INTERVIEW: James Withers, Scotland Food & Drink
‘Every year should be a year of food and drink’
James Withers is relaxing over a coffee outside Continis in Edinburgh. It is a rare opportunity to enjoy the warm April weather, though the temperature is considerably cooler than the 35 degrees he’s just endured in Singapore.
“There was 95% humidity. It was brutal,” he says. “Even a kilt doesn’t provide sufficient air-conditioning.”
He’s just back from a five-day mission with 15 companies to promote Scottish food and drink at a world gourmet summit.
“The trick of these things is to persuade buyers who are attending to come to Scotland. We brought 150 over last year and we did 36 hours of one-to-one sessions. That’s 1,400 meetings. It’s a bit like speed dating, but it seems to work.”
The next big task for the chief executive of Scotland Food & Drink is drawing up a new strategy. It will build on the 10 year plan to achieve £16.5 billion of exports by next year, which was revised upwards after the initial target was achieved early. The new plan will look ahead to 2030.
Withers accepts this is an ambitiously long term programme, but believes that planning long term is the right thing to do. “We want to establish a vision for where we want to be. We will spend a year working on it.”
He also acknowledges that it will change during delivery. “When we set up the current strategy China was not on the radar, nor the Middle East.”
Since then, both have become import markets. Food exports to the United Arab Emirates increased by 25% in 2014 alone, lifting it from 15th to 8th biggest buyer of Scottish produce.
A big change since 2007 has been the growth of the internet and e-commerce and Withers expects the new plan to focus on building online trade.
“Ten per cent of all grocery shopping is online and that is only going to grow.
“Scotland isn’t really at the races on this and has to get mobile-ready. We like our bricks and mortar. The average Scot will make 273 trips to the shops every year, against 250 south of the border.”
Developing the strategy will involve every sector and trade body as well as government officials through the collaborative approach that the industry has pioneered and which is now being copied by other territories.
Scotland Food & Drink was formed in 2007 to focus on improving the quality and quantity of production. When we last chatted two years ago Withers was preparing for a big year of sporting events that would bring more tourists to Scotland. He was also asked about the other side to the Scottish diet and whether he had ever eaten a deep fried Mars bar.
“I have had one. I would not be in a hurry to buy another,” he said, admitting that he was on a mission to rid the country of its reputation for fatty-flavoured confections and promote Scotland as home to some of the finest cuisine in the world.
“There is no such thing as bad food, just bad diet,” he said. “Overseas, Scotland is noted for its salmon, fresh fruit, oats and other natural produce. We have one of the best larders on Earth, and that includes 70 species of seafood alone. Few countries have that variety.”
Unlike some other ‘trade bodies’ Scotland Food & Drink is not a lobbying organisation. It not only influences government policy, it forges it. This bottom up approach is being applied to tourism and, to a degree, to the North Sea oil industry. Others are taking note, including the Northern Ireland, Welsh and Australian governments.
“My view is that this is why growth of the sector has been ahead of the UK.”
In fact it is twice the rate of the UK – 21% between 2008 and 2013, against 10% for the UK as a whole.
Withers is in no doubt about the reasons for this success. “The industry sets the agenda and government has been progressive in letting industry shape its policy.
“It is all down to collaboration. If you went back five years you would have seafood doing its own thing, the whisky industry doing is own thing. No one worked together. Now they do, and it is spreading to others – the craft brewers, for instance.”
The SNP government has been a great supporter, though it cannot claim credit for the collaborative model which was devised by the Lab-LibDem coalition just before the SNP formed a minority government in 2007.
“Adopting the strategy was one of the first things the party did, within three weeks of forming the government. To be fair, they really stepped up to the plate.”
The collaboration was also evident in Singapore where, instead of a series of independent stalls selling Scottish produce, they all came together in a pavilion to promote Scottish produce.
“If you are talking to the big hotel chains and chefs they are not just looking at, say, cheese, they want to find the oatcakes and chutneys to go with it.”
It is not all good news. Whisky exports have fallen as the emerging markets have cut back, and farmed salmon has seen its share of world supply fall from 12% to 7% as China, Chile and Norway catch up.
“Ultimately, Scotland will never be about volume, but premiumisation and it is important not to rest on our laurels.”
Inevitably there is some talk in the industry about the implications of Britain withdrawing from Europe. Withers insists his organisation is neutral while pointing out that 78% of food exports from Scotland go to the EU.
He says that at the recent Scotland Food & Drink annual conference at Ingliston a show of hands revealed only three of the 310 delegates attending supported withdrawal.
“There will be huge interest in the implications of the UK pulling out and our ability to trade,” he says.
“Clearly some people are nervous, but then again there is nothing to say that pulling out would stop us from trading, and if your product is good enough people will buy it.”
Farmers are among those keen for Britain to remain, perhaps unsurprisingly given that they receive an annual bounty of £500 million in EU subsidy. But they, nor any other member group will be given any direction from Scotland Food & Drink on how to vote.
“We regard ourselves as an industry development body,” says Withers. “Our members do not look to us to lobby but we will provide them all with the information they want.”
This provision of data and information is also key to his ambition for Scotland Food & Drink to become financially independent by 2018. It currently receives a grant from the government, via Scottish Enterprise, which accounts for 30% of its income. The remainder comes largely from its 360 members who range from artisans to multinationals.
Apart from a setback to overseas sales of whisky, the industry remains in growth mode and Withers believes it gained hugely from the Year of Food and Drink.
“It gave the industry the confidence it didn’t have five or ten years ago. Our food and drink just wasn’t good enough. Tourism attractions were offering shocking food, but the Ryder Cup and the Commonwealth Games helped showcase the best of Scottish food which has given everyone a lift.
“Food and drink ranks second to sight-seeing for visitors,” says Withers. “Quite rightly, people say every year should be a year of food and drink.”
Education: Stewart’s Melville, Edinburgh; Aberdeen University, studying politics and international relations.
Career highlights: Parliamentary adviser, then chief executive, NFU Scotland 1999-2011.
Do you have a claim to fame?
I was a waiter and once served actors Mel Gibson and Jack Nicholson at the Sheraton, Edinburgh.
Photo (top): James Withers at Continis (by Terry Murden)