Monday, 19 December 2011

Riverford and Abel and Cole - The Contrasting Styles of Guy Watson and Keith Abel

The two big names in organic veg boxes have been in the news recently, but their messages could not be more different.

Guy Watson has been explaining that the price of Riverford’s produce is typically 20% less than the supermarket equivalent and that whilst this means low margins (typically 3-4%), he is not overly bothered because this pricing strategy fits with his values of good food, good farming and good business at affordable prices.
Keith Abel’s coverage was all about Keith and how since his return to Abel and Cole two years after he sold it to private equity firm Phoenix netting about £20 million in the process, the business has grown and profitability been restored.

Both companies are of a similar size. Riverford claims to deliver about 47,000 boxes a week, and grew sales by 2.4% to £39.5m in the year to April 2011. Abel and Cole, according to the Sunday Times article of 12th December, claims to deliver to over 50,000 households a week. It had reported sales of £36m in the year to August 2011, up from £28.7m, and made an operating profit of £1.5m.
The two companies might operate in the same market and be similar in size but the philosophies of their founders are very different.

Keith Abel would probably take great offence if accused of being cash driven despite his windfall from the sale to Phoenix, and despite admitting to the Ecologist in June 2011 that one of the reasons he came back to Abel and Cole was because “they offered me a great package”. Even his barrister friend Jeremy Hall quoted in the Sunday Times said that “Keith likes making money”, although he did qualify the comment adding that he possesses a “strong moral compass”.
Nevertheless, the sudden burst of publicity seems tied into the wish of Lloyds bank, current backers of Abel and Cole in which Keith Abel still owns a 20% stake, to sell the business in the next twelve months on the back of an improved company performance.

By contrast, Guy Watson, in a piece posted on the Riverford website just a day after the Sunday Times Abel interview, says that he would never sell his company to venture capitalists, that he is uncomfortable about "unbridled capitalism", and that whatever the future shape of Riverford it must involve people "who are intimately involved in determining its success”.
Does it matter whether one founder of a business is driven more by wealth and another more by values? Possibly not.  In the case of veg boxes customers perhaps only worry about the quality of the food and reassurance that produce is appropriately farmed or grown.

I would guess though that any customer who trades the convenience of shopping for what they want when they want it for downsides of veg boxes like being tied to a delivery day, never being quite sure what they will contain, and having to polish up cooking skills because something unfamiliar has turned up, might be deeply interested in the whole ethos of a company and those who work in it.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Local Food Gains Ground as Consumers Support Those Closest to Home

The move towards buying local food has been around for several years now and the economic downturn seems to have made consumers even more inclined to support nearby producers.
According to the Institute of Grocery Distribution, the number of shoppers buying locally produced food has grown from 39% in September last year to 43% in September this year. As to future intentions, 41% say they will buy more local food compared with 39% who said the same thing at the start of 2011. This number compares with 31% who intend to buy more welfare friendly food, and 17% who intend to buy more organic.

Supermarkets are responding to the trend by stocking bigger local food ranges. Sainsbury now sells 3000 locally produced foods, and grew their sales by 15% in the last year.
Tesco says that “many customers want to buy locally sourced foods to support their local communities”. In response they have built alo special local foods website, where you can type in your postcode, find the nearest Tesco store and a list of the local foods they stock. In 2010/2011 compared with the previous year Tesco grew their local food sales from £850m to £1billion.

Asda, who can justly claim to be the first supermarket to spot the trend has 6000 local products on sale from 600 suppliers. They are aiming to turnover £500m in local food sales, a 15% increase on where they are now.

A trip north of the border to Scotland illustrates the trend well with a Scotland-produced variant of virtually every fresh food like eggs, milk bread, cheese fruit and vegetables available on the shelves. Imagine if that degree of localness spread to English counties or regions.

The urge to buy local is definitely a trend rather than a fad.  As has been the case for a while it is the 65+ age group who are most supportive of local foods, but the IGD tells us that the 55+ group seems to be the keenest to increase their local food purchase, and if the trend spreads to a younger age group then robust sales growth seems to lie ahead.