Mars stock­pil­ing foods as Brexit looms

Global pres­i­dent Fiona Daw­son is en­joy­ing an­other home­com­ing and is ready to tackle Brexit chal­lenges, writes Michael Cog­ley

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Sunday Business - Michael Cog­ley Busi­ness Cor­re­spon­dent

FOOD gi­ant Mars will be­gin stock­pil­ing foods in both Ire­land and the UK as part of its con­tin­gency plans for a hard Brexit, the com­pany’s global food and drink pres­i­dent has said.

In an ex­clu­sive in­ter­view with the Sun­day In­de­pen­dent, Ir­ish­woman Fiona Daw­son also ruled out mov­ing the com­pany’s pro­duc­tion out of the UK even if tar­iffs and border checks were in­tro­duced.

“The good news is this has been com­ing for years now and ir­re­spec­tive of the deal we haven’t been wait­ing, we’ve con­tin­gency planned for a hard Brexit,” she said.

“We’ll ob­vi­ously look at in­creas­ing our stocks be­cause there will be a pe­riod of un­cer­tainty for peo­ple re­lat­ing to what­ever deal is put in place. We’ll be stock­pil­ing both in Ire­land and in the UK.”

Daw­son, who sits on the board of the Trin­ity Busi­ness School, also dis­missed sto­ries that the UK would “run out” of Mars bars shortly af­ter Bri­tain left the Eu­ro­pean Union.

“It is al­ways very hum­bling when you see the Mars bar is still one of the great icons and peo­ple still use it as cur­rency, the price of a Mars bar,” she said. “We have plans in place to en­sure the con­ti­nu­ity of sup­ply.” The Dubliner also said that she was pre­pared to make ac­qui­si­tions to com­pete in the healthy eat­ing space “if needed”.

WHEN Fiona Daw­son left Ire­land for the third time in 2001, she found her­self telling her friends and fam­ily that she would be back within a cou­ple of years and that her ven­ture to the UK would be a short one. Part of her knew she would never re­turn. But go­ing to the UK was a very good de­ci­sion — Daw­son is now global pres­i­dent of Mars, over­see­ing food, drink, and multi-sales for a $35bn com­pany.

She has re­mained closely con­nected to Ire­land, where she was re­cently named Ire­land’s “ul­ti­mate mar­keter” over the last 25 years by Mar­ket­ing.ie.

“The Ire­land that I know and love, the one I was part of when an all-Ire­land team beat the All Blacks on home ground, is a coun­try that has come for­ward so much since I left uni­ver­sity,” says Daw­son. “It con­stantly as­ton­ishes me to see the level of progress that’s hap­pen­ing. A lot of peo­ple look with great ad­mi­ra­tion both in the busi­ness sense and the po­lit­i­cal sense when I talk to them about Ire­land and how it faced into the last eco­nomic cri­sis.

“Ire­land took very bold de­ci­sions that may not have pleased ev­ery­one, but they were de­ci­sive and clear and painted a road map that many peo­ple ad­mire.”

Daw­son, from Church­town in south Dublin, re­turns home ev­ery six weeks or so and has no­ticed that the re­cov­ery hasn’t quite reached ev­ery­one. She be­lieves that the progress that has been made may not have been all that evenly bal­anced.

“I’m very con­scious that the Ire­land I see is Dublin, and if I lived here I would be en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to think about how we cre­ate a more uni­ver­sal econ­omy within Ire­land, one that reaches out­side of Dublin and ex­tends its wealth and pro­duc­tiv­ity,” she says.

“I do pass through some towns that have low em­ploy­ment rates, still have a sur­plus of hous­ing, and think ‘Gosh, there’s some­thing not quite right here and we need to bal­ance that out’. Ire­land isn’t just about Dublin, it’s about all of Ire­land.”

The Trin­ity grad­u­ate main­tains that an in­quis­i­tive look at the work­ing week in Ire­land could help ad­dress nu­mer­ous prob­lems in terms of the hous­ing cri­sis and in­deed the con­ges­tion of the coun­try’s trans­port links.

So­ci­etal is­sues in Ire­land have al­ways been at the fore­front of her fam­ily’s think­ing. Daw­son’s fa­ther, the late Adrian Cronin, was head of RTE’s light en­ter­tain­ment arm. Satur­days meant watch­ing oth­ers on stage, in­structed by Cronin who was revered as a “ground-break­ing” direc­tor of the The Late Late Show.

“It made you very com­fort­able with me­dia and the art of cre­ativ­ity and re­ally recog­nis­ing the power of com­mu­ni­ca­tions,” Daw­son says.

“Those were the days when dad would get death threats com­ing through on some of the top­ics they were cov­er­ing. They were re­ally ex­plor­ing po­lit­i­cal, re­li­gious, and sex­ual is­sues for Ire­land, which was un­heard of. I was very proud of the work they did and also saw the re­sis­tance they came across, which I think did in­spire me.”

Dur­ing her time at Mars, which em­ploys more than 100,000 peo­ple, Daw­son has wit­nessed the com­pany tus­sle with the me­dia on a num­ber of oc­ca­sions. One such in­ci­dent re­volved around the com­pany’s de­ci­sion to la­bel its lasagne sauces, oven-bake kits, and pesto as “oc­ca­sional foods”. It was part of a five-year global health ini­tia­tive by the com­pany whereby it an­nounced that as “some Mars Food prod­ucts are higher in salt, added su­gar or fat”, these “prod­ucts are not in­tended to be eaten daily”.

The me­dia nat­u­rally pounced on the frank ad­mis­sion from the group with head­lines such as: “Dolmio warns cus­tomers not to eat their sauces ev­ery day”. But it was a read­ing of the sit­u­a­tion that Daw­son took is­sue with.

“It was much more to high­light that some of our prod­ucts have higher lev­els of fats than oth­ers and they wouldn’t be ones that would sur­prise you. For in­stance, a creamy sauce for lasagne is high in fat, and pesto is a bit high in salt.

“That was sim­ply it, but it grabs the head­lines be­cause we took bold ac­tion. It would have been eas­ier for us to put in a lot of ar­ti­fi­cial sweet­en­ers.”

An­other such story to grab head­lines was the fact that Brexit would re­sult in the ex­tinc­tion of the Mars bar within the UK.

Nu­mer­ous sto­ries sug­gested that Eng­land’s food sec­re­tary Michael Gove was told that sup­ply of Mars bars would run dry within weeks of a no-deal Brexit due to the per­ish­able na­ture of a num­ber of its in­gre­di­ents.

“It is al­ways very hum­bling when you see the Mars bar is still one of the great icons and peo­ple still use it as cur­rency, the price of a Mars bar,” Daw­son says.

“The fact of the mat­ter is that, al­though we man­u­fac­ture in the UK, our sup­ply chain is in­cred­i­bly com­plex. We have plans in place to en­sure the con­ti­nu­ity of sup­ply. I think that head­line came out of the sheer com­plex­ity of most man­u­fac­turer’s sup­ply chains and that you can­not sim­ply say let’s just pro­duce ev­ery­thing in the UK.”

In the midst of those con­tin­gency plans is a com­mit­ment to stock­pile re­sources both in the UK and Ire­land.

While a lot of Mars’ man­u­fac­tur­ing is based in the UK, its plans for the worst-case sce­nario do not in­volve pulling out of the re­gion, quite the op­po­site in fact.

“The UK doesn’t sud­denly be­come an is­land that you can’t get things in and out of,” she says.

“We would still be able to move prod­ucts. The things that would be im­pacted would be things like tar­iffs, which would have a big im­pact on costs and will cause in­fla­tion in Ire­land, the UK and Eu­rope as well.

“At the end of the day, prox­im­ity in the food and drinks sec­tor trumps a deal.”

Daw­son also dis­missed the idea that pro­duc­ing in Ire­land could be cheaper than the UK in the event of a no-deal Brexit, de­spite the in­tro­duc­tion of tar­iffs and border checks.

“As a global man­u­fac­turer we’re very lucky. We deal with volatile in­fla­tion­ary sit­u­a­tions around the world. Whether it’s look­ing at Latin Amer­ica and Brazil at the mo­ment, which is go­ing through a ter­ri­ble time, South Africa is go­ing through hy­per in­fla­tion, Rus­sia through boom and bust.

“This is not some­thing that’s un­usual for us, work­ing within dif­fi­cult tar­iffs and bor­ders,” Daw­son says.

“Brexit is some­thing we don’t take lightly — par­tic­u­larly as the in­de­ci­sion around it causes great un­cer­tainty for peo­ple — but I feel, as a multi­na­tional, we’re very well placed for it.”

Mars, which also counts the M&Ms, Bounty, Twix, Skit­tles, Mal­te­sers, Snick­ers, and Milky Way brands within its sta­ble, is also fac­ing up to the ris­ing tide of healthy eat­ing.

“Choco­late is a treat prod­uct. We have seen the emer­gence of healthy eat­ing and it’s fan­tas­tic to see how aware peo­ple are now of their di­ets and the role of treats within their di­ets,” Daw­son says. “We do have clas­sic ‘bet­ter for you’ prod­ucts in our port­fo­lio. And then we will have treat prod­ucts and in­dul­gent prod­ucts as well.”

Daw­son, who spent a brief stint away from Mars at Pepsi, stated that she is pre­pared to ac­quire healthy food busi­nesses if needed. When asked if any Irish busi­nesses were po­ten­tial tar­gets she said she “couldn’t pos­si­bly com­ment”.

She sits on both the board of Mars and in­deed the Trin­ity Busi­ness School. Along­side her at the top ta­ble of the multi­na­tional are mem­bers of the elu­sive Mars fam­ily, the third-rich­est fam­ily in the US. The fam­ily has been widely la­belled as se­cre­tive with many point­ing to a lack of pub­lic in­ter­views. One such as­ser­tion Daw­son takes is­sue with.

“They’re fan­tas­tic. Hon­estly you feel part of the Mars fam­ily, the fam­ily feel ex­tends through­out all of our 100,000 as­so­ci­ates,” she says.

“I get upset when I hear that word [se­cre­tive] used. In fact, they are far from se­cre­tive, you can Google and see Stephen Bad­ger has done quite a num­ber of in­ter­views. But they are very hum­ble and they are a com­pany who be­lieve in in­vest­ing in the long-term good of their busi­ness and do­ing the right thing for the com­mu­ni­ties and en­vi­ron­ment that we op­er­ate in.

“Now if peo­ple say that’s se­cre­tive that’s one way of look­ing at it, but the hu­mil­ity they have is very in­spir­ing.”

From an early age she be­gan forc­ing change at her enor­mous em­ployer. In fact, within weeks of her ar­rival, Daw­son had al­ready spurred an al­ter­ation to a com­pany pol­icy.

“I think I’m re­spon­si­ble for Mars chang­ing their pol­icy on grads com­ing into the busi­ness be­cause on the ap­pli­ca­tion form they asked ‘Can you drive’ and I said ‘I can’. What they didn’t ask was ‘do you have a li­cence?’ Which I didn’t.”

Af­ter a cou­ple of at­tempts on the streets of Mill­town in south Dublin, Daw­son was given the green light to start driv­ing.

“I started as a mer­chan­diser in Ire­land go­ing around by bus, build­ing dis­plays, which is ab­so­lutely true. Once I passed my test, I moved the UK.”

Daw­son moved around quite a bit, be­tween Ire­land, the UK, the US, and even Brus­sels through­out her ca­reer. A re­cent ac­qui­si­tion of a food com­pany Tasty Bite means that she also now has an in­sight into In­dia.

De­spite all this her “hard­est time” was all the way back in 2001, the last time she left Ire­land.

Daw­son seems de­ter­mined to en­sure that she will in fact come back.

“I al­ways see my­self re­turn­ing home, this is home. We come back reg­u­larly, my kids see them­selves as be­ing as much Irish as they are in the UK,” she says.

Mars global food and drink pres­i­dent Fiona Daw­son says it has con­tin­gency plans in place for a hard Brexit

Fiona Daw­son says the multi­na­tional is al­ready deal­ing with border is­sues glob­ally Pic­ture by David Conachy

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