Meet the Alumni: Darren Huxtable- Lincolnshire Herbs

With our alumni now totalling over 600 in number, it is only right that we delve into the adventures had by Trainees after they leave MDS.

The Meet the Alumni series provides the opportunity to explore the vast number of roles available in the food industry. This edition features Darren Huxtable (MDS ’97-’99), commercial manager at Lincolnshire Herbs, who highlights his route into the industry whilst offering some invaluable advice.

This interview was led by Aidan Pritchard, a Trainee in group 54 currently seconded to Lincolnshire Herbs.

Darren Huxtable

Did you want to go into food or produce? How did you come across MDS? 

No not really, I did a degree in agriculture, coming from sort of an agricultural background. MDS came to the university I was at and did a talk one evening about what they had on offer. When I joined, they’d been going about 10 years so they were still relatively small. I think in my year there were 12-14 of us, there were only 2 years – the year above you when you were in first year then the year below you when you were in your second. It just sounded really interesting, I liked the idea that you could do the training for 2 years and you didn’t have to commit after that, so if you didn’t enjoy it there was no commitment, but it wasn’t something I was looking to get into. 

When I was a Trainee, a lady called Lesley Sage ran MDS, she was great, really helpful and explained things really well. I went for an interview when I was at the university, a group interview, where we were given a problem to solve whilst MDS were observing us from the corner of the room. I didn’t think I’d got through; a couple of the others were really forthright and straight in there whilst I was more reserved and listening. At the end however, MDS said actually we need a bit of a combination of people. In my year there were some who were more reserved and some more forthright. It wasn’t anywhere near as big as it is now, with all the qualifications and training.

When was your MDS experience? What did it involve? 

It was 1997-1999. I finished university in the summer of 1996 and went travelling. I’d got my place before I left university but they wanted me to start in March 1997 so I did 6 months with Vitacress on one of the farms, as a production supervisor, supervising the drilling and then as it got into summer more about harvesting- working with the farm managers and the 6-8 guys I was managing, they were doing everything – harvesting in the morning and drilling in the afternoon. I was doing that for about 6 months. Then from about October-November, I went to Winchester Growers down in Cornwall which was several different roles. I worked in production for the first two and a half to three months, producing potted arrangements for Christmas, so potted hyacinths and things, on a twilight shift; one of the Winchester staff and I ran the shift (4pm to midnight) five days a week. After Christmas they started daffodil harvesting, so I started working with those crews and my main responsibility was quality control. After this, I did a year’s secondment at a firm called Fisher Foods, in their procurement team. They were a big supplier of prepared salads, based in Norfolk. They used to supply McDonalds, Sainsburys and Waitrose and I worked in the procurement team buying dry goods- which involved things like dried herbs, feta cheese and mushrooms. They employed me – after a few months they said would I do a year’s secondment and then after that potentially offer me a job. I really enjoyed it, so I ended up staying. So, I didn’t do 4 companies, I only did 3, which was not unusual but not common, it’s just the way it worked out. MDS said if you enjoy doing it and you want to work there full-time then go ahead. 

Looking back, I had one secondment that I didn’t particularly enjoy, but I still learnt a lot from those around me. You almost always get one secondment that doesn’t quite work but I think that’s a part of the macabre enjoyment of it. You then find you get into something you really enjoy doing and I wouldn’t be where I am today without doing MDS, so it’s all relevant. 

When it comes to management, is there a particular technique you’d avoid? 

None of us are perfect, but it is interesting to me to see lots of different styles of people and companies and how they work. From being micromanaged and everything you do is checked and you think “you might as well do it yourself because you almost are already” to the other extreme where they take no notice of what you’re doing, and you get to find the right medium of what you like to work under because some people like to have lots of input and some don’t. 

You mention laissez-faire and micromanagement leadership styles, is there a time and a place for both? 

Christmas is one of those times, with fresh produce- it’s just nuts. The festive period is all about fulfilling the customer’s desire to have a roast dinner. What people outside of the industry don’t realise is the level of waste that this causes. In a previous role, which involved carrots, we went to a retailer store just before Christmas, the company had bought so many carrots that they were forced to just give them away to customers because they couldn’t shift the stock. Even then, I reckon half of the stuff they sell people don’t eat. That is the worst thing of all – after the effort that goes into growing, producing, packing and distributing; all that energy, money, time or carbon, however you want to measure it- that is what goes in the bin.  

What training did you have when on MDS? 

We had a residential course about 2-3 times a year- there were lots of guest speakers and the topics were financial, practical and people skills etc. This often occurred in Lincolnshire as that was where many of the Members were based. Additional training went on in Sheffield, where we had to set up a business and manufacture something, make it and sell it. There was no formal qualification, but it was useful even catching up and learning from each other because we’d all worked in different places. Aside from this, we had our secondment reviews at the beginning, middle and end of the placement with our secondment managers as you do now, but we also had to write a diary to record our progress on MDS. 

Networking is a key part of MDS, do you still use your old MDS colleagues as a network now? 

I do, particularly one person who I’m still very good friends with, he’s Managing Director of a produce company in Kent, we see each other 3-4 times a year, and you bump into people all the time who you were either on MDS with or were ex-MDS, and you meet other people at the reunion dinners, it’s quite a big network now, and getting bigger all the time. 

What transferrable skills did you learn that you are still using? 

MDS opens your mind up to what fresh produce is like, but the main thing you have to be is adaptable. I know it sounds like a real cliché, but things can change so dramatically so quickly in this industry. You’ve got increasingly temperamental weather, dealing with people, and increased technological usage, so to be flexible and show an ability to deal with pressure is vital. Retailers are demanding more- they’re more on the ball, their systems are always improving and they’re after the highest quality produce possible; couple that with the economic challenges because of Brexit and the current wars, being comfortable with change is crucial. 

Learn to be flexible. Just because you go home tonight and it’s fine, doesn’t mean that at 08:00 tomorrow it will be- having that mindset that you’re going to have to deal with it will drive your success. 

Will that trend of more challenges continue? 

I think it will. As retailers get more demanding and the weather gets more unpredictable, there’s a lot of producers not making money and it is piling the pressure on the farmers to get it right first time because they simply can’t afford mistakes.  

How do you manage those problems? 

It all comes down to communication. In my role it’s all about communicating with customers and co-workers– communicating our vision for the future so people know what they’re doing, or what they’re not doing if the case may be. 

How do you balance those customers and internal stakeholders? 

It’s hard. As I’ve got older, I’ve got more experience over the years, like anything. A lot of the time you learn from when things have or haven’t gone well about how you would or wouldn’t do things, learning from mistakes. You’re always dealing with people who have more or less knowledge than you, but I like to be really clear on what we’re doing so there can be no ambiguity. I think it’s almost worth putting slightly too many words than not enough, but it can be frustrating because sometimes people don’t follow it. You spend a lot of time trying to work and say this is what we’re doing to be told ‘ah we’ve not done that now’. This results in having to go back and re-communicate that even though I said we’re going to do ‘x’, we’ve not done it.  

I’ve learnt from previous mistakes to under-promise and over-deliver. With customers it’s all about managing expectations, they sort of accept when things go short and there is more recognition now with changes in weather and cutting of costs and people aren’t carrying surpluses all the time, that things are going to be harder, and there’s going to be more issues. Retailers have less choice of suppliers too – some have shut, they’re making strategic supply partner decisions, and they have to deal with that now because they’ve done it on costs. They must be competitive and make the margins but the one thing they’re always focused on is availability. 

What was your route from MDS to your current role? What would be your advice to someone looking at a similar role? 

Always commercial, so I did procurement for quite a few years, in prepared salads and then I got offered to go and work as a buyer for a supermarket, a similar role to procurement, which I did for four years. I enjoyed the experience and then came into commercial, as essentially an account manager, and have done that for the last 15 years. 

I’ve got used to the growing seasons and cycles- I think that’s really important to understand in this role. I think you’d struggle to do a commercial role if you don’t understand the lifecycle of the product. 

How have you used that understanding? 

When I worked for a potato supplier, our mantra was to have the best knowledge about what we were doing. Even though we were the smaller supplier of the two for the supermarket we supplied, we wanted them to ask us first for any queries or questions because they could trust the answer that we gave them. It might not always be the answer they wanted, but it was always fair, honest and realistic. 

How do you build trust? 

Deliver on what you say, so not saying ‘yes’ knowing full well that you can’t. That to me is the worst thing with buyers is if a buyer asks you questions and you don’t know, just say ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know, I’ll get an answer and get back to you’. 

What is the next step in your career?  

The problem is I’m getting towards the end of my career, hopefully I’ll be retired in 10-12 years’ time, but I still feel like I have a lot to offer, I’ve got a lot of experience. I’m quite set in my ways and I know that isn’t always right, but I’d like to do a role of not so much of the day-to-day but more of the planning of businesses, which I have in the past. I think I’m quite good at thinking on my feet and problem solving and can help the business by doing that. That’s something I could do and would want to do. I like jobs that have a bit of variety in. 

What roles are you most proud of? 

I worked at a large vegetable producer as a general manager for the site. We were the sole supplier of onions to one supermarket and unfortunately, we lost that business which meant the site had to close. I had to run it for the 12 months whilst we were closing the business. Despite the circumstances, I found that quite fulfilling because it was about working with the people who were there, trying to manage them and help them as we were shutting down, but also supplying Sainsbury’s, which we did. From the day that we were told we were losing the business we had 9 months until we finished, and we didn’t short a case until the last week where we ran out of packaging. The role was about working with the team, keeping people motivated and informed. It was fulfilling and we received some really good feedback at the end as people felt like they had been treated fairly and openly all the time. 

What advice would you give to MDS trainees or new starters in the industry? 

That flexible approach. You’ve got to be flexible about not only your role but within the business – what you do and what you offer, because things change so quickly. Whatever role you’re in – technical, production, procurement, commercial, things are moving so quickly. You’ve got to have that mindset to be able to be flexible in your approach. There’s always a right way to do things and having standards, but it’s that ability to look at things differently and be able to think ‘okay that’s not going to happen, how can we get around that’.