Interview with Gavin Darby, President of the Food and Drink FederationNovember 22, 2019
Gavin Darby has experienced success in two major industry sectors, fast-moving consumer goods, and consumer technology. During his career, he has been responsible for some of the most successful and well known internationally recognized brands.
Darby began his career in fast-moving consumer goods as a graduate working at Spillers Foods in the sales and marketing departments. He then joined SC Johnson, a multinational producer of household goods, before spending fifteen years with The Coca-Cola Company. It was here that he cut his teeth both as a marketing executive, general manager, and later as President of the Benelux/Denmark, northwest Europe, and Central and Eastern European Divisions.
Gavin Darby then transitioned into the consumer technology sector as the COO then CEO of Vodafone UK. During his ten years with the company, he was also CEO responsible for Vodafone’s mobile investments in Verizon Wireless, India, China and Africa.
In 2011 he became CEO of Cable and Wireless Worldwide PLC. The company had been in free fall, was heavily indebted, and the decline was reflected in its low share price.
The business was stabilized by an urgent refinancing based on the repositioning of the enterprise telecoms business additionally as a provider of business solutions through its data centre capability. The rescue and stabilization of the business led to an eventual takeover by Vodafone plc at 38p a share versus a first-day price of 16p. By rescuing the declining company from potential collapse, Darby secured himself a reputation in public company business turnarounds.
After this business success, in 2013 Darby returned to the consumer goods sector and took on another public company turnaround as the CEO of Premier Foods PLC.
Premier had also been in long term decline with its share price a small fraction of earlier highs, and with massive debt and pension liabilities. It also owned many famous British food brands including Mr. Kipling, Oxo, Bisto, Bachelor’s and Sharwoods.
Darby’s strategy was to refinance and restructure the business. It included rationalizing Premier’s lenders, raising new equity and spinning off the baking and milling business in a private equity deal. A new agreement was reached regarding the pension liabilities.
Having stabilized the business, the recovery strategy was based on refreshing and rejuvenating the brand portfolio through investment in marketing and innovation. Also strengthening and investing in the Premier team, and using the cash-driven by these investments to pay down further debt.
As the current President of the Food and Drink Federation, Darby supports the Federation’s drive to promote the food and drink industry in the UK. The industry is the UK’s largest manufacturing sector employing 450,000 people.
Recently Darby has also sat on the Board of Hovis Holdings Limited a British Baking and Milling company, and served on the Food and Drink Sector Council at the invitation of the Secretary of State. He sits on the Advisory Board of FPE Capital.
Gavin Darby has an undergraduate degree in Management Sciences from The University of Manchester.
What does a typical day as a CEO look like, and how did you make it productive?
I plan out the month, week, and day. Daily I mix addressing strategic projects, tracking performance against goals, customer interaction, and people management and development. It often includes some Board and shareholder interaction.
As a CEO, you have to wear a lot of hats and be a lot of different things to a lot of different people. It is challenging, but it is equally rewarding.
How do you bring ideas to life?
When I find an idea that I believe will benefit the company, I champion it from it’s inception to its execution.
An example of this is the investments we made at Premier into new infrastructure. I was presented with the idea of installing a robotic cake packing line. It allowed us to produce iconic Mr. Kipling cakes in convenient snack packs.
We saw an excellent return on this investment as the new product addressed the consumer trend of eating on the go.
What’s one trend that excites you?
I’m excited to encourage the progression of women into more leadership positions.
I’m also excited about innovation driving more healthy food choices, and so expanding opportunities for health-minded consumers.
If you could own any business, which one would it be and why?
I’d love to own a technology company that provided products direct to consumers. Why? Because the digital world often seems to have bypassed the fast-moving consumer goods industry.
What is the one skill of yours that made you more productive as a CEO?
Being very available to my customers and similarly with my colleagues.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Take a break when you can. Relax. It will work out, and it’s important to abide by the old adage “work hard, play hard.” Except I would probably change it to be “work hard, chill more.”
What’s something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on?
I would consider positive discrimination to fast track diversity. It moves very slowly in many organizations.
Having been a CEO what is the one thing you recommend other CEOs do?
Personally lead the interface with your biggest customers. Customers cannot be delegated to others.
What is one strategy that has helped you improve struggling businesses?
Building absolutely the best leadership team.
What is one failure that you had as a CEO, and how did you overcome it?
Learning that a struggling executive may never make it, it’s usually better to make an early change.
How have your aims in business changed since you began to what they are today?
When I began my career, I was very driven by personal advancement.
As one succeeds I’ve shifted my focus to how I can deliver for others. Particularly when it comes to fixing businesses.
I get a lot of satisfaction from building outstanding teams and helping people grow and develop.
What is your main focus for the future?
I’m looking forward to bringing 40 years of experience in consumer and technology sectors amongst others to Board and eventually Chairman roles.
What CEOs do you most respect?
In the UK, I respect what Dave Lewis has been doing with TESCO. I understand and empathize with what it takes to turnaround a struggling business in this industry. And he has made incredible progress.
How do you think the food industry is going to be affected by a no-deal Brexit?
In the short term, a no-deal Brexit would be really disruptive. At the start, there will be port congestion that will have a significant logistics knock-on, and lead to supply chain disruption. Fresh produce will be especially impacted.
However, I know the food industry is amazingly resilient. In time, it will adapt and overcome these challenges.
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