Road to the top

By Elaine Watson

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Ftse 100 index, Management

Who runs the UK's top food manufacturers, and did they follow a predictable path to the top? Elaine Watson finds out how to climb the greasy pole

If you want to be the next boss of Cadbury Schweppes, or Unilever, here's a tip: don't join the logistics department. For any chief executives out there with 'supply chain director' on your CV, I apologise. But there won't be many, as the biographies of many of the top boses indicates. "Supply chain attracts some extremely capable people," says one recruitment director. "But how many logistics director do you know that become chief executive."

So what credentials do you need if you want to make it to the very top?

For better or for worse, finance, sales and marketing remain the typical routes up most businesses, says Chris Burns, md at recruitment agency Food Careers. This is partly because the commercial function of a business is seen as the sexiest place to be, but also because people in these roles often have communication skills that equally able counterparts in other functions of the business lack, he claims. “It’s not unheard of for the technical director to run the show, but it’s usually more customer-facing people that get the top jobs.”

As for academic credentials, the food industry is far more open to people from a variety of backgrounds than some professions, where a stint at a top public school followed by an Oxbridge degree is almost a pre-requisite for serious career advancement, he says.

While an MBA from Harvard and a place on the Mars graduate scheme can help, as Paul Griffiths from Inter Link has proved (see above), talent, drive and ambition can count for as much as the right degree.

One thing is clear, however, says Chris Atkinson at recruiter Atkinson Page. If you’re looking to progress fast, take the commercial route. “If you join as sales executive and move to national account manager, you could be a commercial manager in four years,” he says. “Start as a shift supervisor, then shift manager, production manager, operations manager and then switch to commercial, and you’re looking at more like eight or nine years.”

If you are extremely ambitious, you probably need to bag a senior commercial role within five years, claims B3 Recruitment co-director Stephen Bunch. You’ve also got to move extremely fast, as CEOs are getting younger.

“There are no hard and fast rules”, he says, “but if you haven’t got a clear idea of what’s going on with the profit and loss account early on, you’re at a disadvantage.”

Depressingly, statistics suggest that you will also be at a considerable disadvantage if you are a woman, with the boardrooms of the biggest companies in the sector remaining the almost exclusive preserve of men.

Shockingly, there are just two female executive directors in food processing in the FTSE 350. And while some of the top branded firms such as Diageo and Unilever have female non-executive directors, a whole swathe of leading manufacturers including Associated British Foods, Robert Wiseman Dairies, Allied Domecq, Cranswick and Dairy Crest do not have a single woman on the main board.

For those that have gone down the production rather than the sales and marketing route, there is still hope, however, says one recruitment director. “About seven years ago, we placed a plant production manager for a leading UK food manufacturer. He moved around four plants in four years before moving up to head office and working in sales and mar

Related topics: People & Skills

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