Like his footballing namesake, Ian Wright is full of opinions - and refreshingly happy to share them. The new director general of the Food & Drink Federation is also, appropriately enough, a diehard fan of Crystal Palace FC. And naming Palace manager Alan Pardew as one of the inspirations behind his new role is a clear indicator of the new direction the former Diageo communications chief intends to steer the FDF in.
Palace knew what they were getting when they hired a man who was fined £100,000 last year for headbutting an opposition player in the middle of a game, and Wright has a similarly pugnacious reputation (albeit metaphorically), having fought the anti-alcohol lobby to a standstill during his time at the drinks giant.
Those expecting fireworks didn’t have to wait long following his arrival in March. Within weeks of replacing Melanie Leech, Wright was on the warpath after NHS boss Simon Stevens described sugar as “the new smoking” in an interview with the BBC.
In a letter to Stevens, Wright accused him of failing to recognise the voluntary efforts of businesses and falsely demonising an everyday ingredient. So has the NHS boss got back to him?
“He still hasn’t answered my letter so he’s broken his own code of conduct,” fumes Wright. “The NHS is supposed to answer all correspondence within 10 working days. Maybe he doesn’t know what to say, but it’s also a slightly off hand view of the people who pay his wages. And it’s actually bloody rude.”
Wright’s second verbal volley is reserved for WHO boss Dr Margaret Chan. “I was shocked. She basically said that industry not only has no role in public health but had no right to a place at the debating table,” he says. “That’s fundamentally wrong on so many levels, although Margaret Chan, of course, is a Communist.”
War on sugar
For many frustrated fmcg industry leaders, the FDF’s new signing - and his combative approach - is just what they’ve been after. He offers a typically blunt assessment of the FDF’s failings. “We have not been as clear about the massive advantages this industry brings as we should have been. I’m not prepared to leave arguments or leave the industry unrepresented and its point of view not put.”
Still, Wright knows he has a fight on his hands. He is anticipating a raft of new sugar reduction targets from the Department of Health, triggered by the looming SACN review on carbohydrates, as early as next week.
“We’ve got a pretty clear idea of where we’re going with this from the draft report,” says Wright. “A lot of it will be about further reformulation and targets specifically on sugar.” This is “a mistake” be believes, and particularly the “confusing” new focus on spoonfuls of sugar in products.
“We’ve spent years educating the public about calories, we know it’s all about calories in calories out, and the public is going to be confused if it’s suddenly all about spoonfuls of sugar. But maybe that ship has sailed. I’m told that’s what people think.”
So is the Responsibility Deal sunk? “Clearly people like Simon Stevens are worried about the long-term financial implications of obesity and they are right to be worried, because if you look at the funding situation and the predicted cost of obesity and incidents of diabetes the money won’t add up,” he says. “But the best way to tackle this is through a partnership between the government, the health service and the food and drink industry.
“This is the bit that I think sometimes the people who make the case against particular areas of the food industry don’t get. We understand that the government may need to press the reset button but I think we’ve demonstrated that we can deliver and we’ve actually gone beyond the promises we made in the Responsibility Deal, if you look at things like the reduction in salt.”
He’s also frustrated at the absence of consideration for human psychology. “I find it frustrating. People don’t realise that food and drink companies will do what consumers want us to do. Consumers are demanding different formulations of products, consumers are demanding healthier choices, there’s never been a time in history when the British public has had so much choice in terms of healthy products, but consumers will decide what they buy and don’t buy, not the government or anybody else.
“It’s important we look at the evidence and not just from SACN but also the evidence of consumer behaviour. You can’t legislate for human behaviour. In the end the consumer will decide.”
So is he looking forward to locking horns with the likes of Professor Graham MacGregor, chairman of Action on Sugar, who has accused FDF members of killing their own consumers with products loaded with sugar? “I haven’t met Professor MacGregor, and I’m not going to engage in megaphone diplomacy, but we have to stand up and challenge junk science and false claims,” says Wright.
“I have no intention of being discourteous but claims about sweetness have gone too far. We need a rational debate about sugar and sweetness. I respect people like Dr [Aseem] Malhotra and Professor MacGregor, and until I see evidence that tells me different I believe they are acting with the right motives. We all share that goal. Remember, no taxation without representation. We have a right to be heard.”
It’s not just the US constitution that vexes Wright but the fight over Britain’s involvement in the EU. And again his task is to convince the FDF to stick its neck above the parapet.
“With a referendum coming as early as next year we will have to come, by the end of this year, to a settled view of what the FDF thinks.
“It’s possible that might be a view that it’s not for the FDF to have an opinion one way or another. Some trade associations have taken that view. Some have taken the view that they should gather as much information as they can for their members. But that’s not my style.
“I think if you’re a representative body with a dynamic industrial sector of such critical importance to the British economy and with a real aspiration to grow exports way beyond what we currently export it’s difficult to imagine that in that context we would not have a point of view on our membership of the largest single market in the entire world.”
“It’s imperative that we retain access to the single markets and the access it gives to all those other free markets around the world and I can’t image that the EU would let us do those things if we pull out.
“That doesn’t mean I’m a bloody federalist. But I believe the EU has been crucial in keeping the peace and improving the prosperity of the continent for the last 50 years and I’m old enough to have had a dad who fought in a war which transformed the map of Europe and I wouldn’t want to do that and I wouldn’t want my son and daughter to have to do that.”
Wright’s transformation of the FDF isn’t limited to policy. Stepping foot into the West End offices of the FDF gives a hint at the upheaval the man brought in by FDF president Dame Fiona Kendrick is bringing. Gone is the antiquated museum-style display case and similarly Dickensian entry lobby, replaced by modern furniture and big signs stressing the FDF’s role in health and the economy. He is also ringing the changes with a review of its controversial subscription system, which is “hugely complicated” - although it will be 2017 at the earliest before it can be changed. And a sweeping reorganisation of responsibilities within the FDF management team to give the operation a more commercial approach is also on the cards. “The way we set our subscriptions doesn’t help those with big turnover and small margins. We need to be as inclusive as possible to be better representative of the industry.” He names companies including 2 Sisters and Heinz as key omissions.
But it’s not just by tweaking its subscription model that will deliver success. “My intention is to make the FDF the most influential trade body in the UK,” he says.
Wright believes that while the BRC and the NFU have punched their weight in the past (although he stresses the word “have”), the FDF has not done the same for the £80bn-a-year sector it represents.
And to achieve this will take a more commercial mindset, he says.
“I think Fiona and the executive committee decided they needed to do this differently, which is in no way intended as a criticism of Melanie or anyone else who came before but the traditional route for a long time had been for the FDF to hire a formal civil servant and I think that over time that means that you get less commerciality in the decision making process,” he says. “My view is that if this organisation is going to retain its relevance and potency as a truly representative voice of the industry you need it to be laced through with people with commercial experiences and commercial mindsets,” he says. “Obviously you need people with great regulatory experience and scientific experience but I do strongly believe that trade associations are best led by people with commercial experience.
“I’m an admirer of Gavin Hewitt, the former Scotch Whisky Association director general. He was an ex-ambassador and he completely transformed the association and made it really powerful and really effective. If people think I’m a combative character they certainly wouldn’t want to meet Gavin Hewitt. His strategy was to be literally in lock step with his major members, Diageo and Pernod. He knew them intimately and was very close to those businesses and people like me and knew what they wanted.”
Wright also pays tribute to his former Diageo boss Paul Walsh, describing him as “the finest British businessman of this century”.
“You’re not going to sit next to him for 14 years without imbibing quite a lot of that approach and I think that’s what the FDF wanted, someone with a point of view, because sitting on the fence is precarious and uncomfortable.
“What I found when I came here was an organisation with huge resources of intellectual property and an enormous ability to analyse and interpret things, but a lot of overlapping responsibility and management by consensus. I would rather people do something and ask for forgiveness if it doesn’t work, rather than not do something and ask for permission.”
It’s not just his commercial background that Wright thinks will be an advantage in his new role but also his political one, although he has had more than his share of controversy and pain because of it.
Tipped in the past to become Nick Clegg’s chief spin doctor (he still counts the former deputy PM as a close friend), Wright was embroiled in a mini scandal in 2006 when he was revealed as one of a group of businessman bankrolling Clegg’s personal account. But he says his Lib Dem loyalties will not get in the way.
“I think people respect it,” he says. “I’m not going to be active within the Lib Dems while I’m doing this job. You’ll never see me on a pubic platform because that’s disrespectful, but I believe, very firmly, that my political background is an advantage. I’ve been close to the political process for many years and I’ve always maintained very close relationships with members of all parties. Tory minister of state for employment Pritti Patel is another good friend.You can’t run a company like Diageo without being able to handle different political opinions. Paul Walsh was a very well-known Tory, I’m a well-known Liberal Democrat. Put it this way, they knew this when they brought me in. Ian Wright, Lib Dem, shock? Everyone knows my views, but this seat is not in any way going to be a pulpit.”
As for the hammering the Lib Dems suffered in the general election, he admits it hurts.
“I’m still in mourning, literally. It’s terribly sad because many of my good friends lost their jobs, either as MPs or ministers, as well as people who worked for those people. It was a terrible night but I think the party will build itself back and Nick will go on. I was talking to him yesterday and he’s still clearly very affected by the result but he will go on to a great career in some new role. He’s a really impressive public figure, very clever, with astonishing stamina and stickability. His resignation speech was one of the great speeches of all time. It was beautiful, lyrical and sad.”
Yet it is Palace manager Alan Pardew who Wright thinks provides the closest parallel to his shake-up of the FDF. “I’m a huge admirer. Like Clegg, he endured an absolutely torrid time at Newcastle but he comes to Palace, he doesn’t change the players, but instead he instils in them a degree of self-confidence, verve and enthusiasm and willingness to take some risks. And he transforms the team. I think that’s not so very different from what I’m doing here.”
“This is the most vibrant consumer sector there is. Our members are the backbone of the creative industry. They have great advertising, great marketing and it’s very important that the body that represents them has a commercial mindset, a consumer-focused approach, and we have to constantly have in our minds that we are representing this amazing business sector. It would be a missed opportunity if we rock up like a bunch of civil servants.” With Wright at the helm, that prospect looks very unlikely.
Place of birth: Taplow, Berkshire
Education: History, Cambridge, where he was president of the Cambridge University Students’ Union
Family: Married to Judith since 1987. Two children
Career summary: Pillsbury, Mars, Burger King, Boots, Diageo
Career highlight: Being corporate relations director of Diageo for 10 years. It was an unalloyed joy
Career lowlight: While there has been the odd dark moment I have been lucky; I have had many more opportunities than I deserve
Best piece of advice: ‘Ask for forgiveness, not for permission’
Which business person do you most admire and why? Paul Walsh, former CEO of Diageo, now chairman of Compass. It was a privilege to work so closely with the best British business leader of the past 15 years
Hobbies: Gardening, walking, football and rugby. And supporting Crystal Palace from afar
Favourite meal: Roast Suffolk lamb and a pint of Adnams Broadside
What book are you reading: The Slaughter Man by Tony Parsons
Favourite film: Stardust with Claire Danes and Michelle Pfeiffer