5 Minutes with Commercial Director Simon White - Food Vs Non Food Sector Insights

Continuing Collingwood’s Q&A Sessions with FMCG Leaders and Influencers, Chris Barker recently spent some time with Commercial Director, Simon White. Chris wanted to further understand the strengths and differing skills sets in the Food and Non-Food sectors and what they could learn from each other.

Having worked in the non-food sector (Tigerprint Hallmark) as well as the food sector (Coldwater Seafood), in senior director positions, Chris was keen to understand how Simon adapted to moving between each sector, the challenges he faced, as well as the strengths and skills he believes each sector could share with one another.

Chris: Some of the consumer product clients we work with are understandably unsure about bringing in talent from across other sectors.  Do you think they are right to be nervous or missing out on an opportunity?

Simon: In my experience, the benefits substantially outweigh the risks. People from different sectors often bring with them different perspectives and valuable experience. If we continue to do things the way we have traditionally done them, we will continue to get the same result; we end up with a self-fulfilling prophecy. New talent is essential in any industry but the key to success is focusing on competencies, attitudes and capabilities of those you employ; are they a good fit for the challenges ahead?

Chris: Given your personal experience of moving from food into non-food, what would you say were the biggest challenges you faced as an employee? 

Simon: The two key challenges for me were cultural fit and recognising the critical success factors. Food is faster paced and reactive; reflecting the product life cycle and shelf life of the product, whereas Non Food tends to operate over a longer time horizon, predicting fashion & lifestyle trends and the development/ manufacturing timeline is not as reactive at a trading level. Broadly, the ranging interval is weeks compared to twice per year so working patterns, decision making and cultures can be very different. Food tends to be more of a pull model, whereas Non Food is generally a push model and so skill sets can be very different.

Chris: What would your advice be to any employer thinking about bringing in someone from outside their sector?

Simon: Reflect on your business model to identify how your organisation operates and the key skills and behaviours required for the future. A capability audit at company and department level can be extremely incisive, if not a bit scary!

It’s also very important to make sure that the broader team, starting at leadership level, embrace the need to provide a positive and supportive environment to plan and deliver success. Bringing anyone in to a company is a major investment for both parties and we need to give ourselves every opportunity to make it a success.

Chris: You’ve talked about the Food sectors reactive pace.  Is this pace also mirrored in the product development and sales cycle?

Simon: This is true at operational level but it is often mentioned in a judgemental way. The reality is that the two sectors are just different and there are businesses that share the same characteristics and ways of working in both.

Let’s celebrate the diversity and capitalise on the benefits of each.

Chris: How does the relationship between the retailer and the customer differ between the two sectors, particularly in terms of control, innovation and creativity?

Simon: Generally, there is much more operational focus in Food.  The discussion between retailer and supplier is frequent, providing the ability to respond to sales quicker.  This means creative development can be more experimental due to the faster development cycle. In Non Food, retailers tend to buy large quantities, perhaps for an entire season in private label, so the relationship reflects high level commitment to fashion trends and the management of risk, both sourcing and selling.

Management of individual product performance, margins and waste tends to be closer in Food.  Buyers are acutely aware of their close competitor’s activity because of the concentration of the market. In General Merchandise, the nature of competition is quite different, with purchases often being discretionary, plus a lot of direct or indirect competitors. This creates different challenges in terms of anticipating trends and sustaining a point of difference at product level.

Equally interesting comparisons can be made between short life and long life product markets, and between branded and private label businesses but that a whole new discussion……..

Chris: What would you say are the biggest learning points or best practice each area can take from the other?

Simon: One common theme is the perennial need to keep refreshing our talent and recalibrating our aspiration. There are some great development programmes we can learn from in both sectors

The operational focus and fast turn round times in food are great disciplines to have in any business.  Equally the emphasis on product benefits and positioning in the context the broader environment of non-food are vital success factors.

Chris: What would you identify as the main differences between the two sectors when it came to processes and their ‘ways of working’?

Simon: The emphasis in process development and management can differ dramatically, largely due to the nature of the  business driven by speed to market and supply chain economics.

A great example would be in technical management; in Food the critical importance of food safety and traceability are priorities, whereas Non Food focuses more on product functionality and physical attributes, leading to quite different process management.

Commercial reviews and innovation can also look quite different in the two sectors and accountability can lie in different departments both in the supplier and retailer.

In Food Retailing, the buyer is the central decision maker while in GM the responsibility is split between Buyer (responsible for product & pricing) and Merchandiser responsible for availability and sell through). This leads to differing processes in suppliers, where accountability shifts from Account Management to Product Management and Creative.

Managing Critical Date Paths is a real skill in both sectors and the division of accountability is a perpetual discussion point!

Chris: What strengths did you find in the people and teams that you managed in the two different sectors, and how did they compare?

Simon: I would say that as a sweeping generalisation, those in Food tend to be more commercially savvy and operationally resourceful.  Those in Non Food tend to be more creative and globally aware, simply because of the nature of the markets in which they operate.

Many can, and indeed do, carve out successful careers in both sectors; adaptability is a very valuable asset. Technical skills cross boundaries and can be acquired relatively quickly. Soft skills are often much harder to acquire and ways of working can be particularly challenging.

Chris: Overall, what can both sectors learn from each other going forward?

Simon: At a high level, understand what matters most in your business and build relevant competencies to give you a competitive edge.

There is a lot of good talent looking for opportunity both within our industry and from other sectors. If we need operational agility and commercial pace, consider Food candidates and if we value creativity and more global thinking consider Non Food as likely sources.

Either way we need to have the right talent acquisition, development and retention strategies in place, total business commitment, effective ways of working and a relevant culture to make us successful.

undefined Simon White

Above all, we need strong vision and leadership, regardless of where it comes from!