In our Meet the Member blog series, we spotlight the huge range of Member businesses that MDS collaborates with across the world to support the leadership pipeline of the agri-food and horticultural supply chain. In these exclusive interviews, you’ll hear all about how they found success and why they choose to work with MDS Trainees.

Meet Oliver Watts, the Head of Procurement for Organic Vegetables at Burgess Farms. Oliver is not only an Alumni of the programme but a Director on the MDS Board. In this exclusive interview, Oliver shares his journey from a non-farming background to a prominent position, offering valuable career advice for future leaders in the procurement field with all the ups and downs of working in his challenging field.

What inspired you to apply for MDS, and how did it shape your career?

Having come from a non-farming background, the opportunity to submerse myself within a new industry while experiencing new business cultures every 6months was the main appeal to joining MDS. This regular change of environment taught me to be agile, welcoming of change, and the importance of building a network of industry contacts – you never know who you’ll run in to in the future!

What was the most significant challenge you faced on the scheme, and how did you overcome it?

After only two weeks into my first placement, my secondment manager (and the company’s main commercial contact) left unexpectedly! The process to recruit a replacement took nearly 4 months, therefore for the majority of my placement, I was covering both my duties and those of a Commercial Manager. This felt like a sink-or-swim moment, and although there was the company’s Sales Director for support, I was left running various national retailer accounts myself. I don’t think I could have asked for a better introduction to supplying fresh produce to the major retailers, I saw the good, the bad and the very ugly! I was exposed to key retailer contacts which still benefit me 10 years later!

Can you share with us your biggest career accomplishment/proudest moment in your career so far?

Other than being asked to become a Director at MDS, one of my proudest moments so far in my career is being asked to represent the UK’s carrot industry at an international fresh produce symposium in Poland and presenting to delegates from across the globe. Off the back of that one presentation, I’ve been invited to speak at other events and visited various fresh produce businesses.

What is life like working for Burgess Farms, what sets it apart from other employers and what motivates you in your current role?

Like all fresh produce businesses, life at Burgess Farms is extremely fast-paced and the need to be agile is key. Burgess Farms is truly unique in the way we can offer colleagues the opportunity to become experts across multiple products, disciplines, and locations. We grow, wash, and pack our produce at various sites across the United Kingdom as well as in warmer climates like Spain, Italy and further afield. This allows colleagues the opportunity to not only travel but learn the production methods and cultures of growers across the world. I’m very lucky that my role encompasses both UK and international travel. Part of my responsibilities include managing our raw material supply base, this includes working with our UK and international supply base.

What do you believe are the biggest challenges facing procurement professionals in the agri-food and fresh produce industry today and what strategies do you employ to ensure that your company is getting the best quality produce at the most competitive prices?

One of the biggest challenges facing procurement professionals within our industry currently is interruption in supply. This can be from various reasons, such as transport delays across borders, insufficient labour or, and most commonly, adverse weather conditions. As professionals, we understand exactly what it takes to produce a crop of vegetables, the only variable we can’t control is the weather and this often has the biggest impact on supply.

Over the past year, we’ve experienced 40c heat, unexpected frosts, severe droughts, and deluges of rain…. No such thing as normal weather! We look to mitigate all these the best we can by ensuring we’re selecting the right growing regions while investing in the required infrastructure to mitigate as many of these challenges as possible.  Burgess Farms also enjoys long-standing relationships with all our suppliers who we know ensure we’re supplied with only the best quality produce 52 weeks of the year.

What inspired you to join the MDS Board of Directors, how did you find the transition from Alumni to Director and what is your vision for the future of MDS?

Having thoroughly enjoyed my own time on MDS and having trainees on placement at Burgess Farms over recent years, I fully understand the benefits trainees can bring to our industry so I’m keen to play a part in continuing the success of MDS. Alongside the Board of Directors and the MDS team, I would like to see the business continue building on its legacy as a leading career development scheme in the agri-food sector and a hub for top talent. I envision the programme expanding its reach to a broader network for collaboration across the industry.

How do you believe that investing in training and development programmes for employees can not only improve the bottom line of agri-food businesses but also create a more sustainable and innovative industry for the future and what steps can employers take to prioritise training in a competitive and rapidly evolving market?

By providing comprehensive training opportunities, employers can equip their workforce with the skills and knowledge needed to adapt to the rapidly evolving market. Investing in employee development fosters a culture of continuous improvement, encouraging employees to explore new ideas, stay ahead of new technologies, and implement sustainable practices that can drive efficiency, reduce waste, and enhance overall productivity.

Establishing a dedicated training budget, allocating resources specifically for employee development, and partnering with industry training providers like MDS to access specialised programs can all help employers to prioritise training. It is important for employers to create a supportive and inclusive learning environment, where employees feel encouraged to pursue training and development opportunities. Recognising and rewarding employees who actively engage in training programs can also motivate others to participate.

 

What role do you believe MDS plays in developing future leaders in the agri-food industry?

MDS plays a pivotal role in developing future leaders in the agri-food industry. The program provides a unique and comprehensive programme that cultivates essential skills, knowledge, and experiences necessary for Trainees to excel in their careers. It offers Trainees exposure to a wide range of industry sectors, broadens their perspective and places a strong emphasis on personal and professional development. The program encourages those who complete it to step out of their comfort zones and hone their leadership capabilities. Of course, it also develops leaders who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty with a strong work ethic.

We are helping to develop a new set of agri-food leaders with diverse experiences and backgrounds who can use their practical experience to collaborate and bring in new perspectives for future challenges.

What advice would you give to new talent/candidates considering a career in the food and drink industry?

If you want to work in a fast-paced, challenging but rewarding environment just go for it!  I’ve been fortunate to be able to travel extensively during my time in the industry and this has given me some amazing experiences to date. My network of contacts (and friends!) has grown tenfold since participating in MDS, this has given me a real head start in my career to date.