Recruitment success requires intimate knowledge of industry

Tasting success: Alasdair Murray of Eden Scott. Picture: Neil Hanna
Tasting success: Alasdair Murray of Eden Scott. Picture: Neil Hanna
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In partnership with Eden Scott

PROVENANCE is a word used a lot about the Scottish food and drink sector. It’s important that consumers know where a product comes from, whether it’s beef, salmon, berries or rapeseed oil. Is it authentic? What’s the story behind it?

Essentially, it’s all about quality and credibility, and that goes for all companies operating in the sector, including high-end recruitment business Eden Scott.

“It’s about understanding the market,” says the company’s divisional manager for food and drink, Alasdair Murray.

“The changes in consumer behaviour, mergers and acquisitions, export markets, new product development and how this affects the labour market; that’s what builds credibility and trust in the market,

“It’s not just a transaction to us, it’s about expert advice and building partnerships.

“Our people are thought leaders and experts in their field, not generalists. Within the food and drink division, we have specialists in areas including food science, new product development, engineering, operations and supply chain.

“It’s about breaking the market down so we have true specialists who are very knowledgeable and immersed in the sector. This allows us to attract and work with the right kind of people for the right jobs.”

Murray says Eden Scott doesn’t rely as much as competitors on third-party databases: “We fill the majority of our roles through the ‘passive market’; people who are not actively looking. Who prefer a tap on the shoulder rather than a hard sell.

“We take the time to understand a client’s culture and ethos. It’s easier to identify technical skills, but the person who is the best fit for a business in the long-term might not be the one with the best technical qualifications.”

From Murray’s perspective, confidence in the food and drink sector in Scotland is still strong: “Despite Brexit, for many of our clients it’s very much business as normal.

“We know there will be challenges, particularly around agricultural funding and migrant labour, but it’s about remaining positive, and continuing to invest, grow and recruit. There is still an appetite for mergers and acquisitions, often driven by businesses looking to buy small niche operators to extend their product portfolio.”

Murray identifies the growth of small cottage industries as a major driver of the Scottish food and drink sector, in areas as diverse as gin, craft brewing, rapeseed oil and even macaroons.

“There are lots more opportunities to grow in Scotland now, starting at farmers’ markets and getting into small independent shops. That helps to create a buzz.

“Consumer buying habits have changed, moving away from the big weekly or monthly shop to buying in smaller quantities often, through multiple channels including online, farmers’ markets, independents and convenience stores.

“This offers a new route to market for cottage industries, who were previously very dependent on getting into supermarkets.”

Murray thinks Scotland’s food and drink industry leads the way in many respects: “It is very much a leader in terms of how the Scottish food and drink brand is promoted, especially its premium quality and its provenance.

“The Scottish larder is vast and there are so many great products available and great stories to be told, everything from smoked salmon to Scotch whisky, Scottish beef to craft beers.

“Lots of good work is going on to help SMEs into new markets and there is great collaboration, including sharing ideas about routes to market and what lessons can be learned, as well as creative joint marketing something the whisky and salmon sectors have worked on to great effect.

“There have been excellent events like ‘meet the buyer’ organised by Scotland Food and Drink and some sub-sector collaborations like the Brewers’ Association of Scotland.

“These initiatives are a great place to share good practice and find creative solutions to growing the industry.”

When it comes to skills, Murray says Scotland has specific challenges: “There are lots of businesses in remote locations and as recruiters, it’s not just about the pay or the reputation of the company, it’s about whether someone will re-locate to a rural area and buy into the whole lifestyle.

“We have worked with businesses in the north of Scotland like Aquascot in Alness, and in cases like that, we act as a brand ambassador for the business highlighting the additional lifestyle factors that promote the whole opportunity.”

Historically, Murray argues, a lack of focus in education on the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) has meant the food and drink industry has suffered – but things are improving.

“I work with the Scottish Food and Drink Federation as a skills ambassador. A lot of that is going into schools, colleges and universities and explaining the fantastic opportunities in the sector.

“Food and drink has not traditionally been seen as a career choice, more as a fallback. People had an idea of welly boots, smelly fish, guts and gore. But now we’re making an impact in getting people to see a modern sector with wider opportunities – HR, procurement, sales and marketing and the supply chain among others.

“That message about it being a career of choice is getting across; we have some fantastic businesses in Scotland.”

Engineering is a real problem, Murray stresses: “Traditionally, engineers coming through the apprenticeship system or university were attracted to the oil and gas sector because of the higher salaries.

“Food and drink was not seen as an option and most recruitment was from within the sector. Now, the decline in oil and gas means experienced engineers are available and they are starting to consider food and drink as a buoyant sector.

“The skills are transferable and we are always looking to recruit engineers for the food and drink sector; historically, engineers’ salaries across the sector have always been similar but we now see differentiation and salaries are being pushed up as companies compete for the best people.

He continues: “Engineers are crucial in ensuring manufacturing operations continue uninterrupted, or are fixed very quickly when problems arise.

“Minutes lost on a production line can cost thousands and although lots of work in the past has been reactive there is more planned preventative maintenance (PPM) going on now. It’s about putting systems in place to prevent the failure of the production line.”

New product development is also a very vibrant area, closely linked to changes in consumer behaviour.

“Five years ago, ready meals were very different to what we see today; there is a push from consumers for lower salt and fat content and healthier meals which still taste great and can be prepared quickly,” says Murray.

“That’s a big challenge for development chefs, working with technical teams, to produce those meals in 1,000s or 10,000s but retain the flavour and taste.

“You are seeing Michelin star chefs approached by high-end airlines looking for top-quality meals to be served at 30,000ft, which use premium ingredients and taste great.

“It might seem strange but for a chef who has worked long hours in a kitchen, the regular hours and the challenges of that kind of job can be attractive.

“There were big changes during the recession in the convenience food market too. People ate out less and innovations like Marks & Spencer’s dine in for £10 really took off. Meal kits did too.

“More recently we are seeing significant growth in the food-to-go market as busy consumers are looking for quality food on the go. All these innovations need high-quality development chefs working with technical and operational staff to guarantee that volume, quality, flavour, taste and convenience.”

Efficiency is the key to rising to these, and other, challenges, says Murray: “It took time for continuous improvement and lean manufacturing to come into the sector.

“Now there is a real focus on manufacturing efficiency, as the smallest of changes can have a massive impact on bottom line performance.

“Practitioners in these areas can be expensive to employ, but if they can generate significant savings by reducing time or wastage throughout the production process, you get the payback many times over.

“It all comes back to the margin as consumers are still very price-sensitive. Small improvements can make a big difference if you are manufacturing at large volume over a long period.

“So there is significant capital investment going into the sector to capitalise on these opportunities, and lots of work on future trends.

“Although more could be done, food and drink is a very innovative sector. Genius has shown how you can diversify your product range by moving from bread to cakes, pies and pastries.”

So how does all this sector knowledge come together for Eden Scott?

“It’s about getting under the skin of a client and its operations. When they have a need, you have to understand their culture and ethos, and the challenges and opportunities. What do they specifically want from this person they want to recruit?

“Once we know this, we can be confident through our interview process that a candidate is technically qualified, a good cultural fit and that they are credible for the role.”

Looking to the future, Murray is optimistic: “Businesses are innovating, new products and companies are coming to the market. The potential is there to scale up and there are plenty of success stories where we have been on that expansion journey with a business.

“There is a lot of positivity and businesses are not showing too much cause for concern. There will always be challenges, whether it be Brexit or sugar tax currently affecting the soft drinks industry.

“They are now looking to create the same great tasting drinks with less sugar, in the same way that food producers have to make the same great tasting food with less salt, sugar and saturated fat.

“Scotland Food and Drink has ambitious plans to grow the industry to £16.5 billion and build an international reputation as the land of food and drink.

“We know people will be central to this success and we’ll certainly be working hard to find the right talent.”

ALASDAIR MURRAY ON:

EXPORTS

“We are doing well at taking that message about Scottish food and drink abroad – although more could be done.”

SKILLS

“There has been a shortage of quality apprentices, in engineering in particular.”

CONSUMER DEMAND

“The Food To Go market has gone through the roof and that’s linked to consumer demand for high quality and authenticity.”

SCALING UP

“Scale-up is still a big challenge but we have seen some of the classic stories in Scotland of successful businesses coming out of the garden shed like Brewdog or from the kitchen table, like Genius Foods.”

• This article appears in the Autumn 2016 edition of Vision Scotland. An online version can be read here. Further information about Vision Scotland here.