Focus on people can save produce sector

Tomm Leighton
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My colleague Jim Prevor asked last month whether 2016 will be the year of strategic thinking. He pointed out that many within the industry, as well as many more outside, may have misjudged the reasons behind the recent boom of the discounters, and I’d go further. I think the fruit and veg supply chain’s ability to deal with the manifold demands of modern British supermarket buyers (and their superiors) has diminished and needs rebuilding post haste.

Although things are changing, the supply-chain section of this industry is still dominated by people, mostly men, who cut their teeth either in, or dealing with, the wholesale sector many years ago.

Don’t get me wrong – I love wholesale markets and I have spent a lot of my working life in them. I love the people in wholesale markets, their approach and attitude to business (mostly!), and their ability to live and work in a world removed from the one that most of their contemporaries live in, or would choose to live in. I also think that this industry has been blessed with many, many people who have successfully made the transition from trader to supermarket supplier, and who have taken this industry through the phases of evolution that the inexorable rise of the multiple retailer has forced upon it in the past 30-odd years.

The question we are faced with is how this industry deals with the situation in front of it now.

When I first popped up on the scene in the mid 1990s, there was still a bedrock of supermarket buyers cemented in their posts, able to deal with their suppliers with the benefit of years of experience and pass on the benefit of their knowledge to their younger colleagues. There are exceptions, but over a relatively short period of time, the more mature buyers were rooted out and replaced by younger models.

Whatever the reasoning and whether you agree with it or not, the process left a buyer portfolio at the major supermarket chains that was far less experienced at precisely the time when the power of those chains was spiralling and that experience could have come in useful. The strategists may claim the entrenched methods of the buyers who left were not in tune with plans to expand rapidly. Hindsight tells us that expansion has come at a significant cost – which is being played out painfully in front of us right now.

If only I had £1 – I’d even accept a Rand – for every time one of those industry leaders has said to me a version of the following with something between exasperation and humiliated resignation: “These youngsters come in here and tell me how to run my business”. I sympathise with both sides of that particular equation because these days both are under significant pressure and neither can claim to be in control of their own business. It’s an unstable backdrop to a commercial relationship in my opinion, and one that will only change as truly new thinking emerges.

There is no point in harking back to the past as halcyon days. There were plenty of issues then that we wouldn’t want to deal with now. And it’s not the buyers’ fault that the established supermarket leaders are struggling to compete with the discounters. But by largely deleting a layer of experience from their businesses, the chains showed, perhaps for the first time, that their category-by-category strategies were by their nature destined to be short-term-quick-buck – in direct opposition to the way that the vast majority of their suppliers had been built.

Investment in people

Trading may appear short-term to the uninitiated, but no produce company was successful in the past without taking a reasonably long-term view on its people. As so many firms were steeped in family history, that is far from surprising. I sat in a meeting last week with a representative of a large family-run grower group, who put people steadfastly at the top of the industry’s priority list. With all of the pressures placed upon it though, have some sections of this industry taken their eye off far-sighted recruitment and investment in people?

Produce is an industry that traditionally tends to find it difficult to attract people in the first place, but then has far less trouble retaining them once they are in the fold. For several years, the inability to attract youngsters was mainly something we heard from the wholesale markets. However, recently that issue has become more widespread, as the production line of replacements for people retiring or leaving the industry has dried up and the family lines have also begun to fizzle out.

Many on the inside looking out have been puzzled at why so few people seem interested in a career in fresh produce, which delivers fast-paced and varied working environments, opportunities aplenty for travel and work all over the world, decent salaries compared to other food sectors and a good chance of relatively swift progression through the ranks. This is a wonderful industry, and what’s more, there is still a constant buzz around fresh produce in media and consumer circles.

It should be an exciting sector with limitless potential. But somehow, the UK fruit, veg and flower industries have not only allowed their products to be commoditised and under-valued, but also failed miserably to promote their values as trades to the outside world. From the outside looking in, we should ask ourselves what youngsters think the fresh produce industry is all about. A lot of them will have no perception at all – which is very sad.

What indeed do they feel at this point about working for one of the supermarket chains as a buyer? I’m hardly sticking my neck out in saying that supermarkets are not at the height of their popularity. And it will not be lost on the next generation that the chains they may have looked at as prospective employers are beset by head-office cuts, store closures and have slammed the brakes on expansion. There are some excellent buyers out there, but as in every industry, they will inevitably move on, whether by their own volition or otherwise. At this particularly sensitive juncture, it is as important to retailers that they have people who can deal effectively with the supply chain as it is that they have suppliers who can deal effectively with their own people. But who will want to follow these buyers in the prevailing retail environment and where will you find them?

The team at Phoenix Media Network (publisher of PBUK) is finding out – we have begun a nationwide tour of educational establishments, from sixth forms to seats of further and higher education, to promote the industry’s virtues in advance of our first Fresh Careers Fair, on March 10. We spoke to the industry too, and found out that there is great interest in recruiting school-leavers as well as graduates, which makes perfect sense as fewer A-Level students choose to take on the cost of university and prefer instead to dive headlong into the world of work.

What we’ve found so far is that even a small amount of well-delivered information is enough to enthuse young people about fresh produce. But the vast majority of them have had none, even if they live in a produce-industry area. We’re expecting as many as 300 students and school leavers to join us at The Oval in March, and they will be met by forward-thinking exhibitors who recognise the need to get face-to-face with the next generation.

If you’re not already among them, we still have some availability, so please contact me, or one of our sales team. I can’t claim that the future of our industry depends on this one event, but I’d like to think we could play a big role in bringing long-term strategic thinking back into recruitment.  

For more information about the Fresh Careers Fair, read this article.

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