Game plan

By Rick Pendrous

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food

Game plan
Patrick Coveney, Greencore's chief executive, claims his experiences on the rugby field have helped him formulate his approach to business and heading up the own-label chilled foods firm. That, and almost 10 years with management consultancy McKinsey & Company, where he further honed his skills after completing his doctorate at Oxford in 1996.

He drops a bon mot into the discussion, attributable to coach Clive Woodward (who subsequently led the England team to victory in the 2003 Rugby World Cup) during Coveney's stint playing rugby for London Irish in the early 1990s. He embraces this advice as a good philosophy for leadership in business.

Apparently, Woodwood inspired his players with: 'The essence of good performance is not doing one thing 100% better, it's doing 100 things 1% better.' And Coveney insists: "The food industry is absolutely like that."

Without doubt, Coveney, 40, is a very bright, multi-talented chap and a star of the UK food industry. His meteoric rise, although involving "a bit of serendipity"​, was always destined to lead him to the top. And that, no doubt, made his failure to secure the merger of Greencore with Northern Foods earlier this year (to form a combined group to be renamed Essenta with a £1.7bn turnover) a huge disappointment.

Since being pipped to the post earlier this year in the Northern bid by 2 Sisters' owner Ranjit Boparan, Coveney has sealed the deal to acquire chilled manufacturer Uniq in a £113M contract, which involved raising £80M in equity.

Coveney "absolutely reject[s] Uniq was a consolation prize"​, as suggested by some industry commentators. He also refutes that Greencore overpaid to seal the deal for Uniq.

The acquisition, he claims, makes compelling logic for Greencore's future growth. And it also offers the additional benefits of not burdening Greencore with any historic pension liabilities, while providing tax advantages. This will "enable us to deliver very strong conversion of operating profits through to cash"​, he says.

"While the Essenta combination, because of its scale, offered a greater potential combination of benefits in synergies than a combination of Uniq and Greencore, the risks associated with that were much, much greater," ​said Coveney. "I would go so far as to say that if you look at the Essenta proposition versus the Uniq proposition on a risk-return basis, yes the potential returns are a little less [with the latter], but because the risks are so much less, you can actually argue for shareholders that it is actually a better proposition." ​The Northern deal would also have meant Greencore entering some non-core branded business and areas, such as biscuits, which it had little experience of.

With the Uniq acquisition, Greencore has bought a business operating in own-label chilled markets that it understands well. Coveney says it comes "with customers we either serve or had got to know well over time, or were big strategic priorities for us, with some outstandingly performing business units".​ He also claims to have "a well-worked-through plan to deal with some of the underperforming parts" ​of Uniq.

The man who was head-hunted from McKinsey to serve as chief financial officer at Greencore in 2005 comes over as having a very firm grasp on strategic thinking. Although he plays it down, he is without doubt a very deliberate, rational and analytical decision maker the seeds of which must have been sown and nurtured during his earlier academic career.

Coming from farming stock (with a brother who became Ireland's agriculture minister in March this year), and having worked closely with manufacturers, retailers and foodservice firms in his years with McKinsey, he has a good grounding in the entire food supply chain.

Since taking over as chief executive, Coveney has been faced with the challenges inherent in running any PLC of equivalent size. But he has had the extra responsibilities of refocusing a diversified food firm around its core competencies in convenience foods, while setting the direction for growth here and in the US.

Meanwhile, it has been crucial as any good rugby player will know not to take your eye off the ball, by ensuring his highly demanding supermarket customers remained content with Greencore's service and product delivery.

"As a business we are only as good as the delivery we have for our customers every day,"​ remarks Coveney. "It is important with all the strategic excitement not to lose track of what we are actually trying to do every day. Because it is doing that well that gives you the mandate to do other stuff with the business."

The future with Uniq

Following the Uniq acquisition, the combined business now employs over 13,000 people across a number of sites both here and in the US and has a turnover of just under £1bn in the UK. The task over the next couple of years will be to smoothly integrate those businesses, realise the £10M in cost-saving "synergies" ​that are promised through restructuring of the corporate functions and supply chain efficiency improvements.

There will inevitably be some rationalisation of production operations, most likely involving Uniq's "troubled" ​Minsterley operation in Shropshire. But at this early stage Coveney is not prepared to go into detail about what precisely this might involve. However, he stresses that Greencore wants to remain in the desserts business "but only the right parts of the desserts market", specifically within premium products.

He asserts that Greencore has been a pretty good own-label supplier. However, he is aware that future success will be about getting everybody in the combined businesses "just a little bit more engaged, a little bit aligned, and a little bit clearer on what they are trying to do".

"What you've basically got in the [Uniq] business is a sandwich and a salads business, and we are pretty clear on how we are going to organise those," ​he says. "They are two standalone sites and one of them is a very, very good fit with our broader food-to-go business, because it is multi-customer in nature. It very nicely complements the expanding range we have in food-to-go. And the other, the Northampton site, has been traditionally centred around one customer and we propose to keep that as a specialist for supplying that customer."

On an industry level, Coveney expects there to be further consolidation within the chilled own-label foods sector in the UK "with players deepening their positions in existing categories and accessing new categories"​. His own efforts, he claims, have been focused around "delivering value by building scale and category"​. But, he is aware that it is important to do this without upsetting the major multiples. "You can create big problems for yourself if you build excessive scale within one customer and go contrary to the trading strategies of those businesses"​.

Coveney adds: "We operate in a way that shouldn't come as a huge surprise to our customers and should be done in some instances with their encouragement."

Like Brian Stein, boss at rival chilled firm Samworth Brothers, Coveney is a man who understands the own-label business.

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