The Big Interview: James Withers of Scotland Food & Drink

Although he spent 11 years with the NFU, Withers is a self-confessed townie with a degree in political studies. Picture: Stewart Attwood
Although he spent 11 years with the NFU, Withers is a self-confessed townie with a degree in political studies. Picture: Stewart Attwood
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We’ve come a long way from the deep fried Mars Bar. Once the “punch line of the joke”, Scotland’s culinary reputation has blossomed to the point where chefs the world over now champion Scottish salmon, red meat, gin and craft beers, as well as the traditional whisky and haggis, says Scotland Food & Drink chief James Withers.

No wonder the food and drink industry was worth £14 billion to the Scottish economy last year, with exports accounting for roughly £6bn.

“There’s a national identity that’s been developed from food and drink in Scotland. Sushi chefs in Japan want to buy Scottish seafood, French chefs want our cheeses. Top bars in New York, five-star hotels in Shanghai, shoppers in London – there’s a real and growing demand for what Scotland produces,” says Withers.

The global prowess Scotch whisky has crafted over centuries has spread to other products, he adds, causing food exports to swell by 130 per cent over the past ten years. The food and drink sector now employs around 120,000 people in Scotland, with almost three-quarters of the nation’s land mass under agricultural production.

Scotland Food & Drink was established in 2007 as a partnership between a number of existing trade bodies, including the National Farmers’ Union of Scotland, where Withers was then serving as chief executive, as well as the Scottish Government and key agencies, such as Scottish Enterprise. The organisation’s funding model, as far as Withers is aware, is “unique anywhere in the world”. Roughly half comes in the form of Scottish Government grants, although its strategy is industry-led, while the remainder comes from memberships and services it delivers to the industry. Its 460 member companies range from artisan producers through to multinationals who “write a single plan with a single mission”: to grow the value and reputation of the industry.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, in an industry that relies on timely exports of perishable goods, the Brexit negotiations are high on his list of current concerns. Uncertainty is a daily reality in business, he says, but Brexit has “taken it to a whole new level”.

“Businesses in Scotland are spending millions of pounds already, whether it’s stockpiling ingredients or looking at manufacturing sites on the Continent. But the reality is that it’s difficult to plan for the ‘unplannable’ because at the moment, with just weeks to go, we genuinely don’t have answers to some of the most fundamental concerns.

“If anything, the no-deal threat has become even more stark with new warnings emerging every week of potential trade barriers, such as losing protected status in the EU on some of our biggest export products, like Scottish salmon, or the potential halting of organic food exports. All we need to do is avoid the no-deal. Under any of the alternative agreements the industry will survive and, in some cases, will be able to thrive, but the no-deal scenario will knock us back.”

Withers has headed up Scotland Food & Drink since 2011, following an 11-year spell at NFU Scotland where, despite being a self-confessed townie with no farming background, he had secured a parliamentary adviser role thanks to his degree in political studies. “The year I graduated, 1999, was the summer the Scottish Parliament opened so it was completely unplanned, but it turned out that every industry body was looking for someone to do parliamentary work.”

The role involved some time working at Westminster, which gave Withers a deeper insight into the opportunities available to the political sphere north of the Border. “What was obvious was that at Westminster they had a defined way of doing things, whereas in Holyrood, everyone was still writing the rules, including MSPs,” he says.

About 18 months in, he was tasked with handling communications during the foot and mouth outbreak of 2001. “I remember looking out the office window and seeing about 15 different satellite trucks parked outside,” he says. “Foot and mouth hit at about the point that 24-hour news was just starting to come into its day, and I found myself trying to coordinate and chair a media briefing with 100 journalists in the room. It was a pretty horrendous time for the agriculture industry from which, psychologically, many people will still not have recovered. But as a young 22 or 23-year-old trying to learn a new job and understand the media it was an amazing thing to be in the middle of, as much as it was horrific to deal with at the time.”

Withers became chief executive of the farming trade body in 2008, staying in the role until departing for his current position three years later. Having been involved in setting up the new organisation, the move felt like a natural progression and Withers was keen to shine a light on Scotland’s potential in the food and drink industry, at home as well as overseas.

“We’re quite unusual in being a small country with an unbelievably diverse industry, from farming and fishing, through to red meat, our dairy sector, whisky, gin and craft beer, fruit and vegetables, baked goods. Whereas, if you look at Norway, for example, it’s mostly about seafood; in New Zealand it’s about the lamb and the dairy industry.” This variety means Scotland is well-placed to tap into the growing consumer demand across the UK and globally, Withers argues. “If you landed from outer space and you wanted to find a country to do a food and drink job in, there’s few better places to come than Scotland.”

Withers’ initial priority at Scotland Food & Drink was to kick-start growth following several years of stasis, with the industry’s value remaining roughly flat in the five years leading up to the formation of the organisation in 2007. “People and politicians would talk to you about the oil and gas sector, financial services, technology, but we were the deep fried Mars Bar country. And now, last year, food and drink was one of the fastest growing sectors in the domestic economy and it’s been our fastest growing export.”

His current focus lies with Ambition 2030, a vision launched in March 2017 to boost the sector’s annual value to £30bn by 2030. He admits that sounds like “a crazy high figure given that we’re only at £14bn”, but he is confident that it will be achieved if the sector can maintain its current momentum. “We’re looking at 5 per cent growth year-on-year, and in the last ten years we’ve been on or around that growth level. So we’re trying to keep the pedal to the metal and we think that’s doable.”

In an increasingly competitive market, Withers’ view is one of optimism and ambition. The key, he says, lies in harnessing the power of Scotland as a brand and capitalising on the wellness trend. He explains: “It will be about heritage and history, the quality of the product itself, the family businesses that are behind it, but it will also be about tapping into the one trend that is here to stay: people looking for products that are increasingly healthy and nutritious. And Scotland has one of the healthiest natural larders of any country.”

The organisation’s 28-strong team includes staff based in 15 cities across North America, Europe and Asia to unlock new doors for suppliers. Linking with the tourism sector is also an intrinsic part of future strategy, says Withers, who has sat on the board of the Scottish Tourism Alliance since 2013.

“The food industry and the tourism industry operated as independent sectors up until a few years ago, and yet their futures are completely interlinked. About £1 in every £5 a visitor will spend when they come to Scotland is on food and drink.”

Crucially, says Withers, a strong food and drink industry drives a strong Scottish economy, with jobs in fishing and farming “reaching into every single corner” of the country. If Scotland can emulate places like New Zealand, Ireland and Canada, which have “told their national stories really well”, he sees huge opportunity for global growth.

“We’re losing sleep over Brexit and we’re definitely losing sleep over a no-deal. If we avoid that then I’m pretty bullish that the opportunities that are in front of us mean we can achieve our vision. And if we do, then we will be Scotland’s most valuable industry.”