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At New York Produce Show’s Global Trade Symposium:
Fourth Generation British Produce Luminary, Laurence Olins, Explains A Unique Business Model And How Berries Have Become The Number One Category In UK Supermarkets

The Global Trade Symposium is an annual highlight of The New York Produce Show and Conference, and this year a highlight of the event is the appearance of Laurence Olins.

It is hard to overstate the influence of this man. In addition to the formidable role he plays as Chairman of one of the most prominent produce firms in the UK, the Poupart Group, and the role he plays as Chairman of British Summer Fruits, the position in which he will speak about in New York, he is a non-executive director for some of the most important firms in the industry: G’s Marketing, The Shropshire Farming Group, Grace Foods UK and Reynolds Catering Supplies.

He originated the annual City Food Lecture held at Guildhall and was the force behind the Global Berry Congress.

And here is a secret nobody knows: It was, in no small measure, due to his willingness to lend his personal prestige and industry influence to our launch of The London Produce Show and Conference that we were able to succeed as we did.

So when we heard that a man of such repute had a story to tell about the rise of the berry industry in the UK, with notes of caution on what impact Brexit and, even Donald Trump, might have on the future of the industry, we said yes fast. We asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:

Laurence Stephen Olins JP, B.Com. (Hons)
Chairman, Poupart Group
Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, UK
Chairman, British Summer Fruits
London, England

Q: We’re excited you’ll be presenting at the Global Trade Symposium in your role as Chairman of British Summer Fruits, the UK crop association for soft fruit. I understand you will examine the berry category stronghold in the UK and potential ramifications post Brexit. You’ve selected a topic certain to jumpstart far-reaching discussions, especially after the shocking U.S. Presidential election results and its parallels with Brexit.   

A: Of course, the added dimension of the US election result needs also to be addressed as to how some of Trump’s policies might affect international fruit trading if tariff barriers and walls start emerging. As much as a Trump presidency seems unreal, it’s exactly what happened to us with Brexit.

Q: Before we delve into the issues of your talk, could you tell us about the Poupart Group and your background?

A: My talk is very much as Chairman of British Summer Fruits, the organization which promotes and looks after and speaks for the UK national berry industry. I won’t be touching on Poupart at all in my presentation. While I’m happy to take questions about Poupart, it’s not the gist of my speech.

Q: With that in mind, as a fourth generation fruit marketer with 46 years in the fresh produce industry, attendees surely will be interested to learn how your experience helps inform your insights…

A: For perspective, my career started in 1969 in the wholesale market, in Covent Garden, and the traditional family business. The company Poupart was incorporated in 1895, but started trading in 1850, so it’s the oldest and now the largest fruit company in the UK. My family and I bought into it in 1987 when it was owned by a publically-listed conglomerate called Hillsdown Holdings. It was a loss-making division, which was failing quite badly. We turned it around, and it’s now one of the most profitable fruit companies in the UK.

With other investors, we did a management buyout in 1997, and three years ago, we then did a further buyout from our private equity backers and now it is owned by private investors including myself and my family. The sales are in excess of $550 million US.

Q: What are the reasons you’ve become so successful? It’s a very competitive industry.

A: One of the ways is we created specialist companies. We were never a generic fruit company. Whatever product we’re going in, we would create a company specializing in that category, so we have an apple and pear company, a berry company, a citrus company, a stone fruit company, a fresh-cut company, and a wholesale trade sales company. So we’ve always been a series of companies. We are not one generic body.  

Q: That sounds like a critical point…

A: Yes. We started on this strategy, which we’ve stuck to since 1989. The other secret… apart from our fresh-cut business, we’re not wholesalers. We do not own any bricks-and-mortar; we have no pack houses, cold storage; we don’t have wheels or lorries… We are the classic middlemen, and proud of it.    

Q: With direct buying, has that impacted your business?

A: Yes. We’ve had to adapt to direct buying with some of our major customers. What we’ve done is adapted some of our trading philosophies, so we’re very flexible. In some cases, we are still the middlemen. In other cases we’ve become specialty service providers. We don’t hold firm and fast philosophies. We will go with the flow, depending on what the customer wants.

Q: Do you think that flexibility also has something to do with the fact that you’re family-run? That you have more autonomy to react quickly to market changes, without becoming bogged down in a bureaucratic bottleneck?

A: We’re a family-managed, privately-owned business.  We employ 800 people. There are only five of us in the family, so there is a broad scope of professional management, and many of them are shareholders.

At the same time, we have none of that bottleneck. We are totally autonomous, even when we were part of a publicly-listed company. We’ve had all the advantages of a family business, speedy decision-making, flat management, and personal touch with the disciplines of outside investors. We have the perfect combination. We believe this is unique, and it keeps the family honest and gives very good returns to the investors. It’s an unusual model.

Q: With that context, let’s move into your presentation for the Global Trade Symposium. Could you give us a preview of your talk?

A: Essentially, the working title is: “How berries became the Number 1 fruit category in the UK and the challenges the category faces post Brexit.”  

Q: Could you walk us through the key points you’ll be discussing?

A: In this case, I’m talking as Chairman of British Summer Fruits, which is the national association for the berry industry. I’ll present background slides about what it does; its scope, its scale, and its objectives.

Q: Could you summarize the association’s role for readers here?

A: British Summer Fruits includes 98 percent of the total industry and the total supply chain, so it encompasses growers, marketers, importers, exporters — the lot.

The industry in the UK is a $1.5 billion US industry at retail level. And it has grown significantly. Ten years ago, it was around $300 million. It is now the Number 1 category. So, 20 percent of the fruit category in the UK is berries, $1 in $5 is spent on berries, and the annual growth rate is in excess of 16 percent. So that is the context.

Q: Do you see that growth level continuing?

A: Yes, absolutely. I’ll be giving fairly interesting slides on the data, proving the hypothesis it’s the Number 1 category. I’ll show how the berry category has grown in the past 10 years, from 2005 to 2015, the evolution, the split between local production and imports, the retail structure so we can see how the market is split by retail, the annual growth, and the price growth. So, that will provide background and the actual picture.

I will then go into the micro-economic facts that have caused this success and describe the factors contributing to the success. And then I will look in detail and give examples of the year-round PR campaign that British Summer Fruits supports. We believe this is one of the key reasons why the category has done so well because there is a continuous 12-month campaign supporting the category.

This is a consumer campaign, not a trade campaign. We don’t do any trade promotion. I’ll look at the effectiveness of that campaign and give some examples of best PR practice. And then I’ll look at the opportunities for the industry with a wrap-up conclusion.

Q: The industry grapples with the best strategies to market produce to consumers and has rolled out all sorts of consumer-driven campaigns to increase produce consumption. It is often challenging to quantify what works and the contributing variables involved. Why are you so keen on the British Summer Fruits consumer campaign? Is it a palpable factor in the category’s growth?

A: I believe it’s been a demand-led success as opposed to a supply push. The media, and the media interest in berries, has been stoked up by our campaigns, or coming out of scientific papers and pure press coverage, which has created an interest and validation of berries, so the health message, the beauty message, the fashion message, the snacking message, is incredibly well understood by the UK consumer, and increasingly the European consumer because they’re about five years behind us.

So that message, which we’ve been banging out since 2003, is completely embedded in the UK consumer.

Demand for berries is such that the growers have struggled to carry on meeting that demand.

Q: That’s not necessarily a bad problem to have. What strategies have growers employed to satisfy market needs?

A: They’ve met that demand through extending season, increased varieties, growing methods, financial investments, professional growers emerging and employing highly professional teams, as well as capitalizing on technology.

Q: How important are new varieties? For instance in the apple category, there is a constant push to introduce new varieties with different names and consumer branding messages based on flavor profiles and other characteristics, to constantly reinvent the category and keep it fresh.   

A: In berries, we only have four crops; in order of importance, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries and raspberries. There is trade interest in varieties, but it’s a generic product. The consumer doesn’t follow new berry varieties, but obviously a new variety that brings better eating characteristics such as improved sweetness or increased shelf life is one of the factors that has helped the category. The consumer won’t be swayed or put off by which variety it is. A strawberry is much more of a generic brand product. She won’t buy strawberries like she’ll buy a Pink Lady apple.

Q: What about conventional versus organic?

A: Organic is roughly five percent of the market. There is a place for organic in berries. It’s important to have an organic market, no question about it, but I think it’s limited to that very small niche of mothers with toddlers, rather than the mainstream. Organic is a very good starter market for young families, who see organics as ultra-safe product.  

Q: In reaching consumers more broadly, could you elaborate on the British Summer Fruits campaign efforts? What is the scope, how much money are you spending, etc.? And where are you investing it to get the greatest payoff?  

A: We’ve only had two agencies, and one took the other one over, so it’s essentially the same agency for the past 13 years. And I’ve been chairman for the whole period. The transformation of British Summer Fruits over this time period is a story on its own. And I can touch on that during my talk.

We are the only national generic fruit campaign in the UK that runs 365 days a year. We see our competition as being other fruit categories. It’s a consumer media campaign based on PR, and virtually no advertising. The campaign spend is just under $400,000 US a year, and the advertising value equivalent is $9 million. So we get a 1 to 35 return on our spend.  

Q: How did you accomplish that feat? The produce industry doesn’t have the mega marketing/ad budgets of the big food conglomerates…

A: You don’t need a lot of money. It’s how you spend it that’s critical. It’s PR, not ads. It’s through the stories that are accepted by journals and newspapers, radio and TV. For instance, we’ve commissioned scientific research, and then emboldened that research and made it into a story. We’ve employed ambassadors to convey captivating messages. I’m not talking about advertorials. We seep stories into the media.

Q: The produce industry certainly has a great story to tell. Do you think targeting consumer media outlets via the editorial side adds credence and legitimacy to product claims that on the advertising side could come off as self-promoting and less believable in consumers’ eyes?

A: First, we don’t have that funding to compete through traditional advertising. The other thing is, when consumers read an article in the paper, listen to an interview on the radio or watch a news segment on TV in the UK, they believe it three times more than when they see an advertisement. The value of a PR article has multiplied three times because it has more resonance with a consumer.

Q: In your consumer-centric model, do you micro-target segments, such as Millennials or different ethnic groups?

A: We don’t actually focus in that way. The consumers who eat berries are all ages, and there is room for every single segment. We don’t distinguish. Everyone has a need for health-giving berries, whether they are over 70 like me, or under 7, like some of my grandchildren. And we have no need to cross merchandise with other products. Berries as a category are strong enough to stand entirely on their own.

Q: You paint a picture of the UK berry category well-positioned for continued success, but will that be thwarted by Brexit?

A: I could do a whole talk on Brexit. 

Q: Many executives are anxious regarding the impacts of Brexit, amid uncertainties facing the industry. What is your assessment of the consequences and complexities of the UK’s vote to leave the EU?

A: I’m heavily involved in leading the industry on this issue vis a vie the government. I’ve taken that duty on at the moment, so I’m very clued up on that. I’ve had meetings with secretaries of state in the last three or four weeks, so I can give an update. Essentially the one word that comes out is uncertainty, and no one is prepared to give answers going forward. Basically our concerns are three fold: Labor, funding and trade with the EU.

Seasonal labor availability is critical. The industry employs 31,000 Eastern and Central Europeans on our farms, similar to the way you employ Mexicans and Central and South Americans in the U.S. These are seasonal workers, so they come and stay 9 to 10 months a year, they live on the farms, and 70 percent of them return every year.

Q: What percentage of your workforce is made up of these workers?

A: About 95 percent is seasonal European labor. Post Brexit, that labor force is in jeopardy. We have free movement of labor as a member of the EU. With Brexit, that movement will be curtailed. No question about it. That is what Brexit was all about, immigration.

Q: What actions can you take to alleviate this problem?

A: We are lobbying for a visa/permit solution to pass border control, which allows us the same number and more, because our industry is growing. We have 31,000 now, and there will be 38,000 needed in five years’ time. So we are looking for a visa/permit type system, and we are not being promised anything right now, period.

Halve the workers and you will halve the size of the industry — it’s as simple as that. The whole industry is done by hand, and the government and the Prime Minister understands that, but they are not going to show their hand until they get into negotiations. This will be one of the negotiating pieces, and we could very well be the sacrificial lamb.

Q: That’s disconcerting…

A: For us, and a lot of other industries. The UK employs 4.5 million foreign-born workers, and we have less than 1.5 million unemployed. So it doesn’t take a genius to figure out if you don’t have any of those foreign workers, the economy will be absolutely, irrefutably   damaged.

We’re just a microcosm. Every food industry sector is cuing up for the same demands that we have. It doesn’t matter if you’re in hospitality, foodservice, manufacturing, food manufacturing, national health… they’re all in the same boat.

Q: The produce industry is dependent on that labor…

A: For the entire produce industry, we employ 75,000 seasonal workers; that’s all crops, for which berries are 31,000. Our prediction is by 2020, it will be 91,000 for all produce. We’ve done a survey in the past six weeks, and this is accurate data that we have.

Q: What are the other two major concerns you alluded to earlier? 

A: That’s just the labor issue. Then we have a funding issue. We receive about $60 million US a year from Europe; these are not food subsidies, but money going to capital projects, and it is matching funds for the fruit/vegetable industry. So $60 million US has to be propped up equivalently by the growers, but it can only be spent on capital projects, which are innovative. There has been a guarantee that those funds will continue until 2020. But after that, who knows.  

Then the third issue, which is probably the biggest, is access and membership to the single market, which means we can trade within Europe, and with everyone that Europe has agreements with, and no paper work, no barriers, no customs, no frontiers, no duty, no nothing. We won’t be part of the single market. Importing fruit from other European countries will become really difficult and we won’t be able to have the speed of logistics and all the logistics sophistication we enjoy at the moment.

Q: Are you able to quantify the impact of that?  Do you have specific scenarios you can provide to give further perspective?

A: An example, we pack fruit in Spain and France at the exporters’ pack house in the retail pack. We date code the retail packs there because everything in the UK has to be date-coded, with sell-by date, use-by date. We load on lorries and trucks, and those trucks deliver product in three days to the back door, depos of supermarkets.

Because there are no delays, no customs barriers, we know it takes three days. All that will stop. We will not be able to do those sophisticated logistics, so that will add on 20 percent logistics costs, which will inevitably put the price of the product up. It will have to be delivered to the UK unloaded, put down on a packing line to be date-coded, reloaded and then sent on to market. That’s just one example.

Q: And the shelf-life reductions must be problematic as well…

A: Of course. You’ll lose two days shelf-life at least. We remember what it was like before the EU, but you could have three to four days delay with vehicles and product inspection as well.  

Q: I don’t think everyone grasped the extent of the ensuing problems that could occur by voting for Brexit…

A: No one did. Certainly the British voters didn’t. The ramifications are great. We’re having roundtable meetings with government and telling them. It’s not just the produce industry, but every sector of the food industry. We’ve been in a single market.

Let me put it in an American context. Think of how trade in the U.S. works. Since 1776, all states are equal; there are no borders between states, expediting the flow of inter-state trading that goes on. A factory in Massachusetts supplies a supermarket in Texas, it goes across so many states, and is never stopped over state lines. Now imagine if every state had a barrier. It would be a disaster. We’ve had that open trade policy with the EU for 40 years. We own companies in Spain and Portugal where we farm, and our trade is totally integrated.

Q: Is it possible these dire scenarios you describe may not happen depending on how the negotiations unfold?

A: The effect of not having access to the single market entirely infringes on free movement of labor, and free movement of labor is immigration. The Brexiters won because of the immigration card.  If the government decided not to control immigration, maybe, but it will.

The mere fact of halting visas for European workers will immediately shut out the UK from being a member of the single market. You can’t have the two. At the moment we have everything; we have single market, we have free movement of labor, and free movement of capital. Don’t get me started on the capital and finance side…

That’s what we’ve got, so any control, the slightest control on immigration, which half the people in the UK want because they voted for it, immediately impinges on the single market.

You can’t have your cake and eat it too. If we have complete freedom in the single market, we will have freedom of movement, and that will upset the people who voted for immigration controls. It’s a circle that cannot be squared.

Q: Our London Produce Show last June ran right before the Brexit vote. At that time, many people interviewed on the news didn’t appear to understand what they were voting for. News reports about the issues seamed muddled, and contradictory facts were being bantered around…

A: That’s because the British people were told a pack of lies by both sides, and it was a binary question: Do you want to be in or out of the EU. And some people thought they were voting for a football team. I believe those who think Brexit won’t have much of an impact are misguided.

Q: What are your reactions and thoughts on Donald Trump winning the U.S. presidential election? 

A: Oh My God, indeed. It’s exactly what’s happened to us with BREXIT. No one thought Trump would win, but he did after all. Implications of a Trump victory for the fresh fruit industry… my fear would be a tariff trade war. We have benefited from lower or no tariffs between our countries, and between third countries, and if Donald Trump starts a tit-for-tat type of trade war, and he does come out of the WTO arrangements, who knows what could happen. It will damage world trade with fruit.

America is a big importer of fruit. Suppose the barriers go up and fruit doesn’t go to the States because it becomes more expensive, or maybe consumers will eat less. Then the next place that fruit will go is Europe and that would automatically be a disruption for us. If barriers were to go up, that would not be good news for the fruit industry worldwide.

Just as in the BREXIT result, first it is shock and disbelief, then anger, and then acceptance comes in, and the fact is Trump is going to be President, and life goes on. That’s what the Electoral College decided.

What I would say as a businessman… the uncertainty is what you don’t want in industry commerce. We all got used to an environment for the past 20 years of globalization and free trade. Because of Brexit and Trump, there will be a period of great uncertainty. Until the fog clears, running businesses or one’s own life in such uncertainty is a difficult challenge, and we’re not used it. Through it all, my focus and our focus as an industry has to be on the consumer.

Q: What would you like most for attendees to take away from your talk when they leave the New York Produce Show and head back to their offices?

A: I want anyone in the berry industry not to be smug and think they don’t have to work hard to continue their Number 1 position. There is no room for complacency. That’s the first thing.

Next, that 12-month consumer-led PR campaigns are incredibly powerful as long as there is a continuity of message. That the consumer is central to any category success, and any deviation from the consumer hinders that success. I can’t stress enough the importance of being a consumer-led marketer, and not a production-led marketer.

Q:  Those are messages that hold strong even in times of great uncertainty…

A: I actually published a pocket handout, “Laurence’s Top 10 Tips that you won’t find in a business manual”:

1)   Don’t be afraid of recruiting colleagues better qualified than yourself.

2)   Employ problem-solvers not problem-creators.

3)   Accept and act on constructive criticism.

4)   Honour your promises and commitments in full and on time.

5)   Serve your colleagues and subordinates rather than expect them to serve you.

6)   Take the long term view, rather than aim for short term wins.

7)   Aim to occupy the moral high ground in a dispute. It’s a better and safer place to be.

8)   When ending a relationship, be professional and civilized. You might need to re-forge it at a later date.

9)   Organize and plan well ahead. Don’t leave tasks to the last minute.

10)  Always under promise and over deliver.


Laurence Olins speaks especially highly of the effectiveness of the UK’s consumer PR efforts. This is very timely, as we’ve been writing about PMA’s recent decision to hire a Chief Marketing Officer in pieces here and here. We would imagine that good PR has played a role, but there have been dramatic changes that the industry could promote:

What we have seen in the United States is five key things that have occurred:

1)      Berries have become a true category – with full year-round displays of blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and strawberries, often in organic and conventional varieties.

2)      Dramatic improvements in the quality offered by new varieties.

3)      Global production and distribution, often with branding, allowed the berry category to hold onto year-round shelf space.

4)      Improved packaging that both protected the fruit and gave space for branding and consumer communication.

5)      Blueberries especially became a “superfood,” with all kinds of positive health attributes being recognized.

Doubtless, Brexit and various Trump policies could pose many challenges. But it is also true that some of this is disrupting settled paths of business and, as laws and trade barriers rearrange, the industry will also find new ways to prosper.

The Pundit Poppa used to trade with Laurence’s father – Wally Olins – exporting especially many US apples to the UK under a special licensing regime that then existed in Britain. It was profitable for both sides until, eventually, the laws changed and cheaper apples could be gotten from the Continent, and the US business declined.

How things will evolve is unknown… Maybe the UK and USA will wind up with their own free trade agreement. Or Britain will build a new network with the Old Empire.

We can look forward to asking Laurence these questions, and so many more, in New York!

So, come and join us at the Global Trade Symposium and The New York Produce Show and Conference. You can register here.

And you can book a hotel room at the headquarters hotel right here.

Come and join us and engage in this high level discussion about the future of the berry trade and the brave new world the produce industry confronts after Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.

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