For someone who has put science at the forefront of his working career, it's no great surprise that David Gregory adopts an equally systematic approach to his favourite pastime — long-distance cycling.
“I participate in endurance events, and the longest ride I've completed is Leighton Buzzard to Exeter and back again," he enthuses. “It took me 39 hours in total, and I survived it by having precisely three-quarters of a chicken salad sandwich every hour.”
Much like his bike expeditions, Gregory hasn’t been afraid to go the distance in pursuit of excellence in his working life.
In his 26-year career at Marks & Spencer (M&S) — 10 of which were as director of technology for food — Gregory helped push the boundaries of innovation at a time when food safety and traceability, both within the industry and among consumers, were becoming increasingly significant.
Now, in his latest role as chairman at risk services provider Acoura, he is again leading the way in helping to combat many of the modern supply chain challenges faced by food manufacturers.
Based in Edinburgh but with a satellite office in Stevenage, Acoura specialises in a variety of services aimed at improving food safety standards, safeguarding product quality and increasing supply chain traceability.
Working with 1,000 UK food processors, plus a number of retailers and industry organisations, the company conducts more than 35,000 audits and inspections every year, and offers a number of bespoke services — from risk assessments and incident management, through to legislative interpretation and management advice.
Gregory says he took on the Acoura chairmanship in February after being impressed with the company's ability to deliver high quality services throughout the supply chain.
“Where most of our competitors are either very small and local, or are huge international conglomerates, our size means we are able to occupy a ‘sweet-spot’ within the marketplace. We can sit down with any retailer, manufacturer, or farming organisation, ask them what they need, and tailor it to them.”
When it comes to food manufacturers, typically, larger companies will have in-house teams covering aspects like health and safety, or traceability, but Gregory says Acoura can still provide advice and support in areas they may need help with.
“Smaller manufacturers, meanwhile, may need more comprehensive support, which we can provide as well.”
Advanced IT capabilities (Back to top)
But what really sets Acoura apart, he claims, is the company's “highly advanced” IT capabilities, which enable it to provide detailed information to customers.
“Food processors today want absolute assurance about what’s going on in the supply chains and in their factories, but they also need access to information very quickly,” he explains.
Gregory first took notice of Acoura when chairman of the Red Tractor food assurance scheme — a role he took on after retiring from M&S in 2009.
“When I joined Red Tractor, it was a business that was quite challenged, both financially and in terms of the direction it was going in. Working with Acoura, we set up one of the most detailed traceability audits in the industry.
“As a result, food manufacturers are now able to demonstrate how meat gets into their factories, how it was transported, which abattoir it came from, and which farm supplied it.”
Gregory believes these audits were a key reason why Red Tractor-accredited companies didn't become embroiled in the horsemeat crisis.
“If you put these systems in, they protect you. In my time at Red Tractor, we increased turnover by 60%, raised consumer awareness of the organisation to 65%, and got terrific buy-in from the whole food chain. So, it was success all-round.”
Around 80% of audits conducted by Acoura combine more than one activity, so customers are spared the expense of multiple visits.
“We have a trained auditor base that is able to conduct multiple tasks on one visit, which is a huge cost-benefit for food manufacturers, as they are not paying for extra auditors each time.”
The rise in number and complexity of audits faced by food manufacturers is something Gregory is acutely aware of — a trend he believes is being largely driven by consumers.
The challenge for food manufacturers, he feels, is to work out the appropriate risk-management level they are prepared to operate at.
“The great dilemma for the food industry is that probably the most reliable and safe supply chains are the ones involving the biggest retailers and manufacturers. Yet, it’s these organisations that are exposed to the greatest risk should a failure occur.
“On the other hand — and I’m sure the Food Standards Agency would agree with this — problems around food fraud and traceability tend to occur in smaller parts of the chain. So, it's a question of finding the right balance.”
Increase in unannounced audits (Back to top)
Gregory says the increase in unannounced audits presents a further challenge to manufacturers, and he has mixed feelings about their value.
“Unannounced audits can bring a whole series of complications, such as the right people not being available, or another audit taking place at the same time,” he suggests.
“I believe that if you’re a good auditor with competent systems in place, you should be able to pick up any issues regardless of whether your visit is unannounced or not.”
With a number of other industry strings to his bow, including a non-executive director role at 2 Sisters Food Group, Gregory is qualified to talk about far more than supply chain issues.
His strong interest in science and innovation, forged in his time at M&S — where he was instrumental in both developing high-care codes of practice and leading the growth of ready meals — has been cemented in other roles. A former chairman of trustees at the British Nutrition Foundation, Gregory is currently a governing member of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, a non-executive director of the British Retail Consortium, and a visiting professor at the University of Reading.
And in March, he was also appointed president-elect at the Institute of Food Science & Technology.
“What really excites me is the underpinning science behind food. Nutrition has been at the core of my whole working life,” he explains.
Gregory isn’t afraid to offer a view on the nutritional issue of the day, either.
“The debate surrounding sugar is a very difficult one for the government to manage. We have to acknowledge that we live in an obesogenic society, and we are surrounded by temptation like never before.”
Gregory believes the tax on sugary soft drinks will be an “interesting social experiment”. But does he feel it will work?
“I'm not sure. Did taxation change people’s behaviour on smoking, or was it more to do with increased awareness of its impact on health?
“What I do know, however, is that we’ve tried things like information on front-of-pack labelling, and that’s ended up as something extremely complicated and quite hard to understand if you’re a general consumer — let alone if you work in the industry.”
Industry talent (Back to top)
Rather than government, Gregory is adamant it will be the “talent within the industry” that will ultimately solve the obesity crisis.
However, he is also under no illusions that recruiting talent into the sector remains a problem — but believes there are positive signs.
“Issues such as horsegate, BSE [bovine spongiform encephalopathy], and foot and mouth disease turned young people off from working in the food industry.
“I think, however, we have gone through a watershed period. Renewed interest in food provenance and nutrition is changing the perception of the industry, which will help to bring in more technical skill,” he explains.
For Gregory, his own career in food has mirrored his love for long-distance cycling. “Both are very much about endurance — taking on the technical problems and sticking it out until you get to where you want to be.”
At that point, he turns his attention back to his next cycling venture.
“I’m planning to enter the London-Edinburgh-London event in 2017. It’ll be my longest and toughest test yet — but it’s a challenge I am looking forward to.”
- Job title: David Gregory, chairman, Acoura
- Age: 62
- Domestics: Married, with three children and two grandchildren.
- Other current roles: Non-executive director, 2 Sisters Food Group; non-executive director, British Retail Consortium; member of governing council and chair of audit board, Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council; trustee, British Nutrition Foundation (BNF); visiting professor, University of Reading.
- Previous roles include: Director of technology, Marks & Spencer; chairman, Red Tractor Assurance; chairman, BNF trustees.
- Away from work: Gregory loves his long-distance cycling. “Audax is a long distance cycling event where you complete routes within a set time limit. I also enjoy all kinds of sport and photography."