Kate Needham, Head of Innovation at Fox’s, explains why giving people time to think is key to nurturing her team, and how an early fascination with science and a stint in the law profession have contributed to her eclectic career. First published in January.
Q: How did you get into the food industry?
A: When I left school I knew I wanted to do something scientific but didn’t know what. My career path since has been bizarre!
I thought it was nursing – and I did try that but I only lasted 3 months. Then I worked in a bio chemistry lab –which I quite liked. But it seemed to me that people needed to work for years and years at their academic studies to progress in that area.
Then I saw a job advertised at Nestle in the lab – and it was almost exactly the same job as I had been doing in the biochemistry lab, but without the need for a PhD. So that was my first job in the food industry: working in the lab at Nestle Rowntree in Halifax.
It had never occurred to me that there were jobs in the food industry. Food as a career had never been talked about at school.
Q: What qualifications did you have?
A: I didn’t go to university, but I really wanted to do a degree, and when I’d been at the hospital doing nursing I’d started to do an HNC in clinical chemistry. So I completed that, then did a degree in applied biological sciences at Manchester. I did it over five years on a day release basis. Nestle was brilliant about supporting me to do that.
So during that period of time I worked in the lab for on brands including
Quality Street. Then an opportunity came up at Nestle in York as a flavourist in the product development team.
I was working across all the chocolate brands, and also Polo. One of the projects, for example, was launching the first sugar-free polo in the early 80s.
Q: How was your interest in product development nurtured?
A: I went on to work for a very small manufacturer on the outskirts of York, Craven Keiller – a very hands on place where the manufacturing processes were traditional.
It was primarily an own brand supplier to retailers, and one of the great things about it was that it opened my eyes to all the things that need to happen to get a product launched, especially understanding the commercial and technical departments. Going out to see buyers, having to cost products…I was exposed to all those kinds of things and I loved the pace of it.
Being in a business that had a brand as well as producing retailers’ own brands meant there were lots of different elements to consider. It was a fast learning curve but I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Then it was taken over by Cadbury Trebor Bassett and I realised I had liked the smaller company environment, so I started to consider other things.
A role came up as a development technologist in what was then Richmond ice cream, where I stayed for 10 years and did a number of roles including product development director and marketing director. We had acquired the rights for Nestle’s ice cream business in the UK and that brought with it a need for someone to create a marketing department. It was the hardest 18 months of my career as it was all new to me, but it was fantastic.
Q: Who has inspired you in your career?
A: I was helped hugely at Richmond by having some tremendous mentors there – particularly Ross Warburton who was the chairman, and Tim Furse – one of the non exec directors. They were so generous in terms of taking their time to guide me.
As hard as it was, it was very exciting: one of the things we got to do was go out to New York to look at new product. We had identified that there was a need for low fat ice cream in the UK so went out to the US, negotiated a deal and brought a product back here.
Q: What core values do you maintain in your work?
A: What being in marketing did was remind me to put the consumer at the heart of everything. Sometimes, from a new product development point of view you can react to a brief. But the marketing role brought the consumer much more alive for me and taught me how to put those customers rather than the retailers or the brand at the heart of everything.
That’s something that’s really stayed with me and one of my core values is now to always keep the consumer central.
Q: Can you describe a watershed period in your career?
A: I left Richmond because I decided to take a career break with my son, and I decided that I wasn’t going to doing anything for a few years.
But after about 6 months I was a bit bored, so I decided I would do a diploma in law to keep my brain cells ticking (I had previously done quite a lot of work with Eversheds, the law firm). I ended up working in a solicitor’s practice a few days a week and, by the time I’d completed my graduate diploma I had the equivalent of a law degree.
But there came a time when I realised I wanted to get back to what I love doing – being creative. The rule is…there are no rules.
For a bit I worked in a marketing agency in Leeds as a marketing director, where one of my roles was new business. It happened that I kept recruiting food clients, and every time I did I felt a little pang – so it became very apparent I needed to get back into the food industry. That’s when the head of innovation at Fox’s came up.
Q: What advice would you give someone wanting to grow his or her career in the food industry?
A: Young people starting out in their careers can become very focused on planning what it is they want to do. My advice is to just do something – because that will give you the next clue to what’s next. You learn a lot as you go along about what you do and don’t like.
I think that the stakes are higher now, partly because of the cost and because people have loans. Young people are under a lot more pressure now so they can feel anxious about making exactly the right decision. There seemed to be less riding on it before somehow.
My career has gone through various iterations and I’m a believer in looking at ones transferable skills. I’ve been in labs, in an agency, worked in the legal profession…so there are some core things I have, such as creativity and the ability to manage complex projects.
My advice to others is, take time to understand what it is you’re good at rather than worrying about how and where you’re going to apply it. That will come as long as you start with a hunch about what about what it is you’re good at, then go with it.
Q: Can you explain how you manage your team at Fox’s?
A: Here at Fox’s we try and be very balanced in terms of the opportunities for people. We try to actively manage a team where we have a mix of people in terms of skills and personalities. So we really look at people as individuals.
We stress the importance of thinking and researching before leaping in to action – whatever the project. So when people get a brief they need to take time to research the background and the consumer, and in doing that it enables them to learn. It encourages them to look more broadly.
But in order to do that it’s really important that people get time to think and research. Thinking time is the biggest gift you can give people. How we do that is partly in trying to create an environment for it. So, for example, we have areas where people can go, with a laptop, away from their desks – there are lots of recipe books around for example, and we try to encourage people to get out and about.
Q: What big issues are facing the food sector right now?
A: The key issue the whole industry is addressing at the moment is the health debate. Everybody knows that biscuits have got sugar in them, so we’re in a particular position. But even we can’t be complacent. It’s about trying to do sensible formulation so that when we create recipes we choose the right sugars and get the levels right.
We have to be a responsible food manufacturer and that comes back to putting consumer at the heart of what we do. Yes, people want to treat themselves, which is where biscuits come in, but we still have to see what we can do, and then act responsibly.
There are a lot of categories we can look at to learn from. The questions we’re always asking are: how do we do things without compromising the brand? How do we keep our biscuits delicious– we’re known for delicious biscuits so how do we keep them that way?
It’s partly about being clear about what the role of biscuit is and then meeting the consumer’s expectations. Biscuits can be a treat, a dessert, for fun, for sharing. I think transparency is what’s really important to the consumer, and that comes back to being a responsible manufacturer.
Q: What do you look for when you’re recruiting people to your team?
A: I think you have to be genuinely interested in food – and love it – to be in the development space. One of the things about a career in food is that it is constantly evolving. So, when I’m looking to recruit I look for that genuine interest.
There are plenty of jobs in the food industry that don’t need you to be particularly interested in the product itself, but in development it’s vital.
I look for people who are always cooking, who are reading about food and, actively engaged with their food.
I also want people to have an opinion about the category they’re going for. People should have a point of view about what’s great and what they do or don’t like. Having people who can contribute is important. Product development is such a personal thing – you give a lot of yourself – so it’s really difficult to be able to create anything unless you’re passionate about the category.
Another factor is that teams are generally smaller now, so everyone has to contribute. We’re looking for people who are very good at juggling lots of different things.
Q: What advice do you give your teams to help them in their day-to-day work?
A: I have two mantras when it comes to work:
The first is that you don’t know what you don’t know, so always ask questions. If you get the opportunity to ask someone, then ask away. The answers might surprise you and you might learn something. When I needed to learn about marketing I just constantly asked questions. Never have too much pride to ask.
The second is that you can only do what you can do.
I encourage my team to be actively prioritising what they can do – but to always ask for help. When you get to the stage when you’re full, then say so. What can happen is people think that if they don’t take on more, they are failing. But usually they’re not.
There’s nobody in the team that is more important than anyone else. If we fail we all fail. I really believe in that, and I think that’s because I started in the lab where teamwork was essential for success.
Q: If you had followed a different career path, what might it have been?
A: Had I not pursued this career I would love to have been David Attenborough! I was born in Zimbabwe, and my Mum grew up in South Africa. I always had this wanderlust and have been fascinated by exotic animals – I’d love to have been a zoologist or biologist.
Q: And, when you’re not working?
A: Outside of work, I do a lot of cooking of course, but I love sport. I think it’s back to the team thing. I’m a fan of Huddersfield Giants rugby league team. I cycle and run with my son, and we’ve challenged ourselves to do a 5k run soon.
Fox’s was established in the north of England over 160 years ago. It has grown from a small Victorian bakery to become one of the UK’s leading biscuit brands with three manufacturing sites: Batley in West Yorkshire, Kirkham near Blackpool and Uttoxeter in Staffordshire.
Fox’s is part of 2 Sisters Food Group. To see the all latest roles that 2 Sisters Food Group are recruiting for, in packaging, NPD, nutrition and category management, please click here