Hungry for more: An interview with former FDF Director General, Melanie Leech

Posted on 9 Jan 2015 by Callum Bentley

After nine years as Director General of the Food and Drink Federation, Melanie Leech has decided to pursue a new challenge. Callum Bentley sat down with her to speak about the Federation’s high and lows during her tenure.

For someone leading a major organisation responsible for guiding the UK’s largest manufacturing sector, Melanie Leech, outgoing director general of the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), speaks with a subtlety and demure that almost shouldn’t fit her title. Perhaps it’s the fact she is speaking with a journalist. I think it’s more so the fact that she lets her knowledge and passion for the sector speak for itself.

I’m speaking with Leech following the announcement last month that she would be leaving her position to take up a new role at the British Property Federation, a move she says she is making with mixed emotions.

“I’ve had an absolutely fantastic nine years working for the food industry and it’s a great industry to be part of. The agenda is constantly moving – there’s always been new challenges to tackle, and honestly it doesn’t feel like nine years. It still feels as though I’m stepping out into an ongoing, immensely challenging and rewarding role.

“But equally there comes a time when it is the right time to move on and look for a fresh challenge. This is that time for me.”

A switch from food and drink to property seems like a jump from day to night-the two couldn’t be more polarising. Not so, according to Leech, who enthuses her fascination for her upcoming role.

“It’s another high profile and challenging job and I know I can add value there,” she says. “I think I can benefit from a fresh challenge and I think both organisations will, because someone will come in and look with fresh eyes at what we’ve been doing here and bring something new to the agenda, and I hope to do the same at British Property Federation.

“Food and drink will be a hard act to follow. For me what makes food and drink special, and I see again these opportunities at the British Property Federation, while also a high profile sector and an important sector to the economy, it’s also a sector where you can see social issues playing out.”

The social issues to which she is referring include inequalities around the kind of influence a sector can have on society; whether that’s building an environment, or incurring a greater influence on the “fabric of society”, all of which are just as relevant in both food and drink and property, she says.

This almost altruistic outlook no doubt stems from Leech’s background in civil service, including a role as a metropolitan police officer after graduating with a mathematics degree from Oxford University. She has also held numerous government roles in areas like Home Civil Service, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and the chief executive for the Association of Police Authorities.

But despite her optimistic outlook for the food and drink sector, as with every manufacturing sector in the UK, it comes with both its challenges and champions.

Point of pride

The FDF has taken on some substantial projects and agendas under Leech’s tenure. One in particular, the Health and Wellbeing agenda, she speaks about with vigour.

“Front of pack labelling became very contentious and very polarising, it was a very fractious issue,” Leech says. “But something that people often forget is that the UK was absolutely at the forefront globally, in leading the way with industry on a voluntary basis in terms of giving front of pack, at a glance information. And we led that, and I’m really proud of that. We didn’t only just do the labelling, but we invested quite a lot of money in industry in helping consumers become more aware of the labels and to be able to use and to understand them.”

The project was of particular note due to the fact, as Leech explains, it being one of the only times FDF had a direct, consumer-facing focus.

Also high on Leech’s list of achievements is the FDF’s Five Point Environmental Ambition – a framework to which companies commit to reduce their environmental impacts in a few vital areas such as greenhouse gas emissions, water, waste, and transport miles. However, a point of contention within the sector is the fact that despite being known for its substantial energy demand, the UK government still does not recognise food and drink as being an energy intensive sector.

“It’s a deep frustration to us because if you look at the sector as a whole, we’re not as consistently high as an energy user as some other areas. But within the food chain, different categories are incredibly high energy users and certainly would rank alongside some of the other industries that classify as energy intensive,” she says.

However, the energy issues facing the sector do not have to signal dark times, according to Leech.

“I try to turn it around and say there is an opportunity there. There’s a real incentive for companies to reduce their energy bills by using energy efficiently and by driving down the impact of energy costs in their overall mix, and they do that very effectively.

“Consumers have seen a great deal of protection from the impact of rising energy prices and rising commodity prices. We’ve tried very hard to insulate consumers as far as it is possible – but there comes a point when that’s no longer possible. But if I look at it positively, for example in our commitment in our Five Point Environmental Ambition, we had a target to reduce them in terms from a 1990 basis by 30 per cent by 2020. That’s while we’re increasing production. So we’re not only doing more, but we’re going to measure ourselves in absolute terms against the baseline in 1990, and we’re going to hit that target by the end of this year – six years early.

“What it shows you is that it has created a real incentive which has driven a positive change for the industry, and that’s the best way and the easiest way to attract new companies into the environmental ambitions and to remind them that they can reduce their input costs, whether it’s water or energy by using those resources more efficiently and then you’ll also reduce the environmental footprint of the industry.”

A fluid and well backed sector

During Leech’s tenure, the food and drink sector managed to invest £1bn a year in innovation. Last year alone 16,000 new products were release into the market, Leech says. The sector has also shown positive growth in exports consistently over the past eight years.

“You can see we have the characteristics of a sector that is confident about itself, that is ambitious to grow and is doing the structural things that will help focus us,” she says. “There is always more you can do, but it’s also an area where we’ve found a genuine partnership with government. The work we’ve done with exports has been done genuinely in partnership with ministers who are really standing behind and talking about food and drink, at home and overseas. I think the Government has done a lot of good policy things around the skills framework and that’s enabled us to unlock the ambitious companies on things like apprentices. We’ve quadrupled the amount of apprentices in the sector and now we’re in the Trailblazers scheme defining standards, creating higher level vision for apprenticeships. Generally you can see policy has gone hand in hand with industry action and that’s driving forward on growth.”

A legacy

The food and drink sector, as successful as it may be, still feels the pinch of a skills shortage. If anything, with its impressive numbers on growth and innovation, it might feel it more so than others, Leech explains.

“The sector needs to recruit 137,000 people in the next five years, and when you’ve got a workforce of 400,000 people that’s a huge chunk,” she says. “Within that we’ve got skills shortages in some of the key disciplines such as food science and technical roles. Bundled with middle management, supply chain and process, and in engineering, which is probably the biggest one of all. I think there are about 87,000 engineering places across all industries wanted and about 46,000 people coming out of universities each year with engineering degrees.

“We are doing a number of things about that, from our careers work trying to attract more people to think about food and drink manufacturing as a career of first choice through to the new degree that we are sponsoring at Sheffield Hallam University.”

The course is Master’s Degree in food engineering. The first 15 students have just finished their first semester, with support coming from £2,000 financial assistance form FDF, as well as both FDF members and non-members offering work placements.

“We’re already seeing the impact of having the course up and running and of having students who can talk about the course,” Leech says. “The interest is off the scale compared to this time last year. It’s a tough gig to try and build a new degree course from scratch, so we’re delighted that we’ve got 15 students and we’re ambitious to get to 40 if not next year, by the year after.”

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