By Scott Wright

FOR a decade, Scotland’s food and drink have been a runaway successes.

Seafood caught in Scottish waters is served in the restaurants of France and Spain, shortbread lines the shelves of prestigious shops and airports, and Scotch continues to conquer the world.

The growth has been such that the ambition was to double the size of the industry to £30 billion by 2030. Now, bold expansion has been swapped for survival mode, as producers find themselves on the frontline in the battle against coronavirus.

“It is to the huge credit of food and drink businesses, big and small, new start-ups and long-established, that they are coming through an unprecedented period, and still keeping food and drink on the shelves and fridges and freezes full, because the food supply chain has been under more pressure than I have ever seen it before,” said James Withers, chief executive of industry body Scotland Food & Drink.

“In part because of the collapse of some markets, some of our businesses have been absolutely hammered. I am really worried about their survival, because they have built a large part of their business on supplying hotels, restaurants and bars, not only in Scotland and the UK but around the world, where they have also shut down.

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“Being able to swing into keeping the retail supply chain moving has been pretty remarkable. And the non-supermarket part of the food and drink world is keeping patients fed, keeping the NHS and key workers fed as well. It has been a pretty remarkable month trying to deliver that too.”

Mr Withers is no stranger to crisis management. Not long after graduating with a degree in politics from the University of Aberdeen, he worked in media relations for the National Farmers’ Union of Scotland during the foot and mouth crisis of 2001, witnessing first-hand the devastation it caused to so many. He went on to become chief executive of the organisation.

Asked if he thinks the right level of support is being provided to food and drink businesses in the current crisis, Mr Withers believes credit should be given to government ministers for quickly rolling out initiatives such as the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. But he said there are still gaps to be filled.

In particular, he believes food and drink producers, which are limited in their ability to furlough staff because of the vital role they are playing in keeping the supply chain intact, should be supported with wage subsidies, as is happening in Ireland and Canada. There is also a case, he believes, for firms to be given holidays from National Insurance contributions.

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“The challenge is when you move quickly, you are going to miss people, you are going to hit the wrong targets, and because of arbitrary thresholds, you are going to have people who miss out,” he said. “I think the judgement will not be so much on how many gaps there are, but how quickly they are addressed as we go.”

The UK and Scottish governments have been acting to refine the support packages on offer as the impact of the pandemic has crystallised. Last week, the Treasury introduced “bounce back loans”, worth between £2,000 and £5,000, for small businesses. These loans come with a 100 per cent guarantee for lenders from the UK Government. For Mr Withers, this was an important step, albeit an imperfect one.

“We have [had] three companies in the last fortnight tell us they’ve been denied coronavirus loans because of uncertainty over long-term viability,” he said. “The very reasons that lead to questions on viability are the reasons this loan scheme is needed, so it is perverse that it has been a barrier to support.

“The bounce-back loans should help though. The 100% guarantee from Government, simple application and rapid turnaround of funds should fix the access issue for at least small companies.

“But in the end, this is still a debt offer. So whilst there is one year of no repayment nor interest, there is still reticence to use this option as a strategic solution.”

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There would also appear to be some concern within the Scottish businesses community over the pace with which vital coronavirus grants are reaching those in need.

The Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland noted on Thursday that less than half of the budgeted grant support, or £526 million of the allocated £1.2bn, has been released. It observed that some councils are processing grants more quickly than others.

“The pace of delivery of the Covid grants has been patchy across Scotland,” Mr Withers said. “Areas like Glasgow and Aberdeen, home to many businesses in the food and drink sector, are struggling to get to half of all applications being processed.

“Local authorities are obviously under huge pressure, but we need to accelerate in whatever way is possible if the grants are going to be the short-term cash lifeline that they are supposed to be.”

As the pandemic progresses, Scotland Food & Drink has also had to change its own ways of working.

While in normal times its calendar is populated with meet-the-buyer events, product showcases, and appearances at international trade fairs, the focus of its 30-strong team is now fully on crisis management and communicating the latest advice to its 450 members on how to operate safely. And that means the ambitious strategy to double the size of the industry by 2030 has been put on hold.

“The reality is we are now writing what will be the recovery plan,” Mr Withers said.

Six Questions

When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal?

I wanted to be a PE teacher because I was (and still am) obsessed with sport. It never happened so I married one instead.

What was your biggest break in business?

I did a politics degree and lucky timing meant I graduated the same summer that the Scottish Parliament opened.  And a graduate parliamentary job with NFU Scotland popped up

What was your worst moment in business?

Foot and mouth in 2001. For someone doing media relations it was an incredible learning experience but seeing what it put people through was awful.

Who do you most admire and why?

Billy Connolly, because he’s Billy Connolly.  And Doddie Weir for the lasting impact he will have in the fight against MND.

What book are you reading and what music are you listening to?

I’m reading a book that analyses the TV show, The Wire. On music, I’m reliving my youth by playing endless Oasis just now, with some Elbow thrown in.