In this special series, Produce Business UK takes a look at how some of the food industry’s most high-profile figures have come to be in their current positions and their highlights along the way. Our fifth career spotlight introduces us to Andrew Sharp, who explains how his many years spent in production and retail have placed him in good stead to provide expert technical advice to UK produce companies today
Name: Andrew Sharp
Role: Works with companies in the fresh produce, retail and associated sectors on a variety of business enhancement projects
Time in post: 5 years
Career length to date: 30+ years
How did you first get into the industry and what qualifications did you study for?
Andrew Sharp (AS): I studied Agriculture at Writtle Agricultural College and learnt all things about livestock and arable crops. There was quite a rivalry between the ‘Agrics’ and ‘Horti’ students, who were commonly known as Dibbers!
My pre-entry year was spent on a farm in Devon. This was a typical mixed family farm with a dairy unit, beef, sheep and arable crops grown to feed the livestock. I had great fun down on the farm. My sandwich year was on a large beef and arable farm in Saffron Walden, Essex.
Driving huge tractors and working all hours, I thought I was going to be a livestock farmer when I started at college but by the time I left I was firmly in a tractor seat. In my final year I was voted onto the Student Union and here started my retail career. I ran the Student Union shop; selling sweets, sweatshirts and cigarettes! I can only imagine I was more of an Arkwright than a Peacock.
Tell us about your career path to date.
AS: I left college and got straight back on a tractor for harvest and autumn cultivations, earnt some money and bought a plane ticket to California. Through a friend of a friend I ended up in the Imperial Valley, on the Mexican Border where the US grows all its winter salads and vegetables. I became a closet Dibber!
There were hundreds of acres of iceberg lettuce, before it was even grown in the UK. Then melons and wheat. I was the only Englishman in the Valley! I ran all the Mexican labour crews, thinning weeding and irrigating the crops. I then moved to Salinas for the summer… More Dibbing!
After a year or so I came back to the UK and continued farming. I was a farm manager on a potato and early vegetable farm in Pembrokeshire, before moving to Kent to become a manager on a fruit farm.
After seven years of farming I decided there was a role for me at one of our supermarkets, where I might just get weekends off! I wrote several times to Tesco, who we supplied from the farm, and eventually I got a job as Fruit Technologist. I had quite a unique background – I was the classic poacher turned game keeper.
I travelled the world at a time of extraordinary growth for Tesco, sourcing apples, pears and stonefruit. My interest in how the crop grows, and my affinity with the farmers and growers must have got me noticed because next thing I knew I was working at Marks & Spencer. Being a fruit expert, they gave me potatoes and vegetables!
I spent 15 years at Marks & Spencer, learning how Quality, Innovation and Trust were three of the retailer’s most important values. I learnt so much about how to do things properly at Marks & Spencer. We were taught to be constantly dissatisfied with where we were, and always to strive for better.
I then spent six years heading up the technical team within the Fresca Group, the UK’s largest privately-owned fresh produce company, selling all produce items to all of the retailers. It was a great experience in transforming myself again from gamekeeper back to poacher.
What does your job involve now?
AS: I now work as a consultant. This means I work for the people and companies I want to work for. What’s really good about how I work now is that it is so very varied. I provide expert technical advice to UK produce companies. I’ve worked for Aldi for six months and I source innovations for companies around the world. For instance, I am helping to sell a really clever packaging, shelf-life tech-nology, called Perfotec. And I am always talking to people in our industry about the next opportunity…
What are your career highlights?
AS: I discovered Tenderstem broccoli! I was vice-chairman of the board at the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) in the US.
What advice would you give anyone already working or looking to get into your sector?
AS: We are looking for bright engaging people who are passionate about food. If you can convince us you are the right person, a career full of healthy fresh produce lies ahead, colourful, international and highly perishable. What employers are most keen to see is enthusiasm, an enquiring mind, and a willingness to learn and find out more about this great industry.