James Withers is Chief Executive of Scotland Food & Drink (SF&D), a membership organisation that was set up in 2007 to grow the value and reputation of Scotland's food and drink industry. With over 440-member companies, SF&D provides support and guidance to food and drink businesses all of all sizes to achieve their growth ambitions. We caught up with Scotland’s Food Tzar.
Our food and drink sector has gone from static growth 10 years ago to one of the best performing sectors of Scotland’s economy and the fastest growing export. There are many reasons including our world-class products and incredible talent in the industry. However if I had to pick one reason for the change, it would be collaboration. Scotland Food & Drink was created to bring our different sectors of food and drink under one roof, alongside government and its agencies. It has resulted in a single strategy, with industry and public sector uniting behind a mission to grow value and reputation. It’s not perfect and we are on a journey, but it has been a game-changer so far.
The good news is we have all the ingredients for success in terms of people and products. However, we need to strengthen our culture of innovation. The world in 2030 will be unrecognisable from the one we live in today and we need to be at the forefront of changing consumer habits and technology. We also need to work better collectively to raise the profile of food and drink as a career destination. And, within our own shores, there has been a revolution in the local food movement, from farmers’ markets to food festivals. There is a still a need to strengthen our food culture, particularly in relation to diet, health and wellbeing.
In the last ten years, we’ve seen Scottish food exports to Asia grow by 600%, to North America by 300% and to the Middle East by 160%. Europe is still our biggest food export market; we’re selling over £1 billion of Scottish food there each year. Brexit is going to make things harder, however our reputation and relationships remain strong on the Continent so we must not write it off. Thanks to a unique funding collaboration, we now have staff based in 15 cities around the world. That means we will keep building demand in North America, Europe, the Middle East and Far East where consumers are looking for premium products with a strong story of provenance behind.
The collaborative approach between the industry and government in Scotland remains unique I believe. That, alongside the fact that we have over 450 active member companies makes for an incredibly strong voice. I have spent time with counterparts from Canada to Mexico interested in our model having seen the growth in our reputation and sales that has resulted from it. Much closer to home, the Northern Irish are looking at a similar model and the Welsh have really upped their game too. However, we have spent a lot of time looking at international competitors ourselves and as an example I have always admired New Zealand’s approach to working hard on their national brand and bringing in all sectors of industry. Scotland is ready-made for a similar approach. We have a story than many countries would love to have and if we tell it coherently, with pride and passion, we can compete with anyone.
Our start-up scene in food and drink is amazing. I think the single biggest investment I would encourage in the early days is really good, focussed, market insight. It is easy to pick out generic trends – from craft gin to healthy snacking – but the secrets lie in really good insight, understanding the demographics you’re targeting and the real gaps in the market.
The big retailers have embraced Scottish provenance for one reason: it works and drives sales, increasingly beyond the Scottish border. The consumer research we have done at SF&D shows that almost half of shoppers across England, Wales and Northern Ireland rate Scottish products as higher quality than products without a country mark. 70% of London shoppers are more likely to buy a product if it is marked as Scottish. Half of consumers elsewhere in UK think Scotland’s food and drink reputation has grown in the last decade. So, I’m not asking the big supermarkets to showcase Scottish products and celebrate provenance to be nice to suppliers – it is because it works commercially as well as reputationally.
Starter: scallops in any form, with anything as long as they’re from Scotland. Intermediate course: haggis, neeps and tatties in a whisky cream sauce. Main: Scotch beef sirloin steak, medium rare (and yes, I’m having chips with that). Dessert: I’m not a pudding man, so I’m going for a cheese board (grapes optional, port compulsory). The night finishes for me with a dram: an Aberlour 12 year old. And then one more.