Food and drink manufacturers remain confident despite mounting challenges

Posted on 16 Oct 2023 by Joe Bush

Eight in ten (81%) leaders in the UK food and drink sector feel positive about the prospects of the industry over the coming year, but mounting pressures including the twin threats of higher energy costs and constraints on consumer spending will continue to test businesses’ resilience.

Accountancy and business advisory firm BDO LLP has published its annual Food & Drink Report, which surveys manufacturers in the sector and reported a high degree of optimism this year.

Although down slightly on 2022 (78%), 70% of respondents are feeling positive about the future of their own business in the next 12 months. This is buoyed by the big jump in optimism for the sector overall which has increased from 69% in 2022 to 81%.

Over a third (40%) expect an increase in their gross profit margins over the coming year and, as the buoyant mood continues, a further quarter (24%) are planning acquisitive purchases. Almost a third (30%) say new product development will be a key driver for growth across the next 12 months, whilst 29% say expanding in non-European Union (EU) markets is a key focus.

Despite the confident outlook, however, BDO’s survey highlights the myriad of challenges businesses in the sector are facing.

Half (50%) of the respondents reported difficulties in recruiting the people they need, with engineering and project management or production-related roles the hardest to fill. Almost two fifths (39%) of those experiencing recruitment challenges believe skills shortages are worse now than before Brexit and COVID-19.

Digital transformation remains a key area of investment to boost productivity and gain competitive advantage. The majority of respondents state their executive teams recognised the importance of this, however 60% aired concern that they were falling behind on their digital transformation journeys as firms grapple with unswerving economic headwinds. In addition, 28% say they are taking on higher levels of debt to counteract inflation.

Key stats from the report

  • 78% of Food and Drink respondents are positive about the prospects for their business
  • 0% are experiencing difficulties in recruiting the people they need
  • 24% are seeking additional finance to counter inflation
  • 30% say new product development will offer sales growth opportunities for their business
  • 65% say the conflict in Ukraine is still having an impact on their business

The Ukraine conflict continues to affect 65% of businesses in the survey. According to the BDO report, overly complicated import-export rules were cited as reasons for hampering trade. Almost two thirds (63%) are finding it hard to trade with Northern Ireland via the Trader Support Service, with a further 69% struggling to use preferential origin under the UK’s Free Trade Agreements.

Cindy Hrkalovic, Head of Food and Drink at BDO said: “After enduring Brexit, COVID-19, supply chain disruption and a cost of living crisis brought on by a war in Ukraine, food and drink businesses should be applauded for the resilience and adaptability they have demonstrated.

“However, the long-term nature of many of the threats facing UK food and drink companies suggests that leaders will need to stay flexible and think strategically about the future of their businesses. Sticking-plaster measures from businesses or government will not suffice in an environment where a return to normality – whatever that is – remains elusive.”

Food and drink is the biggest manufacturing industry in the UK with a turnover of £128bn and exports worth £25bn. The sector employs 456,000 people in the UK, with its supply chain employing a further 4.3m people.

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