Few people have played a more significant role in their sector of the UK produce market over the last quarter of a century than Adrian Barlow. After a successful career outside produce, he entered the top-fruit fray with HGF in the early 1990s. He will long be remembered and revered, however, for his robust, persistent and remarkably successful tenure at the helm of English Apples & Pears (EAP). From this vantage point he has guided the industry from a position of near obscurity to a far healthier place on the shelves of British supermarkets and in the hearts of the nation’s consumers. As Adrian retires from the role of EAP chief executive, he talks to PBUK about his life and career and looks back on the stellar achievements of English apples in particular since the turn of the century
How did you end up in the top-fruit industry?
AB: From being a very young boy growing up in Sussex, I wanted to be a farmer. That was my objective. My father was in the Bank of England, loved his work and was very dedicated to it, but both of my parents were very happy for me to do whatever I wanted. We lived in rural Sussex and I suppose what I can remember is being absolutely captivated by tractors and the sound of tractors and then the smells that one associated with farming – new mown hay, tractor smoke, sheaves of corn, the dust and smell of the threshing machines, the sweet aroma of pig feed and at the same time, the smell of pigs themselves.
At that time, believe it or not, lots of cows were still being milked by hand, so the smell of the cowshed and all those things. Many things attracted me, but the greatest thing of all was the fact that in the 1940s and early 50s, there were a lot of gangs of people working on farms and there was a lot of banter and fun to be had. I loved it and I found a lot of friends when I went to work on farms.
I went to Dulwich College and I was very lucky going there, because I’d say one of the outstanding features was that it was very different from most other public schools. Primarily, this was because the headmaster (known as Master at Dulwich) had engaged in an exercise called The Dulwich Experiment and he wanted the brightest boys to go to Dulwich, irrespective of their background. So you got a massive mix of kids who were academically bright – there was no such thing as a sports scholarship in those days. The other thing was that we had a lot of kids from overseas, there was a particularly strong contingent from Thailand, people from all faiths and frankly I was brought up in an atmosphere where one took people at face value and for what they were. One had no preconceived ideas about class or religion, or the colour of people’s skin and I was extremely lucky being brought up in that environment, as its something I’ve been able to take through in my life.
My next stop was Writtle and before that, I had to get two years practical farming experience. First, I worked on a dairy farm near Barnet in Hertfordshire, then for a farmer called Charles Jarvis, in Clacton, Essex.
Charles held a number of positions in the NFU, he was in charge of their publicity at one time, and he ran a very good farm. I was mainly associated with the pigs there, but there was a lot of arable. That was terrific fun and he was a great mentor. I have a great affection for him still and a photograph of him still sits in my home.
I got very involved with Wix Young Farmers and did a lot of judging of various stock. I found I had a natural eye for it. It was also here that I developed the ability to speak in public, as I had to present my conclusions to a judge or judges. I also did a lot of public speaking with the Young Farmers.
Then I went to Writtle and did agriculture, not horticulture – we looked down at Horts! – and that was great fun. At the end of my time there, I won the Anglia TV Young Farmers Speaking Competition, for speaking about the unusual subject of smuggling and farming, and that was my experience of speaking to camera, which has held me in good stead.
I left Writtle and worked as a contract farmer for a time – mainly in the South East and East Anglia – and then I went to Uganda. I was agricultural officer there for three years, which was a fantastic experience. I was a civil servant for the Ugandan government with half of my salary being paid by the British government.
It was a form of aid and it was a very interesting exercise because Uganda got its independence in 1962 and immediately had to think about how it was to become an economically viable country.
It was clear that agriculture would play a large part and they went, unwisely, to Israel and decided that trying to copy kibbutzes was the way to go. In other words to develop co-operatives and to upgrade local farmers from being peasant farmers to large scale producers of the crops that could then be sold rather than consumed in local villages. They failed to consider that in Israel you had – and have – a terrific national fervour, whereas your typical Ugandan in those days did not have the same levels aspiration or ambition. It was much more a case of – ‘I’ve got three wives, all the food I want, the sun’s shining; they can go and do the work and I can start drinking beer at 11 o’clock – why do I want more than that, this is a wonderful life?’
I realised quickly that my job was much more trying to change people’s perspective on life, to persuade them that ambition was a good thing and to show them that they could lead much better lives, even though they were perfectly happy with the life they already had.
I oversaw what was known as a group farm – co-operatives were encouraged and you’d get maybe 150 local farmers selling their surplus produce through the co-op. If it proved to be viable and was running well, they could apply to the government for the whole thing to be turned into a group farm. The government sent in heavy machinery to turn the local individual farmers’ plots into one large operation. Then there was the potential to take mechanical ploughing so the farmers could plant their crops on an extensive scale.
So there was potential to increase production enormously and secondly, to switch people from growing local crops to the sorts of crops that could either feed a lot more people in Uganda or alternatively, be exported.
The problem was that this would work very well for the first year; the co-operative would lend the growers money in order to pay for the mechanical operations as well as the seed and whatever else. When the crop was sold through the co-operative, they would deduct the amount of money that they were owed and return the surplus to the grower.
But in the second year, one or two bright sparks would say ‘if I don’t sell this through the co-operative, but sell it on the black market, nothing will be deducted’. By the third year, pretty much every Tom, Dick and Harry is at it and the whole thing collapses.
It was very sad to see that happening, but it was all part of the psyche of Africa. I remember a chap at one of the universities saying to me ‘Adrian, don’t think you’re going to change the world over here, but if you make a little bit of progress that can be built on, that would be terrific’. I was very mindful of that philosophy throughout my time there.
It was a three-year post, which could have been extended and I saved like hell while I was there. I met my wife Chris, who went out there as a nurse and we married out there too, so Uganda completely changed my life in lots of ways. They do say that the African sun gets under your skin and that’s definitely true.
In 1966, the King of Uganda was overthrown by the prime minster, Obote, who named himself president. A permanent state of emergency was declared. Idi Amin was then only a general, but he was there in the background and we had one or two nasty experiences with the army. If I’d been there on my own, I would have done another tour, but we decided not to and mortgaged to the hilt, we bought a small dairy farm in Devon.
I ran that for the next three years and we had a lovely, 13th century thatched Devon longhouse, but I realised I would be doing the same thing for the next 40 years. Farming was going through a tough time at that time and I decided to sell up, be decisive and look to the future. Our daughter Rachel had been born then and we were very isolated down there – the M5 was still being built. It really was a different world.
The great thing in life is to be looking forward and not back – you can always wish things were different, but I remember Barbara Streisand once saying when she was told she had a ladder in her stocking – ‘I don’t care, I’m only interested in those who are ahead of me, not those behind me’. I feel the same way.
I reckoned I could sell and I was fortunate again; I was interviewed by Schweppes and they gave me a job. Schweppes was a fantastic company to work for – with strong brands, an excellent reputation for their professionalism and standards. I was there from 1973 to 1979 – initially I worked from branch headquarters for the South East in Sidcup. I was territory representative and it was Schweppes country – magnificent! I was promoted up to Leeds as assistant sales manager, then became area sales manager. I was seconded to work with an external consultant looking at the UK telesales operation, which involved 1,200 people at about 200 sites and our remit was to work out a new way of operating that would be more effective and more economical. That was great experience too.
I left and joined Thomas French, in Manchester, which was well known for its brand name Rufflette, which was curtain tape, and its range of curtain accessories. We extended our range enormously by developing a company called In Home and a product called lay flat hose. We went into car care, garden centres and I was developing a sales team from scratch to get to grips with all of these areas. In its first year, lay flat hose reached a turnover of £1 million from zero, which was a major achievement.
I was general sales manager for the UK and Republic of Ireland when I left Thomas French in 1986, and went to a company called Whitecroft Scovill, in the Forest of Dean, which at the time was basically a metal basher with a range of haberdashery products and a range of stationery products (we produced about two thirds of the UK’s paper clips) and a components and parts division. The attraction was three-fold, first I was sales and marketing director, second we operated throughout the world and third, there was the likelihood of a management buyout, which really appealed to me. That didn’t come to pass because the company was taken over and they decided not to sell out to management – that was why I left eventually.
And finally… apples and pears
I was approached at that time by HGF [the top-fruit forerunner of the producer organisation now known as Fruition], which was after a marketing director and that’s how I joined HGF. I met Malcolm Schofield and we got on well and that was it.
Of course, it was such a different world then – the multiples operated in an entirely different manner and had about a 40% share of the fresh produce market – and had their in-house specialists who you had to go and sell to. The majority of the market was still in the hands of wholesalers and independent fruiterers and greengrocers. It became clear early on that the future was not looking terribly good because of the large number of growers being forced out of business.
The big change occurred as soon as we entered the Common Market, as we moved from being a protected market during our season to the floodgates being opened to everyone at any given time. We were producing old English varieties – great taste mostly, but very poor yields, poor grade-outs, very poor visual appearance – and as a result, we were a sitting target for apples that looked every bit as good or better and were being produced far more efficiently. Certainly that was the case for Golden Delicious and Granny Smith and some of the North American varieties, which were the first to quickly make inroads.
Suddenly, the differential between English and imported product had narrowed enormously, with the advent of Gala and Braeburn in particular, leave aside later in the 1990s, Pink Lady coming along. Initially, the experts told us that it wouldn’t be possible to grow Braeburn in Britain, and the early attempts to grow Gala were full of difficulties. As late as 1997, I recall English Gala being delisted by Safeway because of the greasiness of the skin, and it was only trial and error that taught us which clones suited the climate here and how we could produce the product for consistent taste.
English Gala: now a mainstay for growers but initially fraught with production difficulties
The Quality Fruit Group was formed in 1992, I think, as a result of very poor Cox being put on the market after Christmas. There had never been clarity about when the product should be picked for long-term storage or the best conditions for storage. This new advice was complemented by monitoring of product on supermarket shelves, with reports produced every week, by variety and by multiple.
There were about 1,400 English growers in 1990 and by the end of that decade, that had come down to less than 500. The make-up of the industry was much the same, but there were comings and goings – the likes of Waveney Apple Growers and Norfolk Fruit Growers were inside the group, whereas Paul Mansfield was outside it and there were massive growers like the Wheldons involved. There was a lot of talk about the way the company could develop – Scripps had left and gone to Orchard World, there was talk about amalgamating HGF and EKP. What happened was EKP joined with WAG and formed Aspen High, so they left. Although there were commercial factors behind many of the decisions being made, there was a lot of politics involved too.
You’ve enjoyed around 20 years of involvement with English Apples & Pears. How did the connection first happen and evolve?
AB: My real involvement with English Apples and Pears began in 1996. We had a large crop of small apples and EAP was asked to organise a promotion that would sell that crop of small-sized apples. Sensibly, it chose a polybag promotion whereby kids went free to certain attractions. Malcolm loaned me to EAP as he felt there was nobody in the organisation that had the expertise to carry out what the industry was asking for. It was far-sighted, but of course he realised the importance of the initiative for HGF, which had around 25% of the English crop.
I arrived towards the end of October and the whole thing was supposed to go live on November 1. There was no insurance in place, no contracts were tied up, they hadn’t decided how many bags were needed, or how the kids-go-free message would go into each outlet. It was right up my street and I loved it. We had some fantastic help and we got it rolling by December 1. I had to sell it into every single multiple retailer and managed to do that. Every one of them took part.
At the end of that year, EAP chairman David Browning said they wanted me back the next year and Malcolm had left to be replaced by Mike Upton. He was happy for me to continue and also agreed that I could chair the Cox Campaign.
Barlow became chair of the Cox Campaign in 1997
Shortly afterwards, Mike left HGF and the board decided they would run the company themselves, which one had some concerns about. Obviously they were very good growers, but did they have the necessary skills to run a co-operative? Charles Gaskain said to me that we needed to form a new company and find a new name – we had been the English Fruit Company (Enfru) but with these changes, there was need to change the name. I got an external branding company to give us advice and we came up with the name Fruition.
We got to the end of the launch process and Charles said ‘sorry Adrian we can’t afford you’. So that was that – time to move forward again. I’d always wanted to run my own company, so I set up a consultancy. This was 1998 and James Nicholls had become chairman of EAP, which was running beyond its means. He asked me to carry on with the Cox Campaign for the rest of the season at least. I agreed. Ian Mitchell approached me and said he needed someone to take the Bramley Campaign into catering and foodservice, I agreed to do that too.
I also did a bit of work for various companies and then, in early 1999 there were a number of industry meetings to try and decide how EAP should develop and what its role should be. There was massive disagreement – I wasn’t part of the meetings – and finally, John Potter, who had joined Fruition, and Mark Culley of Orchard World, were asked if they would sort something out. They came to me and said they wanted to establish a Dessert Apple Campaign, differentiated from the Cox Campaign, and was I prepared to run it.
Adrian Barlow and the Bramley Campaign team in action
I seem to remember you wanted to take a very different approach from the start of your incumbency – which was more radical than had ever been considered in the past. What are your recollections?
AB: I said if the industry is to survive we have got to radically increase the amount of support and demand for English product from consumers. We needed a much more effective campaign than we’d had in the past and it would cost a lot more money. Fruition and Orchard World were a significant chunk of the industry, but we clearly needed all of the others involved. So we established the promotional committee and ultimately got agreement with everybody that they would contribute to a campaign that would include PR, whatever advertising that was necessary, and do all of the work with the multiples.
The only person who would speak to the media would be me and we had a lot of thought about how we could really capture the imagination of journalists. I said there is one card that has never been played in this industry and I think we should play it, and that’s sex. Hence, we launched The Face of English Apples and generated a huge amount of coverage. Equally, I felt we needed something that would really excite the tabloid press and the way we should do it was to highlight the fact that we couldn’t use promotional funding from Europe to promote British fruit. We knew that the British want to buy English because it taste better and therefore our message was that we should be able to promote that. It attracted massive publicity – obviously the press that was hostile to the EU rubbed their hands with glee, we got half a page in The Times, we were on Sky News, World At One and lots more. It was a complete breakthrough and had never happened as far as I know with any fresh produce campaign before that.
To complement that, we did a lot of work with the multiples, organising programmes at the beginning and end of the season with the buyers. A long time after he left, John Potter said just how cost effective those campaigns had been. We really built on that; the second year we had the Eve campaign. It was a tough job as you had to personally interview a whole list of top models to decide who was best suited to the role! I don’t know if you could do it now – there were people then who complained, particularly those who were religious. But I was always careful that we wouldn’t do anything that could in any way bring us into disrepute. I think it was discrete and perceived as representing quality – it was never outrageous.
At the end of 1999, Ian Mitchell spoke to me again and said the board was mindful that James [Nicholls] would want to retire pretty soon and asked whether I would I like to become the chief executive of EAP. I did and in 2000, James stepped down.
Initially he had some misgivings about the timing, but I’m quite sure he got it right. He’d been with the industry a long time, he wasn’t in the best of health and it was the right thing for him personally.
I have an enormous respect for James – he was so helpful to me and I always regarded his advice as being very valuable. He also introduced me to a lot of people overseas, which was very important, bearing in mind that the formation of the World Apple and Pear Association (WAPA) was at that time.
James and I were at the first meeting, organised by then ENZA chairman John McCliskie, and from the very beginning Britain punched way above its weight in those meetings. John and I got into a debate, with John testing me out and while it was all relevant stuff, it was bang, bang for an hour or so and I was wondering whether this was the right time or place for the discussion. I didn’t want to upset the other people present, but afterwards, John said how valuable it was that we were able to have the argument out in the open and in some ways, set a precedent for WAPA meetings thereafter.
The most important thing we did in the UK was continually to reinforce that early work that we’d done with journalists and consistently come up with some story every year to capture the interest of consumer journalists. I’ve found it important to sail fairly close to the wind, without ever going over the line. We have always managed to get a huge amount of publicity around the start of the season by doing that.
After dissuading Ian Mitchell from giving up the chairmanship of the Bramley Campaign Group several times, it got to the point where I realised it would be wrong of me to continue to do that, so I took on that role too. Ian was a terrific supporter and people like Robert Balicki were also always so supportive and ready to give me a view. It was always so important for me to talk to people like them to get various views and perspectives on the business, in order to decided how we should proceed.
In 2001, I decided to call a further meeting of the group of growers who were involved, in order to determine whether we could do things differently with their support and to make sure they felt engaged.
For two years, we had two days at Wye and the promotional committee was restructured to include growers as well as marketeers. That meant that all parties felt engaged and there was a check on what people were saying. If growers exaggerated they would be brought back into line by marketeers and vice versa. We were also able to get agreement from all marketeers about what we were going to do and the growers were united in their support.
You have long spoken very realistically both to the industry and its customers, on the one hand about the need to manage costs more effectively in the supply chain and on the other, about the need to show more active support for the domestic crop.
AB: In the early 2000s, we produced a report on the cost of production in the UK, which had an important impact on both the growers and the multiples. As a result of all of the publicity we were getting, there was a very definite upsurge in the demand for English [fruit] from consumers.
So we were able to go to the multiples and say ‘this is what we have always told you, you can see how the demand is growing – now you’ve got to be devoting more shelf space to English top fruit’. We were also able to say that if they didn’t do that, their competitor down the road would and they would probably lose not only buyers of apples, but for all sorts of other products as well.
Another result of the upsurge in demand was an immense impact on growers, who suddenly from being very nervous about their futures, could see that people really did want their product and that the multiples were getting behind it.
Bear in mind that after the 1997 crop, the EU grubbing grant was put in place for 1998 and we lost 13% of our acreage almost overnight. That was against the background of a grant that was essentially introduced for French growers who had been predominantly producing for intervention. But lack of profitability in the UK made this an attractive proposition for some. Now, they started to plant again. In 2000, we had 500 tonnes of Gala, that was all, so you can see how that has gone since then, and there was also the growth of the club varieties.
Really the next thing that happened was that we decided we should start measuring the sales of apples, by multiple and by week – the first year was the 2006-07 season and there is no question that has been very beneficial in terms of people understanding just where our apples are being sold, the length of the season and so on.
We told [the multiples] that we were going to start measuring this and that we would make the results public and people like Peter Durose at Tesco were absolutely supportive and right behind it, similarly Stuart Smith and Marcus Hoggarth at Sainsbury’s. Waitrose and M&S have always been supportive too. It has developed considerable competition between the multiples.
We had terrific success with Morrisons in 2008, because Jane Speakman rang me and said that as I had been very critical of them, she would like to come and see me. She brought Jon Hooper, who was a trainee buyer at the time and asked me what they were doing wrong. I warned her that she wouldn’t like what I was going to say, then told her that Morrisons was the last multiple that any sensible English grower should be dealing with. I explained why and she asked what they should do. I explained that too and Jane invited me up to Bradford to talk to her buyers, which of course I did. The first thing was that they never went out to see their suppliers. Three weeks later, growers were calling me asking what the hell was going on with Morrisons! They listened and acted on what I suggested and we saw Morrisons move from a share of around 7% to 11% in just one season, which was tremendous. Jane had the reputation for being tough and steely, but provided you spoke to her bluntly, with a degree of diplomacy of course, she would take it on the chin.
With Asda, I had a stroke of luck, when we were invited onto a BBC breakfast show and Asda had put up a guy who was head of agriculture I think. The BBC wanted to do something from a packhouse (it was Newmafruit) and have a chat with the grower and me, as well as one of the multiples.
Asda agreed to do it, so I went down to Kent the night before and had a look at Asda – there were hardly any English apples in there. I couldn’t believe that an organisation that was going to be on TV the following morning, presumably saying what a cracking job they were doing with English apples, could be devoid virtually of English apples. There was one bag of English Cox in there; while up the road at Sainsbury’s there was a massive display, the bunting was out and when you went through the door, you couldn’t miss it.
I phoned Rob Balicki and said I didn’t think I could hide it – he agreed with me.
The next morning, the interviewer said there had been a big revival in the industry, but asked the chap from Asda (I won’t give his name) why the British retailers were blamed for squeezing growers to such an extent that they couldn’t compete in the past.
He said that Asda had always been wholly supportive of English apples and continued to be so, as it was fundamental to their offer. When the interviewer turned back to me, I can vividly remember what I said, which was ‘what we have just heard is typical of the kind of rhetoric that one hears from the head offices of some major organisations, particularly multiple retailers on occasion, which bears absolutely no relation to what is occurring’.
I recounted my experience of the previous evening – ‘one is real support, the other represents no support whatsoever’, I added.
The guy from Asda was absolutely thrown and once we’d finished, I said what a pity it was to have that conversation on air, rather than face to face in Leeds. He said: ‘Adrian, if you think you can talk to me like that in public and that I will ever have anything to do with you ever again, you’ve got another think coming’. He also refused to do any more interviews.
Within an hour, I had Sainsbury’s PR texting me telling me how fantastic the interview was! Of course the industry loved it, including the Asda suppliers amongst them, and about a month later I had a call from Asda asking me if they could come down and see me. It proved to me once again that you can make a lot of headway.
Don’t misunderstand me; Asda’s performance in the market is way below where we feel it should be, but its position of being the cheapest doesn’t sit comfortably with English apples and pears.
Sometimes, it takes a while for the impact to be felt. In fairness, Martin Smith came to see me just under a year ago and said he wanted to take Asda’s share from around 6% to 9-10% and he’s just about there.
A matter of trust
One of the things we have done very successfully over the years is to work with the multiples and retain their trust. They have believed what we have been saying. It may have been unpalatable sometimes, but we have not been trying to pull the wool over their eyes and they have always known that.
There was a lot of talk about some of the multiples coming up with invoices for their suppliers as that was the only way to claw money back when their results weren’t as good as they wanted them to be.
One grower came to me with exactly that situation and allowed me to use his name, so I was able to go the trading director of the multiple concerned, he had the fresh produce director there with him and he took full responsibility, said that this shouldn’t have happened and that the demand would be rescinded immediately without repercussions. That is exactly what happened.
It has always been so difficult to get people to stand up, but if they won’t give their names, there just isn’t anything that can be done. For some sectors, the Groceries Code Adjudicator has been invaluable, but as far as the top-fruit sector is concerned, I don’t think it has made any difference other than maybe to make the major multiples watch the way they behave a little more closely because she is there.
So you gained their trust, but it’s a commonly held view that dealing with the retail buyers has become trickier in the last few years as the competitive marketplace focused even more intently on price. How have you dealt with that on behalf of the industry and maintained a positive balance?
AB: As a generalisation, it has been more difficult to work with multiples over the last few years. In the last two years, returns to growers have been inadequate and that’s not just in Britain, where we have a considerable premium over the price of apples on the Continent. I’m mindful of that and frequently tell growers they need to recognise that too. The multiples have historically been supportive by paying more for English than some of the imported.
Obviously, we have had to take account of the development of the hard discounters and tried to make sure we establish good trade with them. They now represent around 11% of English apple sales. Knowing that Amazon is coming along, we wanted to make sure we have that one covered off too and that we had someone supplying them [with English apples].
The support from the retailers has changed. Even those who have historically been supportive have been notably more hard-nosed. I can see the other side of the coin, of course, and I empathise with some of their challenges. If I’m there running a business and I’m being undercut and losing customers in their droves, how would I respond? But for all that, one thinks of the multiples as being steered from the centre and operating like a well-oiled machine and as one gets into the detail, one realises that what happens in store isn’t understood very well – what isn’t happening should be happening and what is happening shouldn’t be.
I think the multiples could operate far more efficiently than they do. They have to look much more critically at the way in which they are presenting top fruit and the activity around it. All too frequently, the theatre at the front of store is not sufficiently enticing to encourage consumers to pick up the product. There’s a lot more they could do in merchandising terms, to make it easier for consumers to find different varieties of apple and to make it clear what the differences are between those varieties. I think it’s all too easy for them to have apples at front of store because they are regarded as healthy and they have a nice aroma, but that’s no good when the display becomes a jumbled mess and the shelf marking isn’t clear enough.
All of them should be highlighting English, purely for the reason that it is a big selling factor. If you have English apples on shelf, why not make it clear that all of this is local?
English Braeburn was unheard of when Barlow first started at EAP
For someone who started out wanting to be a farmer, you’ve had a career that’s taken in so many different roles and sectors. You’ve also ended it on a real high, which must be very fulfilling.
AB: I’ve had a very varied career and I have been so fortunate. As far as my work at English Apples & Pears has been concerned, I’ve been very, very fortunate in having a lot of people who have given me a huge amount of support. Without that support and the willingness of the marketing organisations in particular to co-operate with me and to help me, I wouldn’t have been able to achieve what has been achieved.
Of course there have been difficulties along the way, but fresh produce is a very nice product to be working with because it’s a healthy, clean category that does you nothing but good, and so many people have been so supportive.
I’ve made so many good friends and it’s been so wonderful to be able to call up and met with so many people in different sectors, journalists and specialists in completely different areas to me. I remember the first time I was interviewed by [BBC Radio 2 Breakfast Show host] Chris Evans, I was unsure because he was clearly a very different character to me – but he could not have been more charming. He was so welcoming and at the end of the interview, he wanted to talk about the pear tree in his garden!
The last 20 years have been an absolute dream for me. If someone had said to me they were going to offer you this role and this is what it would entail, well I couldn’t have thought of anything more perfect.
How do you reflect on your time at the helm and the evolution of the English apple and pear business while you’ve been guiding it?
AB: There is no question that I leave the industry in a far better state than when I joined it.
We were a very fragmented industry in 1999 with people pulling in many different directions. I always remember before I came into the industry meeting someone who spoke about the sector and said ‘they are terrible people, they are always at each other’s throats and it’s more important for grower A to put grower B out of business than it is to be successful itself’.
But we have managed to keep a pretty united industry since then, grown significantly and I think it will continue to grow. It could retain its current size and be successful without any doubt, but I think we’ll find there are quite a few ambitious growers out there who want to see the industry grow.
We developed the secondary [English apple season] launch after Christmas with the intention of drawing attention to the greater availability of Braeburn and the late club varieties. That has been very important and will continue.
By 2014-15, sales of English apples and pears had increased from 57,000 tonnes in 2006-07 to just over 100,000 tonnes, predominantly through import replacement. So we had considerable discussions with the industry about what should be done to develop not just our own sales, but also try to increase the demand for apples overall – hence the Love English Apples campaign.
I think this was very successful and obviously we’ve had to take advantage of some of the big changes that have happened in this market – for instance the growth of social media, the use of bloggers and vloggers and I’ve always ben keen to ensure that we’re at least up with the game, preferably ahead of it, in terms of adapting what we are doing to suit the needs of the marketplace. We have worked closely with the multiples – their own social media has been important, as well as ours.
The one disappointment for me has been Bramley – returns have been so inadequate for the last couple of years that we have seen grubbing. As a result, this year we’re going to have a crop that is insufficient to meet demand. We still have a problem with Northern Ireland – I have worked for them privately and been pleased to do that but it is difficult. English growers are very united, but the Northern Irish represent 50% of the crop now and they aren’t on the same page.
The state of the Bramley market is the one disappointment in Barlow’s top-fruit career
The top-fruit industry has been through difficult periods before; the development of the campaigns has been enormously beneficial for all growers. If I listen to what was said at Prognosfruit recently, there is huge concern about the inadequacy of returns throughout Europe and that we have reached a nadir, from where we can only see improvement. If you look at how growers have evolved, not just through new varieties, but the layouts of orchards, the efficiency of the technical processes, the machinery that’s being used and the revolution in packing, grading and storage, amongst other things, you can say with confidence that further advancements will be made. There is the potential for [the English apple and pear industry] to become more and more efficient and I would expect the industry to build on what’s been done, but certainly not to replicate it. We have to continue to move forward and I expect my successor to help the industry do that in the same way as growers are becoming more effective and more efficient.
Did you realise that the role at EAP would have such longevity when you took it on?AB: EAP was formed in 1990 and there was a succession of very good chief executives and chairmen before me. But at the time I joined, I knew it was down to me and I felt that the industry could develop enormously as long as I was able to provide leadership in conjunction with some of the other great people in the industry – people like John and Mark who approached me, like Andy Sadler, Paul and Nicholas Dunsby, Derek Whitnall, Roger Shippey and all sorts of individuals who have bought into my proposals and jointly developed things with me.
I had every intention of trying to develop the industry and move it forward and I’m just delighted that we’ve done what we’ve done. Building consumer support for English apples to the level it is at now and developing the Union Jack as a brand for English apples has been extremely influential. One has learnt over the years to read people better and think about ways to influence them. At times you might have to say ‘no, no, no’ but in general you want to say ‘yes, yes, yes, but come and do it my way’.
You have also played a wider role in the industry, haven’t you?
AB: I first started working with the FPC with Jim Saunt and Doug Henderson on its labelling initiative in the ‘90s, which led to the formation of the numbering association and the adoption of the PLU system worldwide. We were also working with Sainsbury’s and the IGD to look at the supply side of things.
Then Doug got in touch with me in 97 or 98 and asked me to become a member of the FPC Council. I really enjoyed my time and served under many different presidents of course. I became the vice president, but once Jim Rogers decided he was going to continue as president, I felt that I couldn’t commit to go beyond 2016, so it was best I stepped aside. I believe you need a vice president to be the vice president in waiting. I made some very good friends and got to know Dick Brighten particularly well.
The British Growers Association approached me to become a director and I had to think about that long and hard. I felt it was quite important for the right voice to be at British Growers representing the top-fruit industry.
Obviously, I have also had a long involvement with WAPA and they were very nice to me at my last meeting and said some things I honestly didn’t expect. I’d been at every meeting from the start and they recognised the importance of Britain’s contribution as a leader at WAPA.
I have worked very closely with Cameo Club, purely in terms of giving them marketing advice, as I had to be careful not to compromise my position with other varieties in my EAP role.
I also continue to be a trustee of The National Fruit Collection Trust and that’s been interesting because we were left a bequest that has been spent on replicating different types of climate based on what might happen in the future – and looking at the way different varieties would respond to those climatic changes. That’s a 10-year project and it will be of immense interest to the commercial industry and amateur gardeners too.
You have officially retired but I hear you’re still going to be involved in a reduced capacity over the next few months.
AB: I handed over completely to Steven Munday at the beginning of August, although I will carry on as company secretary until the end of our financial year next July, do the forecasts and deal with the media around the season launch and for the next few months while Steven beds himself in.
I have lots of plans though – one of which is to write a book about my family’s history. Chris and I also plan to travel, I’m sure I’ll be watching a bit more cricket and there’s plenty for me to do around the house. I won’t get bored!