Year ahead tinged with optimism despite challenges – Rose

FWD Chair Coral Rose says while issues continue to swirl around food distribution, there’s enough to be positive about for 2022

We’ve reached that time of year when it’s customary to look back over the past 12 months and reflect on what we’ve achieved and what we’ve learned.

We’ll certainly be doing that on 25 November when the wholesale sector gathers at the FWD Gold Medal Awards to pay tribute to some of the individuals who stood up and stood out when food distribution was facing the worst crisis any of us can remember.

While no one’s complacent about the coming months and the possibility of a return to further restrictions on hospitality, or expecting a sudden resolution to the labour crisis that’s affecting everyone from the farms to the restaurants, we can look forward with huge positivity and excitement – so let’s concentrate on that.

A highlight of FWD’s recent conference was the presentation by the economist Roger Martin-Fagg, who has the knack of making complicated macro-economic forecasting sound both simple and interesting.

Roger’s premise is that there’s a huge amount of money – billions of pounds – sitting in people’s bank accounts as a result of the economic slowdown of 2020 and into this year, and that’s about to be released. People want to enjoy themselves and eating out will be an enormous part of that. With a fair wind and some common sense on Covid testing and precautions, we could be in for a bumper Christmas in both retail and hospitality.

Of course, availability is going to be the issue. There’s money in the pipeline but there needs to be stock too. Most wholesalers are full to the rafters right now, as you’d expect at the start of the festive season, but they will still need their fair share of suppliers’ products in order to give their customers the sales boost they need and deserve.

At FWD, we’re slightly concerned the government’s horror of newspaper front pages showing empty supermarket shelves will incline them towards favouring the multiples for drivers, fuel and stock allocation. The man brought in to sort out the supply chain, former Tesco boss Dave Lewis, is going to have to look beyond the limited route to market he knows so well and consider the wider implications of interventions.

I’m confident wholesale will get a fair shout in the discussions. Thanks to the work of the FWD team we have never been more visible, not only to government, but also to the public, who now appreciate that food doesn’t grow in supermarkets.

It was FWD which first told the government it should have army drivers on standby and we led the call for drivers’ hours to be extended, and for temporary visas for foreign drivers. All of these have now happened, and FWD is a credible and trusted authority in both the departmental corridors of Whitehall and the national TV and radio studios.

As we saw with the fuel shortages, ministers’ inclination is to deny there’s a crisis until it’s too late, then try and mop it up by introducing the measures that would have prevented it in the first place. But I really believe if we get to that point again, the government would have wholesale higher up the agenda.

We’ve got a challenge coming up in the new year but it’s one we should embrace because it will make us stronger. We’ve got to sell the food distribution industry as a career choice to a new generation of British workers.

That’s going to mean better pay (and yes, that extra cost will have to be passed on) but there’s more to it than that. The younger prospective workforce hold all the cards, and won’t sell themselves cheap, but no amount of wage inflation will get them into jobs that offer hard, uncomfortable work and long hours without some prospect of progression. So there’s a story to be told about how food comes to the table, the variety of skills that get it there and the way that the wholesale channel in particular gives each individual the chance to shine – whatever level they may be at.

As our Gold Medal finalists demonstrate, you may be a driver, a telesales executive, a picker or stacker, but if some talented new arrival has their heart set on a career in this people-powered industry, we need to nurture them, cherish them, and give them the opportunity to fly as high as the can.

Brexit Country Range Group covid-19 distribution driver shortage FWD Government HGV drivers