Nestlé boss Fiona Kendrick sets out path for growth

By Nicholas Robinson

- Last updated on GMT

Fiona Kendrick: sets out the path ahead
Fiona Kendrick: sets out the path ahead

Related tags Food United kingdom

Nestlé’s UK and Ireland chief executive and chairman has a tough reputation, but Nicholas Robinson finds out there’s more to her than that.

Key points

Fiona Kendrick is powerful and she knows it. “She will sit at the head of the table,” ​her communications manager says when I ask where the Nestlé boss might like to be seated. “She always sits at the head of the table.”

Kendrick, who has led the UK and Ireland branch of the international food giant for the past three years, has an Iron Lady reputation.

She is known to be firm, direct and even difficult a reputation she lives up to when she walks into the meeting room next to her office at Nestlé’s UK headquarters at Gatwick. “I don’t like having my picture taken,”​ she snaps at the photographer.

However, it’s not long before her iron demeanour softens and her passion for the sector emerges. She is actually very personable.

It was humbling to be appointed the president of the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) last November, she says. “It’s a great honour for me, to be sitting here in that role.”​ And it’s in this role that she aims to stamp her mark by helping to drive exports and boost the number of skilled workers in the sector.

However, some would say Kendrick has made a mark already. Her career started 35 years ago with Nestlé when she joined its commercial arm, having originally started out as a teacher. Her role now as chairman and chief executive officer of Nestlé UK and Ireland's £2.7bn turnover business sees her in charge of 8,000 people across 20 sites. In her time with the firm, she’s improved its drinks business and helped boost its young talent by developing the Nestlé Academy.

Outside Nestlé, she’s taken on the mantle of UK commissioner for employment and skills for the government and has co-chaired its Food and Drink Export Forum. She was also created Dame Commander of the British Empire for services to the food industry and support for skills and opportunities for young people in the 2015 New Year’s Honour's list.

But it’s in her role as FDF president that will provide the opportunity to make an even bigger impact on the industry, Kendrick says.

Low profile (Return to top)

“The food and drink industry has a surprisingly low profile for its size and importance,” ​she explains. “There are over 400,000 people working in the sector and it’s the largest manufacturing industry in the UK.”

The lack of government recognition for UK food and drink manufacturing frustrates Kendrick most. “We’ve done a lot to try and raise the profile of the industry with the government; to try and make people understand its importance for the economy and the fact it’s one of the few sectors that’s had great export growth.”

To improve its profile, Kendrick and the FDF are setting up a UK manufacturing council in conjunction with the government, she reveals. This will make it easier for the industry to get the policies it feels strongly about adopted by government, she says.

Whichever parties are elected after the May general election, they will be looking to achieve sustained economic growth and prosperity for the nation. The food and drink industry is well-placed to help with this if it gets the right support, Kendrick believes. “We need to have the council to discuss the sector’s growth.”

The council is an obvious idea, but why wasn’t it set up earlier? “I'm not sure that we’ve been necessarily strong enough. It’s happened in other sectors but, for some reason, we haven’t managed to get it going for food and drink and that’s something I’m determined to take the lead in,”​ she says. However, she doesn’t commit herself to a timeline for the council’s formation.

Exports (Return to top)

Her next priority will then be to further boost the sector’s exports. “Food and drink industry exports have increased by 45% in the past five years,”​ says Kendrick. “We’re somewhere close to £12bn a year and that’s growing on average by 5–6% per annum. But we can do more.”

For Kendrick, small- to medium-sized businesses (SMEs) are key to providing this export growth. However, a limited understanding of how to do it prevents them, she adds. “When I was a co-chair on the export forum, I was helping SMEs that didn’t have the resource and capability to look at the legislation and legal issues that occur when exporting.”

Just one-in-10 SME food and drink businesses export, “so the opportunity to try and drive exports from our smaller companies is really important”,​ says Kendrick. And, despite being the boss of one of the world’s largest food firms, she is passionate about the potential for growth SMEs present. “We created a website called, which has been seen to be good for those SMEs who use it.”

Yet, achieving an uptick in UK food and drink exports may not be as straightforward as Kendrick hopes especially in light of recent eurozone instability and a potential in/out referendum on EU membership as early as 2017.

Kendrick recognises that any changes in our relationship with the EU could be problematic for the UK’s food and drink sector. Europe is the sector's largest customer, taking 76% of UK food and drink exports, she adds. “Without a doubt, Europe is a really important consumer market for the UK food and drink industry.

“Quite clearly, any fluctuations ​[changes to legislation or currency] in the EU will impact us if we’re exporting. And a UK vote to exit the EU is going to have an impact on us and we would want to maintain a very good relationship with Europe to ensure products could be sold freely.”

General Election (Return to top)

Trouble could also be brewing closer to home as political parties jostle for votes in the May general election. In January this year, Labour revealed its plans to limit fat, sugar and salt levels in foods marketed to children if it wins power. Although the prospects for a tax on products high in fat, sugar and salt were dismissed by Debbie Abrahams, parliamentary private secretary to the shadow health secretary Andy Burnham and a member of the shadow health team, last year, Kendrick expresses some defensiveness in this area.

“As an industry, we take our role in terms of British consumers’ health very seriously and have played a big part in the Public Health Responsibilty Deal. We’ve worked hard to reduce fat, sugar and salt content in food,”​ she points out.

And while Kendrick welcomes Labour’s announcement on taxation, she adds: “I’m not sure a tax is right anyway if you look at other markets ​[such as Denmark], it didn’t work.”

But Kendrick recognises there has been mounting pressure from various health lobby groups for tougher legislation. And she believes the best way to avoid any form of food taxes is to work harder at making food and drink healthier. “Most of all, the industry needs to drive health messages harder to make more of an impact.”

Despite the sector’s efforts to reduce levels of fat, sugar and salt in food and drink, it remains under attack from its critics. But this is shrugged off by Kendrick, who says the sector will always be under the spotlight ​ fairly or otherwise. “Against that backdrop, we have an incredibly strong story to tell,”​ she believes.

Highest food safety standards (Return to top)

“We have some of the highest food safety standards in the world; we’re working hard to make foods healthier; and I fundamentally believe UK consumers understand they have got it very good and can be proud of the sector.”

Yet, that consumer pride Kendrick believes in hasn’t been enough to encourage them to work in food and drink. The sector’s skills shortages are well documented and its efforts to reduce them have clearly not been enough.

The food and drink industry, like many others, is desperately in need of new talent, she explains. “We’ve raised our profile at the front end and are getting people to understand that it's a high-tech and exciting industry far from the days of hair nets and wellies.”

Out of the 170,000 vacancies that need to be filled between 2010 and 2020, 85,000 alone are engineers. However, the UK can only produce 46,000 of those, she adds.

“I feel passionate about filling that gap and I’ve played a big role in doing so in terms of driving our new engineering masters ​[MEng] degree at Sheffield Hallam, which saw its first intake last September.”​ The MEng at Sheffield won’t fill the gap, but it’s a good start, Kendrick believes. She is urging other universities to develop similar courses.

Whether Kendrick will achieve what she’s set out to do as president of the FDF remains to be seen. However, her strength of character and vision will set her in good stead in her quest for a healthier and wealthier industry.

Related topics People & Skills Confectionery

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