Gavin Darby Speaks at FDF President’s Reception

Following is the prepared address for the President’s Reception on 3 December 2019

Gavin Darby
Dec 20, 2019 · 6 min read

Thank you for the introduction. This maybe by good organisation or just happenstance, but after three years we are at the end of my tenure as President of the Food and Drink Federation, so this evening is very nicely timed. I thought, therefore, in terms of what I would say, I would reflect on the priorities of the Food and Drink Federation in my time. Not quite as a report card, but a certain kind of personal observation in terms of the progress we’ve made, and where the Food and Drink Federation is today.

Many people have asked me during the last three years, “Why would you do it?” Copious spare time to be the President? No, I think the answer is pretty simple for me. First of all, I actually think it is an obligation in all sorts of industries, for industry leaders to step forward, and put something back. That’s an obvious one. Maybe more importantly, as I ran one of the biggest British food companies, it was very obvious to me that I’ve never seen the sector in such a good space. I joined this industry a long time ago, as a young graduate, forty plus years ago in 1977, as a humble, naive salesman in the food industry. Today I’ll tell you that I’ve never seen the kind of energy, innovation, and entrepreneurship that I see at this point. That’s great. I think our industry, in terms of all of those dimensions, has never been in better shape. However, as I looked at the industry, as a leader of one of these companies, it was also quite clear that there were some tremendous challenges. So, those are the two reasons why I’ve committed the time, and actually loved my time supporting the Federation, and this great industry.

Probably my first intervention, which members may remember well, was to play one of my usual cards. All industry leaders have a set of cards they play. One of mine has always been focus. It’s very challenging for the food industry, for the Federation, for all Federations, because they’re pulled in all sorts of different directions. Members, rightly, have all sorts of different agendas. It’s very easy, whether it be in business, or in a Federation, to be too busy being busy. So, I brought the concept of focus, and everybody adopted it early and willingly. We focused, and we came through that process deciding that while we’ve got limited resources on the one hand, and demand for resources rising on the other, that we’d focus in four big areas.

That’s not to say that the foundation day-to-day work, in the Food and Drink Federation wasn’t important. We were to be focused on top , with four big things. The first one was Brexit, little did we know how challenging that was going to be! The second one was the whole area of health and wellbeing, subset: obesity, and then two of my big rallying cries, skills development and exports. We chose those four, and the beauty was that we could prioritise our resources on those big issues, and create flex for another inevitable factor, the notion that things will change. Whatever your three year plan, whatever your one year plan in this industry, you need to have spare resources for things that become important on the way .

Brexit has us all shocked in that three and a half years later, we’re still not quite sure where we are going ! I can tell you though that despite all this uncertainty, that the FDF team have played what i would describe as ‘ blinder ‘ in impacting the Brexit agenda for our sector. I can report this because Presidents are like Non-Executive Chairmen of a company, and can step to some degree above and aside from the Executive team. In this way i get some amazing independent feedback about the impact that the FDF has made on Brexit . The key thing that the FDF did was build a broad constituency of people from many Federations, many of whom are in the room today. We are much more powerful, we’re not just the FDF, but we are totally different bodies and industry associations that have come together in almost a coalition. I have seen, personally and first-hand, the power and access that the FDF, on behalf of the industry, now has, including some of the most senior politicians in the country, Cabinet Ministers, and civil servants. So, I think now, while we are still to see where Brexit finishes, but I am absolutely clear that the FDF has played a pivotal role in raising the profile, getting engagement with the agenda, making politicians understand, getting worst-case-scenario non-deal Brexit consequences understood, and making sure that this great industry is listened to.

One area where I personally think we need to do more is health and wellbeing. This is a deeply complex subject. I still go back to the one report that I always understood, and really resonated with me, the Mckinsey report that said forty to fifty big buttons need hitting at the same time. Unless you can do that, it will not make a difference. I think the food industry has moved forward, and I’m particularly encouraged in terms of the mindset of the leaders of our industry. In fact, we had a really important meeting on this subject this afternoon, and I could see people “leaning” into it. I’ve always called it “leaning” into it, and becoming part of the solution, rather than the problem. Today, we discussed the whole concept of being on the front foot. I think there’s an awful lot more to do, and I do think obesity is a crisis, and is not overstated, but rather, described accurately as a crisis. I am very encouraged by the headset of our industry, headed the right way.

Then, skills and exports are a key areas of focus. In this regard, we’ve used the Food and Drink Sector Council, of which I am a member, as a vehicle. The FDF has really lent itself to both of those issues by providing significant people resources energy and talent and has driven the agenda on skills, and the agenda on exports. We’ve made big progress on both of those.

Essentially, those were the four big things that we focused on, but also, we’ve created a certain amount of space through the refocus. One of the things that I think we can all see and observe these days in history, is that things change. Plastics was always in our plan, but it was in the second or third level, as compared to plastics today. I’m encouraged that because of our focus, and because of the way in which we manage resources, we’ve been able to dial up resources for plastics, which is now a very big initiative. The FDF is deeply engaged in being part of addressing the crucial issue of plastic.

That brings me in conclusion to my overall summary of where the FDF is today. Again, as the President, I think you can step back, and perhaps be more independent. Also, as President, you get a huge amount of input from politicians of different political colours, stakeholders, and journalists. Every single one will tell me that the FDF is in much better shape than it was four or five years ago. The FDF now champions the industry, and we have a voice, and are treated extremely seriously . Perhaps the best manifestation of that sentiment is the reason why I hold this document in my hand. It is a document many of you have seen in the last few weeks. This is the Manifesto that the FDF team has put together. The Manifesto went to every single candidate in this big democratic process that we are currently observing. Every single candidate has one of these, and also every single journalist we know. I’ve had no influence over it, or what’s in it, but it genuinely summarises what the FDF is today. It’s full of facts, facts supported by numbers. Also, it’s simple and focused, with five policies, and each of the five policies has five recommendations. Essentially, it holds twenty five recommendations for the Secretary of State, Ministers and individuals who end up in important Ministries sometime in the next few weeks. It’s a brilliant example of where the FDF currently stands. It’s a great document, and one of which the entire FDF team should be massively proud.

This is a fantastic industry, and it’s been an absolute privilege to support it in the fashion that I’ve been able to. Thank you very much.

Written by

President Food and Drink Federation | Based in London

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