Meet the Alumni: Introducing Aethr with Richard Bonn

In the first edition of the alumni interview series, we spoke to Richard Bonn– an MDS alumnus and ex-board member.

Here, Richard shares his insights from working in agri-food, alongside providing tips to those who are just starting out on their careers within the industry. He also tells the story behind why he co-founded Aethr Associates, a sustainability advisory service which began operation this year.

Read on to discover more!

What was your first work experience and what did you learn from it?

In the summer before I started as a Trainee on MDS, I was posted to a role in Penzance, Cornwall. I was just out of university; I lacked experience and it was my first permanent step away from my native Scotland. The role had me on night shifts supervising the daffodil grading line, something which I had never done before and so I felt out of my depth in the beginning. What I took away from my role however was that I learnt to make the most of my opportunities and to approach new experiences with an open mind.

What is your earliest memory of working in the agricultural sector and what about it got you hooked?

I studied horticulture as my degree and as part of my university journey I took a job distilling camomile in Cambridge and Lincolnshire. I don’t come from a farming background, but I was surrounded by agriculture back home through my friends. As soon as I finished my studies, I felt going into the industry was the right decision for me and I never looked back. There is never a dull moment when you have a career in the sector- I have been a part of it for over 20 years but no two days have been the same.

You have a very strong link to MDS, both as an alumnus and through your time spent on the board of directors- What are you most proud of, and what did you find challenging?

The most challenging part of my time with MDS was when I joined the board not too long after the financial crisis. MDS was not alone in weathering the fallout, but it was a difficult time when it came to allocating secondments. It was gratifying to have been able to guide MDS through this period alongside the other directors.

In terms of my time as a Trainee, moving location at the end of every secondment was a challenge, but looking back I know that this was a necessary part of the experience and as a result, I have continued to reference my time as a trainee throughout my career.

What made you want to be part of the Board of Directors?

Joining MDS as a board member was my way of giving back to MDS, about ten years after I had finished the scheme. I wanted to not only help sustain MDS’s position within the industry, but also to scale it to new heights; I am a big advocate of the scheme due to the benefits that it brings to the industry and because what it offers is so unique. With MDS having gone from strength to strength throughout its’ existence, I was honoured to be a part of it and its great to see that continue under Christine’s leadership.

What would you say to your younger self just about to start on MDS?

What I would say is make the most of it- the key to a successful secondment is pushing yourself as far out of your comfort zone as possible. The journey isn’t about challenging people to meet your demands, try to focus on making a positive contribution in every secondment, without biting off more than you can chew.  Try taking on interesting tasks that may not be your preference, and at the same time do not shy way from putting yourself out there.

What made you decide that you wanted to found Aethr alongside Ben Jones?

The decision to create Aethr was two-fold. The primary driver was off the back of what I have observed over the last 20 years within the sector- that it is becoming increasingly harder to deliver predictable outputs from a productivity perspective as the climate is becoming more and more volatile. It is not until you’re in the midst of having to manage, plan and budget for this, you realise that in the last 5-8 years the number of extreme conditions- floods, droughts, mild winters and freezing springs is on the rise. Businesses need to adapt or they will struggle. Through my time setting up the ESG framework (Environmental, Social and Governance) for the Summer Berry Company, I saw what will be required from all businesses over the next 10 years; whether it be carbon footprinting, Net Zero or climate risk adaptation. There are a lot of economic challenges which businesses are having to overcome and they require guidance to help them navigate the environment, climate and legislation change now and in the future.

Previously, Ben and I worked together on the board of Natures Way Foods and at the Summer Berry Company. We felt that our skills were compatible to take on this venture, as I have experience within commercial, operational and technical aspects of running agri-food businesses (E&S); as an ex-CFO Ben brings his (S&G) knowledge and experience.

What is Aethr? And who do you provide support to?

Aethr is an advisory business, providing support to medium and large companies within and beyond the agri-food sector. Our goal is to help businesses establish then deliver on their sustainability targets; Aethr is there to facilitate the businesses sustainability plan or roadmap and we then support the execution of this strategy. Whatever this may involve, whether it is managing risk effectively or achieving sustainability KPI commitments for example, we support them in their progress to build the strategy into their operational fabric.

Aethr is also on hand to guide smaller, solution-based businesses, to their target market and help knit the two sides together. In addition, we provide organisations with climate risk assessments and horizon scanning for legislative changes.

Does Aethr have any core values? If so, what are they?

Our core values are centred around the provision of pragmatic and practical support. We understand the pressures that businesses are under to forge a path towards sustainability, due to our collective industry experiences. We seek quality, complimentary partnerships to help our clients identify and deliver on their priorities.

Your website states that you are ‘practical problem solvers’, in your opinion, does the environmental problem lie in lack of guidance or are businesses not willing to act?

Businesses have a lot of priorities, especially given the events over the last four years. There is a lot going on in the market and just to ensure financial sustainability can be all consuming. It is not a lack of willingness, but I do think there could be more guidance available, whether that be from the Government or otherwise, however these are not coming and so supporting the environment has fallen to other stakeholders like customers and investors. Today, those that have recognised the potential impact on their business model are the ones who have taken a step forward; everybody will have to move at some point and our view is that the sooner you move, the less painful it is going to be.  That said,  I am much more optimistic now about the solutions that are coming down the line.  At the moment though, the focus should be on how well set up you are to adapt, develop or integrate this low impact technology when it inevitably becomes available.

In what direction do you hope to take Aethr in the coming years?

We would like to see Aethr grow to become a renowned source of innovative solutions; a key part of this means expanding on our capabilities whilst making our services as efficient as possible for clients. We deliver a structured introduction for each and every business- making this as seamless as we can is important for all parties involved. Aethr is about creating a clear pathway to the goal(s)- it is a wasted exercise if you spend all your time crunching numbers and not enough of your efforts on action.

What do you think the future of the food industry looks like?

I think the sway towards food security is going to be a huge matter over the next ten years. A more volatile climate will drive greater water shortages, floods, storms and heatwave which will affect global food yields.   We must not only focus on how, but also where we produce our food and the environmental impact and affordability of feeding ourselves. It is important that we get to grips with the problem and identify the issues within the next three to four years. Carbon emissions will become a much greater decision factor when evaluating business impact.  Everyone up until now has only focused on scope 1 and 2 (direct and indirect emissions), but only when you look at scope 3 (supply chain emissions), you understand the gravity of the problem- something which very few are doing. We need to look at how best to engage and adapt the supply chain to deliver a more sustainable product offering. What that could mean is more onshoring (domestic production), seeking mainstream solutions like producing food that is closer to the market. I hope that the UK can become more self-sustainable, allowing the agri-food sector to become stronger as a result.

How can the workforce of tomorrow impact the sector?

Hugely. From my perspective, sustainability must be driven by innovation and the people that are going to drive this change are the young, bright minds coming into the sector. For this to happen, they need to engage with the industry in the right way, such as firstly understanding the basic principles of the agri-food sector. On top of this, leaders need to be able to drive this energy towards improving productivity whilst reducing waste, lowering carbon footprint and preventing negative environmental impact.

What does the industry need to do, to change the negative public perceptions?

The negative coverage that the industry receives is a little simplistic- the agri-food sector has always been a source of innovation and driven improvement. There are many bright people within the industry who are making a difference, whether that is through organic or regenerative farming for example, but it is not a simple process. Changing the decision-making process to be environmentally focussed- pushing biodiversity, improving soil health and understanding soil carbon requires a completely different approach but not all of the science is understood so aligning scientific research and development is paramount to enable the industry to adapt.

How do you see Britain finding the balance between food security and sustainability? And how does agricultural policy, like the ELM scheme come into this?

The ELM (Environmental Land Management) scheme provides a sense of direction, helping to educate farmers and producers whilst incentivising environmental action. It benefits stakeholders as it allows them to come to terms with the right practices involved with promoting sustainability.  This form of ‘carrot’ incentive should always come before the legislative or regulatory ‘stick’. There are currently various stories that involve farmers in other country’s being threatened as a first step.  I firmly believe a balance must be struck between the time required to adapt and the maintenance of food security.  That said, the longer we leave it, the more painful and costly the transition will become.

In your opinion, what is the biggest sustainability challenge that the world needs to overcome?

I think the biggest challenge is squaring off the investment that is required to change, versus the commercial payback that that investment may require. This is where support may have to be given- at the end of the day businesses are commercial entities that still need to make a profit. When you look at investments, reduced impact solutions do exist today, but they tend to be expensive, and may not provide a return for 10 or 15 years. There are very few businesses today that are willing to take that long term a view. Therefore, support needs to be present to guide investment, as we are all in this together.