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Industry View: Spearheading Growth for Scotland Food and Drink

16 Sep 2014

Scotland Food and Drink James Withers Interview

We recently had the pleasure of interviewing James Withers, the Chief Executive of Scotland Food & Drink.  Scotland Food & Drink was established in 2007 as the leadership organisation to spearhead growth across all sectors of the food and drink industry. The organisation represents food and drink companies of all sizes across all parts of Scotland.

Prior to joining Scotland Food and Drink, James was Chief Executive of the National Farmers Union Scotland and spent 12 years there working for the nation's farming industry, and representing the view of the agricultural industry and wider rural Scotland to Government and other key decision-makers.

James is also a Board member of the Scottish Tourism Alliance, which is driving forward new tourism strategy for Scotland.

James WithersScotland Food & Drink’s vision was revised back in October 2013 and now your mission is to grow the industry to a value of £16.5 billion by 2017. What for you are the key factors to this success and the biggest growth opportunities for food and drink manufacturers in Scotland?

Scotland has gone from having a food and drink industry whose growth was static a decade ago to one which is now the best performing sector of Scotland’s economy. What are the ingredients of that success?  To be honest, it’s a mixture of factors.  Firstly, we’re better organised now.  Industry has come together through Scotland Food & Drink to develop a single growth strategy.  The public sector in Scotland has given that strategy its backing too.  So we know what we want to do and how.  Secondly, a new identity has been forged in Scotland for food and drink.  We’ve got behind the “Land of Food & Drink” vision and awareness of the quality of produce from this country is increasing every day as a result.  The other major factor is global trends; a growing more affluent world population means greater demand for premium food with a strong provenance story – and we have that in abundance in this country.

The market is changing we have noticed an increase in small / artisan companies gaining listings in the major retailers as well  as consumer buying habits changing linked with the increase in the major retailers opening convenience stores. Just a couple of examples of how the industry has changed in recent years. What developments are we likely to see over the next 5 years?

There are a number of trends Scotland will have to stay on top of.  The overall increase in worldwide demand for premium food is here to stay and a massive opportunity for Scottish producers.  But alongside that the growth in demand for healthier products which means we will need to innovate; either by reformulating existing foods and creating entirely new products.  Sustainability drives, alongside having to operate in a world of less available, more expensive inputs, means we’ll need to be more efficient.  The growth in e-commerce, particularly in the Far East, will also change how we interact with customers.  If people are now doing their shopping by scanning QR codes on their smartphone for home delivery, what will that mean for the future of packaging and marketing and supermarket relationships?  The world is changing fast, but the industry has sown its ability to adapt so I’m confident we’ll do well.  A combination of heritage plus innovation will be powerful in the years ahead.

The Bank of Scotland recently reported that two-thirds of Scottish food and drink businesses surveyed plan to boost their workforce and they calculate this could equate to up to 10,000 new jobs over the next five years. A key driver being the growth in exports. How important is the export market for Scotland and what other factors do you feel are contributing to companies looking to hire further staff?

Confidence is often the most important commodity in business and it is there to see in food and drink just now.  We are in the midst of internationalising the whole sector, following in the successful footsteps of whisky.  We’re on track for a doubling of food and drink exports from Scotland in a decade and our new export plan is putting food and drink experts on the ground in places like Tokyo, Toronto, Beijing and Berlin.  That will give us greater knowledge of local markets than we’ve ever had and a fantastic resource for companies looking to develop their export activity.

What are you most excited about in the food and drink industry at the moment?

I’m definitely excited about our export potential, but there is also a billion pounds of growth we’ve targeted in our domestic markets between now and 2017.  So I’m probably most excited about diversity, from the many market opportunity awaiting us, to the products on our doorstep, to the mix of established businesses and new starts.  For a country of modest size, I believe we have the makings of the most powerful food and drink story anywhere.  We’ve started telling that story properly over the last few years, but there are some fantastic new chapters that are about to be written.

Follow James Withers on Twitter at @ScotFoodJames. For more information about Scotland Food and Drink, click here.

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