Accidental exile Kurt Bettin has spent 32 years masterminding the CMA's progress but now, as he tells Helen Gregory, Germany beckons A resident of this country for 32 years, German-born Kurt Bettin declares a fondness for Cheddar, bacon and Stilton, but it's clear it will take more than that to keep him here. As director of the UK office of the CMA ­ Central Marketing Organisation of German Agricultural Industries ­ which acts as a service organisation to exporters and importers, his job is to encourage German producers to come to the UK. And he has made a success of it. In 1969 when Bettin took the post, exports of German food and drink stood at 110,000 tonnes. Thirty years later the figure is 1.4 million tonnes. The emergence of producers such as Bendicks and Müller on supermarket shelves bear testament to the higher profile of German firms. A few years ago, his own government acknowledged the achievement and he received the UK equivalent of the Order of Merit in recognition of his export work. But waxing lyrical about England's green and pleasant land was never something Bettin saw himself doing. He didn't even plan on coming to England and always aspired to work in the States, a missed opportunity which he clearly still regrets. "I wasn't very keen on England. When I came here supermarkets were in their infancy and Sainsbury was the market leader. There was very little German food available and we had a very small budget. There was no proper food trade exhibition. It was years before IFE came along. I never thought I would stay long, but then things moved very quickly in the early '70s." Bettin spends much of his time organising stands and pavilions at trade shows around the world ­ about half his working life travelling ­ and much time is given to companies thinking about export to the UK. In the early 1970s the CMA targeted the major multiples, then the regional multiples, then specifically the regions themselves, such as the north of England and Scotland, where Germany still had headway to make. But as the retail scene shifted, it focused its efforts on the catering and food service arms of the food industry. The organisation is funded by a statutory levy on German producers and although Bettin says there will always be dissenting voices, most are happy with the arrangement. The meat and dairy sectors pay the most, and in return receive the most promotional activity. Over the years, German food companies can take the credit for pioneering delicatessens, innovating food packaging, such as the introduction of yogurt multi-packs and corner yogurts, and developing the long-life market for yogurts and desserts. "It will always be impossible for German companies to offer me-too' products, they need to be unique. However, there's still lots of frozen food products that we can develop as well as organics, which is huge in Germany." He admits that German companies can get a shock when faced with "some of the most professional food retailers in the world. It's quite a different culture." And Bettin acknowledges that the two countries are quite different in terms of shopping and food tastes. "The German retail industry is so price-driven that profits are down to the bare bone. The industry looks in admiration at what British retailers achieve. In Germany, most people buy from a discounter but then go to the delicatessen and buy expensive, up-market products. It's quite strange really. They also use small stores or farmers' markets rather than supermarkets to buy organic food. "People don't eat ready meals. They will cook a main meal ­ usually at lunchtime ­ because schools finish at 1pm which means most mothers can't work." He says it was a long educational process to get German companies to realise that producing for a UK multiple's own label range was worthwile, but that many now supply a plethora of products, especially for in-store delicatessens. In previous years, the CMA has done a lot of in-store promotions but phased the programme out because German manufacturers were starting to get listed and did not want to promote at the same time as their competitors. But this year, Bettin is proud that the CMA is doing its first German promotion with Palmer & Harvey through Mace stores where 42 branded German lines will be available. German products are also proving popular with caterers, especially the pub trade and staff restaurants. "They are nice people, they don't change as much as the buyers in the major multiples. It's quite frustrating. The people I knew 20 years ago have all gone, some to top jobs." Bettin has literally had a lifetime in food. His family had a grocery business in East Germany which had been profitable until the war, but then the import side was closed down and the food wholesale section was nationalised by the communists in 1948. The state controlled food manufacturing and wholesaling and supplied the state-owned shops; private shops were only given the leftovers. Bettin's parents were paid on a commission and found their business was no longer profitable. Under the communist regime, the workers and the intelligentsia, such as doctors and professors were valued, but people who ran their own businesses, weren't. The authorities didn't allow children from this category to attend higher education. This meant Bettine. He remembers: "You went to school until you were 14 or 15, then if you were picked, you went to high school. The authorities said I might be able to continue if I worked for a year, so I went to work in a foundry. It was great fun. My parents then applied again but it was quite clear that I still wouldn't be able to continue with my education. I regretted it." Bettin's relatives in West Germany offered to look after him so that he could continue his schooling there. His sister followed him a few years' later after she was expelled from school during the Hungarian uprising when the class dressed up in national costume in support of the revolution. She was asked to name the ringleaders and refused. It was an agonising time for his parents. He and his sister lived with separate families for six years with only occasional visits to their family in Berlin until they were both finally given a visa. His family could not afford to send him to university so Bettin worked for a relative in the food industry. He trained for two years in a day-release programme learning accountancy, how to pack food, and how to fillet fish ­ skills he remembers to this day. It was soon after, in 1961, that his family fled to the West. Bettin left the family firm after his training ended and joined the confectionery retailing firm Most. Meanwhile, he had heard about the "wonderful supermarkets" in the US and yearned to work there but couldn't get a permit. He then took a job in Switzerland with the Migros retail chain as a "volunteer" in order to get experience working for a big department store. A stint at the big German retail chain Kaiser's Kaffee, where he ran the store management training scheme, followed. Years later, when his American dream had not been realised, Bettin found he still had the itch to work abroad and jumped at the offer of work with the CMA's previous incarnation ­ the German Food Centre ­ in 1967 and moved to London two years later. And as his career started looking up, so did his personal life, for it was while at a language school learning commercial English in London that he met his future wife, and married her ­ after a brief struggle. "She went back to Germany but I went after her and brought her back." Two children later, the couple now live in Raynes Park, London, and Bettin loves the fact he can walk to the office in Wimbledon Village, but admits he often takes the easier option of driving. At 63, he is happy at having been in the job for such a long time. A great deal of freedom from head office is one of the reasons and, he says, he has enjoyed working with English people in England. "My colleagues in some of the other countries are not so lucky. We have grown very used to the life here. We've travelled everywhere, apart from Wales, but we are thinking about going back. It depends on the children." After so many years Bettin feels an affinity with this country, the people and the countryside. "We have many friends here, and in Germany. I think we'd be happy in Germany, but we would miss London, we're not small-town people." Perhaps there's just one more journey to make ­ to Wales. {{PROFILE }}