IGD’s Leading Edge has been a vital tool for thousands of young professionals building a career in grocery. As it celebrates its 10th birthday Ronan Hegarty finds out why the networking organisation has gone from strength to strength

Let’s face it: it’s easy to be cynical about networking organisations. Especially ones that expect quarterly attendance from young time-poor professionals who come from all corners of the UK. Yet next month, Leading Edge, the networking group for young people in the grocery industry, celebrates its 10th anniversary.

With some 4,400 members who attend meetings in nine different locations, Leading Edge has come a long way since former IGD chief executive John Beaumont launched it.

So what is the secret of its success and what does the future hold for it?

Leading Edge was launched in an era when Sunday trading was still a no-no and newcomers to the industry were very much expected to fend for themselves. With a view to helping foster future grocery industry leaders, IGD decided it was time to lend a helping hand. Its current chief executive Joanne Denney-Finch says: “The idea for Leading Edge was that we could help develop young executives and managers throughout their careers. We wanted to provide leadership in the industry and help shape the agenda.

“When you are young and at the beginning of your career it is really useful to meet other young people from different organisations and areas of the market.

“You get to broaden your understanding of the industry as well as share experiences
and concerns. It can be a very rich experience indeed.”

Over the past 10 years the food and grocery industry has undergone dramatic change. At the quarterly meetings and the annual convention young people finally had a forum to discuss the hot topics of the day as well as meet other young managers to make important contacts and friendships.

Denney-Finch says: “Over the years these meetings have dealt with such hot topics as Sunday trading, the euro, GM-food and factory gate pricing. In fact, Leading Edge was dealing with concerns such as healthy eating and pester power more than 18 months ago, before the issue of obesity was the huge public concern that it is now.

She continues: “Our meetings have always involved free ranging, open and honest debate. With experts and important figures from the industry attending, the meetings give young managers a chance to discuss issues with people that they wouldn’t normally have access to.”

The next round of meetings will deal with the subject of consolidation. Also on the agenda for discussion in 2004 are ECR (efficient consumer response) and category management. Attending these meetings will be Paul Hepworth, business development manager for Europe at battery company Energizer.

At the age of 29, he could be considered something of a Leading Edge veteran, having joined the organisation in 1997 when he was an assistant product manager with Soda Stream. He then moved to Energizer as business account manager, before taking up his current role six months ago and now travels throughout Europe developing new markets for the company’s products.

Hepworth believes that the personal focus of Leading Edge has been a great benefit to his career. He says: “I was very keen to get involved in something that was for young managers starting out on their career.

“The most valuable aspect for me was the unique focus on personal development. The
meetings and the annual convention give members a chance to meet motivational speakers, life coaches and listen to very informative presentations. It presents the opportunity to really focus on your own career in a way that you wouldn’t normally be able to or even have time to within your own company.”

Hepworth remains as enthusiastic about Leading Edge as he was when he first attended a meeting seven years ago. He says: “It is a great way of keeping in touch with key issues in the fmcg industry, it is free and I have never come out of a meeting wondering why I bothered? In fact I have actively encouraged some young managers at Energizer to get involved as well.”

At the other end of the spectrum is Jonathan Orme, a 25-year-old retail graduate trainee with Sainsbury, who has been a member for just over a year. Orme attended two meetings last year as well as the annual convention. He says: “Last year’s meeting on point of purchase advertising was very informative and gave me a great idea of the range of things that can be done to boost sales of a product in store.

“My highlight so far has been the convention. The speakers were fantastic. They included former Olympic athlete Roger Black, who talked about getting out of your comfort zone in order to get ahead in your career. These are all things that I am sure will be of great benefit to me in my career and I am certainly looking forward to this year’s events.”

As for Leading Edge’s future, Denney-Finch is already planning for the next 10 years, which she hopes will be even more successful. She says: “Over the next few years we will be focusing heavily on building the membership of Leading Edge and using technology more effectively.

“We are updating our website, which we hope will become an invaluable tool for people in the industry to communicate and deal with important issues. IGD is already an international organisation and I would certainly like to develop more international links through Leading Edge.”