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Highland Toffee maker goes into administration

Sweetmaker New McCowans closes, putting more than 100 jobs at risk in Scotland

The famous Scottish sweetmaker behind childhood favourites Highland Toffee and Wham bars has collapsed into administration, putting more than 100 jobs at risk.

Although children have been ploughing their pocket money into Millar McCowan’s famous sticks of toffee for generations, the company has a history of financial problems and confirmed on Wednesday that Grant Thornton had been appointed as administrators of the parent company, New McCowans, at the end of last week.

Despite selling 140m bars, Millar McCowan has struggled to make headway in the downturn, with accounts filed at Companies House showing the company fell to a loss of £2.4m on sales of £8.4m in the 13 months to 31 March 2010. Despite international acclaim for its products, which also include Pan Drop mints and Penny Dainties toffee, the company was also loss-making the previous year.

The Dorset-based entrepreneur Andrew Walsh is the most recent owner of the business and in the accounts show it was being propped up by funds from his main business, Thornycroft, a confectionery importer.

The collapse comes despite a surge in popularity for retro sweet brands. A number of websites have emerged in recent years, such as Nostalgic Sweets and A Quarter Of, selling penny sweets – sherbet fountains, flying saucers and rhubarb-and-custards – from days gone by.

The Millar McCowan business has factories at Broxburn in West Lothian and Stenhousemuir, near Falkirk, and employs 103 people. Its history can be traced back as far as 1844, when John Millar started his business as a baker in Leith, subsequently expanding to sell sweets that were made in the back of the premises.

The other key figure is Andrew McCowan, who established the business in Stenhousemuir in the early 1920s, and eventually launched its best-known product, Highland Toffee. The bars are affectionately known as “coo candy” in Scotland because the wrappers feature a Highland cow.

One of its biggest success, however, has been the Wham bar, which became a must-have sweet in the 1980s. At their peak, sales of the bars – thin, brightly coloured strips of toffee with sherbet lumps inside – reached 30m a year.

The confectioner was sold to Nestlé in the 1960s and was the subject of a management buyout in the late 1980s before being bought by Dutch company Phideas in the mid 1990s. There was another management buyout in 2003, and in 2004 a £125,000 regional selective assistance grant was awarded for an expansion project. The last decade, however, has not been kind to the company: it entered receivership in 2005 and, although a rescue deal was brokered, it would hit the buffers again little more than a year later.

A spokeswoman for Grant Thornton said it had already receive some expressions of interest in New McCowans. The company has not ceased trading but production has stopped pending the outcome of the discussions.

“I have deep concerns for this well-known local brand,” said Falkirk MP Eric Joyce, who has been involved in talks with administrators and the Usdaw union. “I hope a buyer can be found and the jobs saved. At the moment there is the possibility.” © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds