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 second career spotlight centres on Sarah Calcutt, the founding partner of Partners in Produce, who gives a fascinating recap of how she launched her business and marketing career in the fresh produce industry
Name: Sarah Calcutt
Position: Founding partner at Partners in Produce
Role: Driving force behind one of the industry’s leading marketing and business transformation companies
Time in post: Six years
Career length to date: 22 years
How did you first get into the industry and what qualifications did you study for?
Sarah Calcutt (SC): I was a sixth-generation grower – my family had been growing fruit in Kent since the 1840s. I actually decided to pursue a career outside of the produce industry and have a degree in music from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff. When my friend was ill, I once had to stand in as the token English woman in the ground at Cardiff Arms Park, who happened to be singing the Welsh National Anthem (they didn’t know I wasn’t Welsh)! I also have an HND in commercial production – more of that later. Music is still a very big part of my life now, but when I completed my course, I trained to be a buyer at the unfortunately now defunct Cardiff department store David Morgan. I was running a personal shopper service there when I went home to my Dad’s 60th birthday party – tired and emotional, he bemoaned the fact that no-one was going to take over the family firm; equally drunk, I agreed to go home and do it. The rest is history!
Tell us about your career path to date.
SC: Within a month of leaving Cardiff, my Donna Karan suits, high heels and jewellery behind, I was wearing a whole wardrobe to keep out the chill while pruning pear trees in the January snow! We grew hops, blackcurrants, apples and pears and I worked for Dad for seven years. It was a great experience, but he was more interested in giving me jobs off the farm that on it and I don’t think he ever really expected me to take over the reins of the business.
During the latter part of that time, I had set up an audit support business, which amongst other things helped farmers with their assurance scheme administration and compliance and Defra registrations. I got a Chartered Institute higher certificate in health and safety and after taking a Lantra Train the Trainer course, was offered a role at the Sector Skills Council, where I looked after bids for training and development funding. I was at Hadlow College one day in that role and they said, not only do we want what you’re offering us, but we’d also like you. I took up the position of Hadlow’s Skills Advisor (a funded post) and was their interface with the industry, matching up the demands of the industry with the Hadlow offer. I also helped the college restructure, rebrand and relaunch. It was a fabulous job.
My next step was to work for English fruit marketing desk Norman Collett. I joined in a technical and audit management role, with the aim of getting that side of the business to the stage where I could begin marketing it more widely. Once in marketing, I was responsible not only for marketing the business, but the English topfruit industry and the basket of homegrown varieties – ensuring that they had pole position and high visibility on shelves around the country.
I spent five years with Collett’s before leaving and setting up my own business six years ago.
I’ve also spent a lot of time sitting on various boards and committees in the produce sector. I was NFU Branch chairman for six years and vice-chair of the board of SGT (a marketing desk) while I worked for my Dad, as well as a member of the NFU Blackcurrant Group board. I was sponsorships secretary, then logistics co-ordinator, then chairman of the U40s Fruit Growers conference and I’m now in my 7th year as chair of the National Fruit Show. I am a member of the Council for the Kent County Show and the Hadlow College Business Advisory Group. I have also returned to blackcurrants having just been hired as the organiser of the International Blackcurrant Association Conference in June.
What does your job involve now?
SC: Partners in Produce has been described to be as a ‘peripatetic marketing and business transformation service’. I’m happy enough with that description! There is no typical day or client; I am mostly employed on a retained basis and can be doing anything from optimising a client’s website and social media impact, to reorganising its management structure, redirecting its sales and marketing focus or, as with one client at the moment, looking for new retail premises. It’s incredibly diverse and there’s never a dull moment.
What have been your career highlights?
SC: There are quite a few, but I’d have to say the day I stood up at the Association of Colleges Conference and told the director of learning and skills why Hadlow College was such a fabulous asset and had to be saved is right up there. It was being dreadfully undervalued and was in severe danger as an institution and I was lucky to be part of a spectacular team of people who saved the Alma Mater of my grandfather, uncle, father and I.
The National Fruit Show has been wonderful too. I love the show and always have and being at the head of it we have assembled an amazing team that has reinvigorated the annual event. It has doubled in size in the seven years I have been chairman and I’m really proud that we have re-instilled the show in the conscience of the industry and can deliver something that is of real benefit to everyone who takes part in it. We are also now making a modest profit again, which allows us to fund 50% of Sam, who is our wonderful education officer. Tesco funds the other 50% and so far Sam has given her lessons and an apple juice making class to well over 3,000 primary school children in London, Kent and Sussex. The feedback we get is incredible and the kids’ letters show how much they love it.
What advice would you give anyone wanting to get into your sector?
SC: You don’t need to have a background in the industry to succeed. There are lots and lots of routes in and my advice would be to explore as many as possible. Whether you start in an orchard, a packhouse or working for a retailer, it is a very rewarding industry to be part of.
Apprenticeships are also a really good route in and lots of English growers offer schemes. On the marketing side, I’m always looking for people who want to tell the story of this valuable and exciting industry.