The Wonders Of Wigan!
3rd June 2019 Paul Andrews
William Santus and Company have been making a variety of sweets for over 100 years. Paul Andrews visited them in Wigan to find out more.
Their survival may be surprising in itself but what is more remarkable is the legendary status that has surrounded their ‘Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls.’ These sweets have been immortalised in countless articles, cartoons and poems and there has even been a song written about them and they are synonymous with Wigan, the town of their production.
Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls is a privately owned family business that was established in England in 1898 by William Santus. Ownership has passed down through generations of the family and is currently owned by John and Antony Winnard, William’s great nephews. They are joint MD’s of the business now but entry into the business can certainly not be described as straight-forward.
John and Antony both have early memories of working in the factory for their father who they describe as a hard task masker, carrying 50kg bags of sugar, making lollipop boxes. There was even a two year stint for a fellow confectionery business in Bolton filling licorice tubes with sherbet ! As John explains, “it was all character building stuff and eventually we registered to undertake a City & Guilds course in Sugar Baking with the caveat that should the fail to pass the exams, there would be no place for us in the business!” Clearly things worked out well as 42 years on and they are both still actively involved in the business.
Sadly, their father passed away at the age of just 55 back in 1990 and from that on their futures were set. John became responsible for the external face of the business, sales and marketing whilst Antony took responsibility for everything to do with the factory, a delineation of roles and responsibilities that has served them well over the years.
“Of course we discuss things and have been known to disagree but we always work things out,” adds Antony, “and we have lots of friends in good businesses locally that we can sound ideas off and canvass for input into decisions too.”
John agrees, adding that “we know how the other works and where boundaries lie and that works well for us too.”
Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls are still manufactured using the same traditional methods as when Mrs Santus originally made the sweets in her kitchen back in 1898. The completely natural ‘secret recipe’ has been passed down through the generations and today, the sweets still contain no artificial colours, are gluten free and suitable for the vegan and vegetarian markets.
Today, the sweets are produced in the same, careful manner as they were all those years ago, over gas fires and hand-made. The craftsmanship is apparent as you walk around the factory and the team are very skilled in what they do. As John explains, “we are a small business with a small but incredibly loyal and dedicated team. We work hard and have employed a flexible working matrix so when things are quiet people can take extra time off although we are committed to a 34 hour week as minimum. The business is seasonal so we tend to work more hours in the winter months and not work Friday’s during the summer. It works for the business and is great for the staff who get time off during the warmer months to spend more time with their families as well.”
Over the years the brand has grown and it is the desire of the current generation to continue to grow and to increase the availability of Uncle Joe’s products to consumers in the UK and overseas. Running next to the Mint Balls’ proposition is the Uncle Joe’s Favourites range which helps to supplement and augment their position in the market place.
Antony and John are agreed on the way forward, to continue to build a long term and sustainable brand within the sugar confectionery product category.
They appreciate that it is not an easy challenge but relish the future and enjoy special moments as and when they happen. As Antony explains, “one of our proudest achievements is the fact that we have made it successfully to the fourth generation and beaten the odds, unlike many other family firms that have fallen by the wayside, and to be over 100 years old as a family manufacturing business is something that we are rightly proud of.”
John agrees, adding that “We are also immensely proud of the recent visit from Prince Charles, not only reflecting on the 100 year anniversary of us being in the current factory but also the recognition of surviving as a fourth generation family firm. It was a truly great moment for us and one that cemented our pride and place as an ambassador for Wigan too.”
The business has been on quite a journey since they took over the mantle following the death of their father. John explains that “we had to really change the fortunes of the business because when we took control of the Company it was making a trading loss. It has been challenging at times but our staff have always been, and are, great , and an integral part of what makes this business what it is today.”
Today Antony and John employ local people and produce a product that can be found in many corners of the globe. As they continue, “How many Wiganers at the turn of the century could ever have imagined that the delicious minty sweets they enjoyed would become legendary, not just locally but worldwide, a real symbol of Wigan around the world?”
“This really does fill us with a deep sense of pride, borne from our family and a traditional recipe and we look forward to what the future holds,” continues John. “There is currently no next generation in the business but they have worked here and are now off following their own careers and dreams,” adds Antony, “and although we would love one of them to get involved in due course, we will have to see what the future holds in terms of succession at a later date.”
For now the focus is on the business with continuing investment in machinery and processes to drive the business forward.
Who knows what the ‘wonders of Wigan’ have in store...