’s great to be at the new site. It’s the first time I’ve been here and it’s fantastic to see what they’ve done.
“They’ve literally risen from the ashes and have shown great resilience to bounce back. It’s nice to be here today on the other side and celebrating their success.”
The incident is also seared in the memory of colleague Tim Wiliams who has since retired and become a retained firefighter.
He said: “It was one of the biggest jobs I had just before I retired. Coming back here today brings back memories for me.
“It was heart-breaking for the Village Bakery on the day and it’s awful when this kind of thing happens but they’ve pulled out all the stops with a flagship factory like this. This new place is gorgeous and I’m pleased to have the opportunity to sing here today.”
Robin Jones, the bakery’s managing director, said: “The choir was brilliant and Steve was clearly moved by it as well so I think it struck the right chord.
“We are hugely grateful and honoured that Steve chose the Jones Village Bakery as his final visit as the CEO of Marks and Spencer.
“We love working for M&S and it was nice for him to see the finished sourdough line making the great products that he asked for 18 months ago.
“It all started with a virtual meeting during lockdown back in October 2020 when he challenged group of bakery suppliers and he said he wanted ‘tomatoes that taste like tomatoes, and bread that tastes like bread’.
“That that gave us the inspiration to work with M&S to develop the range of sourdoughs that we have done. Appropriately the production line was up and running just in time for this big day.
“Today marks the end of one era but the beginning of an exciting new chapter for the Jones Village Bakery and we’re looking forward to what the future holds working with M&S, so it’s onwards and upwards really.
“It was so fitting that it was the Rhos Male Voice Choir with those two fire fighters, Paul and Tim, who came to sing a fond farewell to Steve.
“We’ve gone full circle. The last time they were with us it was in our darkest day and I think today was one of our finest hours. This story has a happy ending.”