How ironic that just as grocery exports reached an all-time high of about £13bn, the main body charged with promoting UK food and drink around the globe was in the latter stages of being wound up. Food from Britain will officially cease to offer domestic and international services on 31 March, following 25 years advising would-be exporters on which markets to target – and, just as importantly, which to avoid.
It has spent the nine or so months since the shock announcement of its dissolution first trying to identify a single organisation that might take on its remit and then, when that failed, parcelling up its services in a bid to appeal to different potential suitors – with some success.
It has also swallowed its pride to tout the services of its staff in a bid to find them new jobs, last week sending out a plaintive email listing their skills and contact details and urging recipients to “pass on this information to anyone you know who is looking for new talent”.
Given their expertise, you’d hope they would find jobs even in the current market. But what will life be like for exporters when FFB finally closes its doors in just under three months?
Over the past few months, chunks of FFB’s remit have been taken on by a raft of industry bodies and businesses. UK Trade & Industry – the body responsible for promoting UK exports in most industry sectors – expects to be first port of call for UK exporters when FFB goes.
Last month, it announced that responsibility for organising the British pavilions at 10 international trade shows would be in the hands of four new accredited trade organisations (ATOs): the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce; private-sector events companies Montgomery International and PS8, which was set up by former FFB head of exhibitions and events Sandra Sullivan; and The Grocer’s publisher, William Reed Business Media, which will handle events in New York and Amsterdam.
Despite the Government’s role in FFB’s demise – it was the budget cuts it imposed on Defra that forced the department to withdraw funding from FFB – UKTI insists the Government remains committed to helping exporters.
“In difficult times, it’s more important than ever to diversify and explore new markets,” says a spokeswoman. “UKTI can help companies with our network in 161 locations in 99 markets. Our Tradeshow Access Programme will assist UK companies to attend 18 trade fairs in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and the US in the next financial year by providing grants of up to £1,800 to eligible companies.”
It has also doubled the number of grants businesses can apply for to six, she points out, adding that more than 200 companies in the sector have taken part in its Passport to Export scheme, which offers inexperienced exporters free capability assessments, mentoring schemes and subsidised training.
Interestingly, Defra argued that it was no longer appropriate for a Government body to provide “subsidised advice to individual businesses” – emphasising the free-market ethos adopted so zealously by Labour and implying that any slack would have to be taken up by private-sector consultancies.
However, it looks as though subsidised advice will continue to be on offer, just not from FFB. In some cases, the services available may even prove cheaper than under FFB, says Neil Felton, exhibitions director at William Reed Business Media.
“We’ve been going through the costs of what FFB used to offer for the PLMA show and we should be able to save around £500 per exhibitor. If a member of the PLMA had exhibited last year, they’d have paid £3,789. Now, we’re going to put together a price that is around £3,262. And that’s despite the fact that obviously the Euro has become a lot stronger.
“We feel it’s really important for British companies to export and we want to help them do that. The subplot is that we want to make sure companies understand, if they don’t already exhibit with us, that we can deliver a very good service and work with us in the future.”
Even before the mailer advertising the event had gone out this week, 12 companies had signed up for PLMA, accounting for a good chunk of the 24-30 slots available. The Fancy Food Show, which takes place in June and July, is also expected to generate a lot of interest.
Felton admits to an element of competition between the ATOs, however. “Ideally one should have got all the shows rather than them being divided up. We’re effectively competing for exporting companies to go to rival shows.”
There was some overlap in FFB’s and UKTI’s remits, admits FFB chairman Lady Sylvia Jay, but the plethora of organisations now sharing FFB’s remit could confuse exporters – especially those new to the game, she argues.
“We like to think FFB provided a unique, centralised service to help UK companies,” she says. “They are not now without help but it remains to be seen if that lack of central co-ordination will make a difference.”
Tyrrells, the high-end crisp maker that is among those companies to have benefited from FFB support, believes it will. “There is going to be a gap to fill,” says a spokeswoman. “You can be a big fish in the UK, but at big trade shows even larger companies than us can get swamped.”
FFB has been an obvious first port of call in an area where the provision of services is otherwise very fragmented, agrees FFB chief executive John Adams, but forewarned is forearmed. “If there can be a silver lining to FFB’s closure, it’s that we have had a year to see what the landscape would look like afterwards.”
That transitional process is now in full swing. This month, FFB debuted a website, hosted by the Food & Drink Federation, that points potential exporters towards alternative contacts to UKTI (see box below). Major announcements have also been made recently over the future of the body’s international offices.
The network of nine international offices, which has been at least as important as the FFB’s one-stop shop function in the UK, will remain largely in place, operating on a commercial basis under its new banner of the Green Seed Group.
“What FFB has done is put companies in touch with those offices,” says Lady Jay. “We hope that with the website, companies will still know those offices exist.”
Meanwhile, efforts are ongoing to find homes for FFB’s remaining interests. It has played an important role in helping English companies seek protected European status, for instance. That work has been put out to tender and Defra is currently considering bids.
Despite the demise of FFB, Adams remains optimistic that UK food and drink exports will continue to enjoy strong growth this year.
“Food and drink exports are buoyant, not just because of the [low value of] sterling but also because of quality,” he says. “The reputation and nature of the industry is vastly different now. We can use individual examples of cutting-edge products to raise the UK’s reputation. Gü, for example, is very new to exporting but is going down a storm in France. With that growing reputation abroad for being innovative, we do not have to sell as hard.”
Just as well, now that UK food and drink exporters have one less voice to champion their cause.
FFB’s core functions are being picked up by UKTI, the devolved nations and the nine English regions, as well as four ATOs, which will organise the British pavilions at overseas trade events. Other key national and regional contacts include:
International Business Wales, Scottish Development International and Invest Northern Ireland will support exporters in their respective nations, while the English regional development agencies will help on a local basis; north of the border, companies can look to Scotland Food & Drink, a private company launched in 2007. It aims to grow the industry as a whole from £7.5bn to £10bn by 2017 by promoting the country as a world-class producer of premium goods.
The Regional Food Group Alliance – a new coalition of eight local food bodies, including Taste of the West and NW Fine Food – was one of the first to throw its hat into the ring. Chair John Sheaves pledged to “fill the void” left by the demise of the FFB in terms of its regional work, soon after its closure was announced.
The Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board is entering its second year after the unification of the five levy bodies overseeing meat, milk and cereal production in the UK.
FFB has helped between 700 and 900 companies a year. Among its most notable successes are:
Quorn – the meat substitute company has branched out into Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland. Scandinavia and the US, where it now has annual sales of about $20m
Walkers Shortbread – FFB’s 2007 Food and Drink Exporter of the Year exports to more than 80 markets worldwide
Gourmet’s Choice – this Scots salmon producer was a new exporter when it began working with FFB. Overseas sales now account for 70% of its business
Kettle Foods – FFB has run major marketing campaigns for the company in countries including Germany, France, the Netherlands and Italy
Patak’s – FFB provided market analysis and financial modelling for the brand’s US launch
Gü – the luxury dessert brand was named FFB Food and Drink Exporter of the year in December after landing a nationwide listing in France