'Critical' to have female perspective at forefront of industry’s response to Brexit and climate change, say food and drink bosses

With Scotland's food and drink industry facing some huge challenges in the climate emergency and Brexit, a group of business leaders from across the sector say that it's vital to have female perspective at the forefront of the industry’s response.

Published 6th Mar 2020
Updated 6 th Oct 2023

In the lead-up to the upcoming Scotsman Food and Drink Conference at the end of this month, event partners RBS hosted a roundtable lunch at their offices in Glasgow’s city centre to discuss the challenges and opportunities for female business leaders in the food and drink sector in Scotland.

With thoughts inevitably on Brexit and the changes that will bring within the industry, the attendees – who hailed from businesses representing many facets of the food and drink sector – discussed everything from sustainability and exporting to equality in the workplace and paternity leave.

John Mills, director of business development and Food and Drink sector head at RBS, who hosted the event, said: “We wanted to give business leaders in the industry a chance to come together to hear what opportunities they see the Scottish market can offer – and the challenges and issues the sector is facing just now.”

Citing the Rose Review, a study penned by the bank’s deputy chief executive Alison Rose, which highlights the unique pressures women in business face and the positive impact female-led firms can create for the UK and Scottish economy, the host then posed several questions around the group’s individual views on how major topics such as Brexit and the gender gap affected their businesses or working lives.

The gathered attendees – such as Vandana Vijay, director of start-up Bounce Back Drinks; Cat Hay, policy manager of the Food and Drink Federation Scotland; Sonja Bader, commercial director of Sco Fro; and Shirley Ruane, regional development manager of JW Filshill Ltd – spoke candidly of their experiences before giving their expert views on the wide range of subjects subsequently discussed.

One of the major points raised was the growing importance of sustainability in the sector and opportunities arising from this, with Suzanne George speaking about her experience helping establish Growers Garden, a company that uses the excess harvest from broccoli farmers to create a snack product while reducing food waste, and Vanessa Gilpin of StrEAT saying sustainability is now one of the most important factors for many of the street food start-ups that she represents.

On changing perceptions within Scottish businesses to gender, Carolyn Currie of Women’s Enterprise Scotland said diversity in leadership and gender innovation can actually drive a company forward.

She said: "It’s exciting times for the Scottish Food and Drink sector, there is a moving landscape in terms of what a successful business looks like and research shows that if you have a diverse leadership, it can really benefit your organisation in terms of innovation and forward planning.”

However, many of the attendees agreed that there was still work to be done in promoting diversity not just at board level, but across Scotland's businesses as a whole.

Suzanne George stated: "We have moved on in many ways but actually there is still work to be done."

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Susan Dunlop of KPMG added that though both bigger corporations and smaller family run businesses often employ female leadership, the true challenge is in middle size businesses who are perhaps not given enough support to promote diversity.

Everyone agreed that it was vitally important that women should have access to gender support in their workplace, with an emphasis on mentor schemes, networking opportunities and access to data.

Carolyn Currie stated that this extends through to employment and that she hopes that Scotland could be approaching a tipping point in terms of equality in the workplace, she said: "Any organisation starts with access to a population that is 51 per cent women and 49 per cent men, really there is no excuse or great explanation as to why, women shouldn't be making it into the top now. It certainly is not a talent issue."

Interestingly, the subject of flexibility and work-life balance was discussed as a major issue for many women looking to be able to advance their careers, Consolata Ogbebor, who recently started her own food business, stated that a big part of her decision to do so stemmed from the need to establish her own working hours and creating a working environment that was in balance with her life as a mother.

It was then pointed out that many Scottish businesses could actually benefit from providing more opportunities for flexibility in terms of working from home and office hours to help create better environments for their work forces.

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Carolyn Currie stated that many bigger businesses that are inflexible will soon find it hard to attract the very best talent, particularly women, who are increasingly becoming entrepreneurs after struggling to fit in rigid corporate moulds.

She said: "We see women becoming more confident about what they want to do and how they want to do it, we see an increasing number of women starting their own businesses exactly because the culture and flexibility of corporations aren't often appealing and I do think some of the bigger companies are going to have to work hard to retain and attract talent. This is particularly relevant in food and drink."

After the event, Cat Hay, policy and membership manager of the Food and Drink Federation, said: “I was particularly struck by the number of female entrepreneurs in the room and how these women are leading the way responding to the ever-changing consumer trends and tastes.

"I think it’s fair to say that we were unanimously agreed that we will continue to inspire, mentor and enable the next generation of female food and drink entrepreneurs.

"The industry faces huge challenges, not least the climate emergency and Brexit, and it’s critical to have the female perspective at the forefront of the industry’s response.”

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Suzanne George added: "It was really encouraging to discuss the industry with such a diverse range of inspirational women and to find so many progressive ideas being championed by them. Definitely felt a positive momentum for both the industry and the role of women in its future."

John Mills, who described the lunch as “very successful”, added: “It was particularly informative to hear their views on the support for working women and how for some guests the choice to start their own entrepreneurial journey was driven by the necessity to find a work/life balance.”

The Scotsman and RBS hosts the Food and Drink Conference the day after our Food and Drink Awards, with chair Stephen Jardine and a range of speakers joining 250-300 delegates. The day-long event, entitled Without Boundaries – Scotland’s Future in the Food and Drink Industry, is at RBS Gogarburn on 26 September.

Now in its eighth year, this popular event, sees producers, retailers and industry experts get together to discuss the key issues affecting the sector.

The morning session, Supply and Demand - Can We Deliver Our Goods, will feature expert-led discussion around talent and recruitment shortages and how they could impact the supply chain, as well as talks around the key focus areas of recruitment and digitilisation, and how both of these factors can contribute to Scotland’s growing reputation as the ‘Land of Food and Drink’.

Described by Scotland Food and Drink as our best asset, the continued protection of Scotland’s reputation and brand was confirmed to be hugely important by 95 per cent of the businesses asked in a recent Scotland Food and Drink survey. It takes strong leadership, great expertise and creativity to keep Scotland’s food and drink sector ahead of the game, to provide consumers with the products they want, and supply retailers with the goods they can sell.

That is why the second session of the day, entitled Scotland’s Most Valuable Industry - At Home and Abroad, will involve a series of discussions with representatives from award-winning businesses featured in four main sectors: Farming, Fishing, Food and Drink.

Each of these valuable industries will be viewed through the prism of tourism, customer relationships, innovation and collaboration, with the conversation turning to how they can best proceed through the uncharted waters of Brexit.

Malcolm Buchanan, chair, Scotland Board, Royal Bank of Scotland, said: “The Scottish food and drink sector is a key employer for Scotland a driver of the Scottish economy.

“We are delighted to work with The Scotsman to deliver the Food and Drink Conference here at our Scottish headquarters at Gogarburn, allowing different parts of the industry’s eco-system to network and learn more from its leaders. The evening’s awards will also allow everyone to celebrate in the sector’s success and see the skill, talent and diversity of businesses operating here.”

The event’s supporting partners include RBS, Scottish Salmon Producers, Bestaway Wholesale, Scotland Food and Drink and Taste Communications.

• Get tickets here: https://www.scotsmanconferences.com/event/without-boundaries-scotlands-future-in-the-food-and-drink-industry/


This article originally appeared on 11 Sept 2019.

Driven by a passion for all things drinks-related, Sean writes for The Scotsman extensively on the subject. He can also sometimes be found behind the bar at the world famous Potstill bar in Glasgow where he continues to enhance his whisky knowledge built up over 10 years advising customers from all over the world on the wonders of our national drink. Recently, his first book was published. Dubbed Gin Galore, it explores Scotland's best gins and the stories behind those that make them.
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