What more perfect a job for a self-confessed fish finger addict than MD of Birds Eye? Anne Murphy talks to Mark Choueke

Anne Murphy’s family reckons she was always destined to work for Birds Eye. The company’s UK MD apparently ate virtually nothing but fish fingers as a child.

Even when Murphy’s brother, 10 years her senior, celebrated his 21st birthday in a posh New Forest restaurant, Murphy would not be swayed. “While the rest of my family was eating frogs legs and guinea fowl, my dinner came on a silver platter with the dome lid. It was four fish fingers,” she says proudly in an exclusive interview with The Grocer at Birds Eye’s Middlesex HO.

Name: Anne Murphy

Age: 41

Career: I started my career at Tesco, where I worked for 10 years in marketing and buying before moving to PepsiCo, where I worked for Walkers. Then I went to Gillette, which was taken over by P&G just after I started and now I’m at Birds Eye

The perfect fish finger sandwich – ketchup or mayonnaise?
Neither actually. I had a fish finger sandwich for dinner last night. Sometimes I’m very simplistic about it and will go for white bread, fish fingers, salt, pepper and vinegar. But if I’m feeling extravagant and want to do it properly, I’ll go for rocket and tartar sauce in one of those lovely French pain rustique rolls they sell in Waitrose

Life outside work:
I’m not the best advert for a work/life balance, but I love fast cars. I used to have a bad habit of travelling round the world watching Grand Prix. Now I settle for driving a Porsche Boxster. I’m also a sports nut. I’m a season ticket holder for the Harlequins (rugby union) and follow Southampton FC when I can. I competed heavily in sports as a youngster and was quite successful – I was south of England gymnastics champion aged 10 or 11
Thirty years later, the one-time south of England gymnastics champion has one of the foremost CVs in fmcg in the country. Her career to date includes a decade’s experience of buying and marketing at Tesco as well as seven years at PepsiCo, where she worked with Martin Glenn – who would later play a key role in her career – on the Walkers team. A short stint as sales director at Gillette was interrupted eight weeks into the post when Procter & Gamble bought the brand. P&G subsequently made her the chief of its entire sales operation. It was “a dream job, working with some of the world’s greatest brands, and managing 350 people”, she says.

So what made her want to leave her so-called dream job to rejoin Glenn, who, by the time he called her in February 2007 had been appointed to the chief executive role at Birds Eye Iglo by its new private equity owner Permira? 

“I was working for Gianni Ciserani at P&G and loved it,” says Murphy. “He and Martin aren’t dissimilar characters. I was very happy and had no desire for anything new. But then Martin called. When I left PepsiCo, I said I’d love to work with him again and I don’t have any regrets about joining up with him a second time. I speak to him every day, he never imposes decisions on me and I’m not afraid to ask him for help. It’s a joy to work for him.”

Since the Glenn and Murphy dream team was re-formed last February, Murphy says they have been focusing their attentions on rejuvenating the frozen category as a whole as well as concentrating on the Birds Eye business. They’re not doing badly: IRI executive summary 12-week data to 14 June has Birds Eye volume sales up 4.2% and value up 5.1%. And, according to TNS, total sales for the frozen category are up 4.5% in the year to 8 June – a welcome turnaround after several years of decline.

Birds Eye hopes to capitalise further on the renaissance of frozen food and its low waste and relatively low price points. However, stresses Murphy, the key to boosting Birds Eye’s and frozen’s fortunes is injecting fresh value into the category. “Frozen showed the first signs of recovery last year,” she says. “I want to make sure people recognise the positive reasons behind it rather than thinking it’s because shoppers don’t have much money to spend.”

She accepts that Birds Eye has at times not done the category any favours. “Ready meals have been in long-term decline for a while but now we’re working hard to stabilise them,” she says. “In the absence of people like us showing real category leadership, ready meals have always been quite commoditised and sold on deal. Again we’re trying to align them with consumer trends. People want to eat well and our Eat Positive meals have great fish and poultry content and can offer part of your 5-a-day.”

There’s a long way to go before the improvement in frozen’s fortunes can be described as a turnaround, she stresses. “If we can restore an iconic British brand to greatness I’ll be happy,” she says. “All the signs are there that we’re doing it. But we’re not arrogant. There will be no trumpets blown until we can achieve results over a sustainable period of time.”

Fortunately, Murphy is confident she has the right team in place to do just that. A change of scenery has helped. For almost a year after the Birds Eye business was sold to Permira in November 2006, it was stuck in the old Unilever building. “We finally moved here last October,” she recalls. “We wanted our own identity as a business and it’s made such a difference.”

Murphy has tried to instil a “small business mentality” into the young team. It hasn’t proved as difficult as people may think, she says. “The wonderful thing about the new Birds Eye is you’ve got one of the top 10 grocery brands in the country and one of the top 10 advertisers in the country as well as the history that everyone connects with, but we’re quite a small business in terms of people, with a smaller turnover than the old Unilever business.

“There are just under 200 employees here. We have a nine-country operation incorporating businesses in Germany, Austria, Portugal, Belgium, France and the Netherlands and we have brand leadership status in many of our markets. Yet our mission is to create a small-company mentality, working quickly and getting things done. I came in and wanted a real high performance culture with accountability and rewards for people, acting quickly and with rigour. This culture is probably the most collaborative I’ve ever worked in.”

Good Mood Food, the current marketing campaign starring Suggs is, according to Murphy, more than an advertising slogan. It’s a notion that has permeated through the rank and file at Birds Eye, inspiring commitment and togetherness. “Every six months we reward a ‘good mood dude’ for outstanding work, a person in the company voted for by the rest of the staff. The café downstairs is called the Good Mood Café. We’ve also got quality people coming in from outside. I’d say this is the best management team I’ve ever known in my career.”

It’s rare for an advertising strapline to have the same effect within a company HQ as with consumers, but Murphy maintains that the Good Mood Food idea has proved an incredibly useful tool for driving self belief. Did she have any worries that marketing spend would not be high on the agenda under the command of private equity? After all, the first mark Permira made on the business after taking over was to close a factory in Hull at the cost of 600 jobs. “Marketing spend has doubled this year – does that answer your question?” replies Murphy with a smile. “I’ve not worked in the private equity arena before. People can say it’s just about cost-cutting, but Permira is properly investing and has demonstrated a great belief in the business. Plus, if this was going to be one big cost-cutting exercise, why would they have employed Martin and me? It’s not where we have come from.” 

She won’t be drawn on speculation that Lion Capital might have Birds Eye in its sights following its acquisition of Foodvest last week, though a company spokeswoman insists it has never been approached. Indeed, sources close to the company claim it welcomes the competition. Murphy, meanwhile, is clearly enjoying her first crack at general management after a career primarily in sales. “It’s quite humbling,” she admits. “As a general manager, you are confronted by not always being the expert in the room and that’s something that tests you.”

Relaxed in her surroundings and answering to a boss she gets on well with, Murphy buzzes with energy and a sense of purpose. “I’ve got such a belief that if we can get people returning to the frozen category, they’ll keep on shopping there,” she says, relating an incident last week illustrating no opportunity to spread the word is passed up. “I got in a cab the other night and the driver asked me who I worked for. I told him I worked for Birds Eye and he said: ‘God I bloody love fish fingers and haven’t had them for such a long time.’ I gave him a fiver and told him to go and buy some after his shift. There’s a long way to go but I feel like we’re winning.” A love of fish fingers is as good a place to start as any, it seems.