Against a backdrop of painfully rising costs, economic uncertainty and the aftermath of Brexit, it’s no wonder that over 50% of UK food & drink companies are now looking abroad to grow their businesses*. Indeed, F&D exports from the UK reached almost £25bn in 2022, with exports to non-EU markets smashing through the £10bn barrier for the first time**. Clearly, the potential is huge if you get your strategy right, but how do you work out what that is and then deliver on it? We spoke to F&D veteran and export guru Nicola Thomas, co-director of the Food & Drink Exporters Association (“FDEA”) and expert in accelerating international growth for F&D companies, to find out.
Q. Before we dive in to the world of exports, let’s talk about your love of the F&D industry, where you’ve spent your entire career. What is it about the sector that drew you in in the first place and how has it kept your interest and enthusiasm fresh for so long?
It was my conscious aim to combine two lifelong loves - languages and food - and I thought that export sales would be perfect. Having begged literally every food manufacturer in the area to employ me, one company – Pritchitt Foods – agreed to a six-month trial. They were already selling dairy products all over the world but had shied away from Europe as no one there spoke any languages. We agreed they would teach me everything they knew about selling whipping cream and milk portions overseas and I would use my language skills to help set up their European sales network. Happily the trial paid off, thanks to my visits to hotel, restaurant and airline kitchens all over the Continent showing chefs and bakers 101 things to do with long-life cream, and we even won a Queen’s Award for Export.
I subsequently moved through the international F&D supply chain, selling ice cream to Italy, fresh sandwiches to French supermarkets, and then in to global wholesaling and logistics. My roles evolved from hands-on business development and marketing in to a more strategic and advisory focus.
It’s such a dynamic, diverse and friendly industry, offering endless career opportunities: I’ve travelled and lived abroad, promoted (and sampled!) the best of British, used my languages on a daily basis…and I even managed to export myself to Belgium when I met my husband through work! What’s not to love!
Q. You’ve been at the FDEA for nearly 10 years now. What do your members gain from being part of this community and how does the FDEA help them with their international growth?
The FDEA is unique in being totally focused on providing practical support to our thriving community of 500+ individual members to help them build sustainable and profitable sales overseas. We provide actionable insights, skills training, facilitating peer-to-peer knowledge exchange and learning, as well as making those critical industry connections which UK companies need to enter and grow their business in international territories. We make this possible through a full-on programme of workshops, masterclasses, a regular online members meet up, 1-2-1 support and two flagship in-person events each year.
Last month, for example, we welcomed 80+ exporters to our Summer Network Forum where delegates not only had the chance to share key challenges with the new Minister for Exports, but also to be inspired by the likes of Waitrose, Alibaba and Whittard of Chelsea. We also shared the results of our latest survey of overseas distributors and what is keeping them awake at night in 2023!
Outside the UK, we run the British pavilions at key overseas trade shows each year, from the biggies like Anuga, Sial and Summer Fancy Food in the US, to dedicated sector exhibitions like Biofach (organic food) and ISM (confectionery & snacks). These shows, together with virtual meet-the-buyer events, trade missions and access to our network of in-market experts in over 25 global nations, are pivotal in helping members meet end customers, new and existing distributors and build international brand awareness.
We also enable companies to ‘do what they do best [i.e. manufacture and sell] and outsource the rest’ through tapping in to our little black book of specialists in every aspect of international trade, from logistics to labelling, to compliance, certification and, of course, intellectual property (thank you, Kilburn & Strode!)
Q. You also run a separate export consultancy business, providing bespoke guidance and mentoring to companies in the F&D space. What are the most common pitfalls and problems that you see?
Companies generally call on me at one of three key stages in their growth journey:
When they are weighing up whether export should even be part of their strategy, and if so, how that fits with their domestic business. I have recently been working with an ingredients manufacturer, carrying out an in-depth review of external opportunities and company capabilities, assessing risk and the impacts of both exporting and not exporting. Let’s see if I managed to persuade them what they were missing!
When they need help at the ‘Scale Up’ stage i.e. they’ve been dabbling in export but are largely reactive and struggling to make headway, despite committing to being more than “a Friday afternoon exporter”. We work together to put a structure and process in place to embed export in to the business, prioritising a small number of countries and drawing up realistic but proactive plans. I often stay on as a mentor to keep the company on its export track, especially when under pressure from its UK business!
When more established exporters simply feel that they would benefit from having an independent perspective to help them move up a gear from ‘good to great’. This might be through their annual export strategy review or when they want to focus on a specific pain point like cracking a challenging market, opening up a new sales channel in an existing territory or building a high-performing global distributor network.
Q. The F&D news we see in the UK and EU is all about sustainability, plant based foods and other wellness/health-conscious trends. How does this compare with what you see around the world and how do you think UK-based companies can take advantage of differing consumer demands internationally?
After the US, the UK is often at the forefront of F&D trends such as health and wellness thanks to our demanding grocery retailers who put brands under constant pressure to deliver innovation to their supermarket shelves. This innovation is one of the key reasons our products are sought the world over, even in the EU where Brexit has made it less straightforward to buy from the UK and a very compelling reason is now needed.
There is sometimes a delay in trends spreading around the globe and the trick is to spot when and where your category is starting to move from niche to mainstream. For example, a distributor in Indonesia recently told me that free-from in supermarkets is currently limited to only basic ranges, so retailers are now actively seeking second generation products which deliver on taste, quality and attractive packaging.
UK brands are not only exceptionally well-positioned to open up and expand the free-from category but in doing so, they also have the opportunity to extend the lifecycles of, and revenues from, their existing ranges. The key to success, confirmed in the feedback we received from distributors in our recent survey, is doing your homework to understand how trends are playing out and where the gaps are in target markets.
Q. What’s your favourite success story and/or brand in the F&D space and why?
There are so many British brands doing great things internationally and reinforcing our reputation as leaders in product quality, innovation, provenance and food safety.
So maybe my choice – Pritchitt Foods (now part of Lakeland Dairies) - is a surprising one as both the brand and product range (long-life cream, milk portions, ice-cream mixes etc for foodservice professionals) are pretty unsexy! But I admire the company on so many levels. Not only has the brand endured and the product range expanded over the 30+ years since they set me off on my career, but the company-wide commitment to export was, and remains, quite unique. I remember sometimes being slightly irritated by the rigorous approach of the management team in quantifying opportunities, vetting distributors, setting export pricing and justifying trade show and marketing spend…but when I subsequently worked for brands who were much more laid back, I realised just how valuable that work was and how those building blocks prevented things going off the rails later on! Some of the distributor partnerships forged then are still going strong today and I confess I still feel a little buzz and sense of pride whenever I spot one of Pritchitt’s Millac Maid milk portions in a hotel or restaurant on my travels!
So there you have it: it’s not just UK whisky and chocolate that can whet the international appetite! Anything can have wings (and even be sexy 😉) as long as you match perfectly your product to your consumer, get your timing spot on – and have an expert helping you with the strategy. Who knows, you might even land yourself a new partner along the way if you’re lucky!