In this special series, Produce Business UK takes a look at how some of the food industry’s senior figures have come to be in their current positions and their highlights along the way. Our fourth career spotlight brings us to Marks & Spencer salad buyer Sally Sharp, who fills us in on how she and her team are committed to developing long-lasting relationships with suppliers in order to provide the best customer experience
Name: Sally Sharp
Position: Buyer at Marks and Spencer (M&S)
Role: Responsible for ensuring that M&S has the right range of products in the right stores
Time in post: One year
Career length to date: Four years
How did you first get into the industry and what qualifications did you study for?
Sally Sharp (SS): I studied Commercial Management and Quantity Surveying at Loughborough University. The course subjects were broad; covering finance, law, economics and various different construction modules. I spent a year in industry, working for an international construction company as a quantity surveyor and passed my degree with flying colours. I achieved the highest mark in my year, had a well-paid job lined up, and so I set off on my travels for the summer.
While I was away ‘finding myself’, I realised that I wasn’t overly excited about my future career in construction, and wanted to work in a faster paced, dynamic industry that I could feel really passionate about.
It was at this point that I made the decision to change paths. My parents met at agricultural college, I grew up on a smallholding and I spent a lot of my childhood with other farming family friends. My father has always worked in the industry and has thoroughly enjoyed it (he has also been very successful but we don’t tell him that too often)… and most importantly, I love food, so it seemed like a no brainer!
I don’t regret studying construction, or the time I spent on building sites. My course was very challenging and time consuming, but I made friends for life and learnt many transferable skills… and you never know, my extensive knowledge of concrete might come in useful someday?!
Tell us about your career path to date:
SS: I finished university in 2012 and joined the Tesco graduate scheme as a trainee buyer in (much to my confusion) the household department. I suppose I had assumed that – in joining a food-buying graduate scheme – I would be buying food! However, my initial disappointment soon became a thing of the past when I was given sole responsibility for buying the area affectionately titled as ‘Household Sundries’ – items like firelighters, matches, shoe-care and insect killers!
It may not sound like the most glamorous area, but I was thrilled to be given such responsibility from day one. I had over 10 suppliers to manage and adjusted to the working world very quickly… and I loved it! I even managed to get a trip to Chicago to visit the head office of my shoe-care and insect killer supplier! I was soon given more responsibility within fabric conditioner and detergents, and I learnt a huge deal from working with blue chip suppliers such as P&G and Unilever, as well as growing my sundries category sales by double digits!
After a year, I was promoted into the very desirable drinks team as the mixers and flavoured carbs buyer. Finally, a product that I could consume! I managed a large supply base of over 20 suppliers, including Coca Cola and Britvic, and it was at this stage that I realised I am a bit of a data geek – I admit it! The amount of information that we could analyse to help us understand how customers shop really fascinated me and helped me get to grips with my area and understand my customers very quickly.
This was clearly recognised as I was promoted within six months to manage the Chilled and Ambient juice category. With over 30 suppliers including PepsiCo and Innocent, I managed one of the biggest buying areas within the business. I loved the pace, the complexity and the challenge. However, I was still missing the real foodie aspect that had been a key reason for me moving to the industry.
I was approached for a role at Marks and Spencer and I jumped at the chance to work for a retailer that truly leads the way in food innovation and quality. I am now one year into my role as a salad buyer and I’m thoroughly enjoying the opportunity to spend time understanding the end-to-end cycle of each product; such as how and where each variety is grown, and the numerous factors that influence it on its route to the M&S shelves, and, of course, selling to a new customer.
What does your job involve now?
SS: As a salad buyer, I am responsible for ensuring that we have the right range of products in the right stores, and offer the right value and excitement for our customers. My job role is broad; covering all whole-head salad products and herbs – from the humble cucumber to the versatile avocado. I spend at least half of my time with my supply base and growers; developing a detailed understanding of ‘life on the front line’.
No two days are the same in produce and there are so many factors that are out of our control which can impact the availability and quality of the products that our customers know and love.
M&S really believes it is important that we spend quality time with our growers, not only to understand where our product comes from, but also to build a long-lasting relationship that enables us to collaboratively deliver the highest standard of products for our customers together. This includes our never-ending quest to find the next best thing in terms of varieties, shapes, colours and sizes of product to really thrill our customers.
The rest of my time is spent understanding what our customers want and ensuring that we have the best offer in the market in terms of product positioning, price promotions and, of course, growing sales, market share and profitability for the business.
What are your career highlights so far?
SS: My move to M&S! Also, launching the company’s first own label cold-pressed smoothie range. And, the travel and experience of meeting with suppliers and growers from all over the world.
What advice would you give anyone already working or looking to get into your sector?
SS: Be passionate, determined, and always strive to do the right thing and you will be rewarded and fulfilled within the food industry. You will never stop learning, so be inquisitive and engaged and never lose sight of the end goal, which is ultimately to provide the best experience for the customer.