Continuing with Collingwood’s '5 minutes with' blog series, we caught up with FMCG Commercial Director, James Langan. James has 15 yrs+ experience at board level in PE / FTSE businesses including Tangerine Confectionery and Northern Foods.
Chris: Talk me through your background in senior leadership roles in FMCG. What product sectors/experiences have you enjoyed the most over the years?
James: I have been fortunate to lead the sales, marketing and category teams for some great FMCG businesses. I have worked in a number of categories on both brand and own label including biscuits, confectionery, snacks, frozen and dairy. I have generally worked with “challenger” brands in declining markets. The businesses I have worked for have supplied a broad section of customers across all trade channels. A key focus of the last 10 years has been the level of change and challenges faced by suppliers. I have particularly enjoyed planning and successfully responding to these challenges, whether that has been retailer or supplier mergers, cost inflation recovery, contract re-negotiations and general strategy changes.
Chris: You have been involved in a number of business turnarounds. What have been the key factors to ensure success?
James: The first factor to ensure success has been absolute clarity on the goal to be achieved. Once the goal has been agreed, then it is important that everyone in the organisation understands it and contributes towards its achievement. Secondly, development and implementation of clear strategies and plans with clear accountability for delivery are critical. Coupled with this has been a relentless focus on excellent execution of all plans. It has generally been necessary to reduce/limit costs as much as possible. As a principle, any investment has been on the back of a recovery (or growth) not in anticipation of a recovery.
Chris: How have you structured your commercial teams to manage both brand and own label across a broad customer base?
James: Let me answer this in three parts. Firstly, with regard to marketing teams that I have been responsible for, it has been very important that all activity and plans have been driven by consumer thinking/understanding and not by what the company happens to be able to make. In some of the businesses, this represented a step change in thinking. In addition, I have always treated the marketing of retailer own brand as a specific area with dedicated personnel to ensure the quality of thinking adds value. Within sales, the Account Managers have always managed both brand and own label within their portfolio of customers. Structures have continually been evolved to reflect the potential of certain customers and channels as the trading environment has dictated. I introduced category management to a number of my businesses and as a result, had to demonstrate the benefits of the function to justify growth in the teams. I was consistently able to demonstrate a strong return through the joint development of brand and retailer-own brand across a range of retailers.
Chris: How did you capitalise on the growth of the discounter/bargain store channel in recent years?
James: Biscuits, snacks and confectionery have all proven to be very important categories for the discounters/bargain stores. My team at Fox’s were one of the first major biscuit suppliers to develop the discounter/bargain store channel. Initially, the channel was used tactically, however as sales grew, a significantly more strategic approach was taken both around the range sold both under brand and own label. Over time, the level and calibre of the account management resource employed in this area have step changed to reflect it's growing importance and increasing sophistication.
Chris: How would you describe your leadership style and how has it developed over the years as you have developed your career?
James: My leadership style is focused on getting the best out of my direct reports and broader team. This will generally mean a collaborative, coaching and pragmatic approach, however, I will flex my style as business circumstances dictate. I always try to lead people with passion and enthusiasm with a desire to succeed at whatever we are doing. Over the years, I have learned to flex my leadership style more effectively to different situations. I have recruited a lot of people based on their attitude and potential rather their experience in a sector or a role. One of the most pleasing things I have seen is the way in which some of the people I have recruited have grown into bigger and better jobs both working for me and in other companies.
Chris: What challenges and opportunities do you see FMCG businesses facing in the next 5 years?
James: FMCG businesses will face a number of challenges in the next 5 years. These are likely to include increased costs driven by commodities, currency fluctuations, national living wage, and business rates changes. These challenges will force FMCG businesses to evolve their business models, levels of efficiency and cost structures to ensure they remain cost competitive or differentiated in the marketplace. There will also be opportunities driven by innovation focused on health and convenience, e-commerce, and international development. At this stage, Brexit remains an unknown quantity – likely to have some elements of both challenge and opportunity. As ever in FMCG and as Charles Darwin said, “It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.”
For more information on James' background, you can review his LinkedIn profile here.