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IoD Scotland: Genius Spot, Hugh

09 Mar 2017

IoD Scotland interview

Chair of Emily Crisps Roz Cuschieri talks director development, the switch from life in big corporates to scaling up start-ups and why Scotland should celebrate its food and drink industry more.

Words: Rob Beswick; pictures, Susie Lowe.

The Greeks had a theory that good things come in threes. It’s a sentiment Roz Cuschieri would probably share, as her stellar career can be neatly divided into three sections: a long stretch in big corporates; a second period in smaller start-ups and growing businesses; and finally, the current stage – stage three, where the experience and knowledge gained from parts one and two are poured into non-executive roles.

Today Roz sits as chair of Emily Crisps, an ambitious and growing business offering vegetable and fruit-based crisps, as well as advising Genius Foods where she was until recently chief executive. In addition, she holds three other board positions as she embarks on a portfolio career as a non-executive director.

But where and when did all this start? In 1989, with a genius talent spotter from United Biscuits who knew precisely in which direction to point the young undergraduate sat in front of him.

“I had studied science at Aberdeen University and attended the graduate job ‘Milk Round’, where I met Hugh Crawford, HR director at United Biscuits,” recalls Roz. “My plan was to take my science degree and apply it to a career in production but Hugh spotted something in me I didn’t realise existed. He said I had the attributes and skills to develop a commercial career. It’s not something I would have considered at the age of 20 but I owe him an enormous debt of gratitude as I had five wonderful years at UB – and he was right about the commercial side!”

Hugh is first on the list when Roz hands out credit for her career, but there are plenty more people who she thanks for helping her along the way. “I’ve been really fortunate in that I’ve worked for some brilliant people and sat on a number of boards. Sir Bill Gammell, my chairman at Genius Foods, was both supportive and stretching. He had a saying – ‘if it’s to be, it’s up to me’ and that really resonated.”

“Further back, I had 12 exhilarating years at Warburton’s [the Lancashire-based baker]. It is unusual as it is still a family business and now a huge company. I was with Warburton’s for 12 years, seven as commercial director, and in that time we grew the business from sitting outside the top 100 grocery brands to a position of No 2 behind only Coca Cola in grocery brand value. The commercial team grew from 16 when I arrived to over 180 and we’d gone from being a quality local player to a national one. 

“It was an incredible time to be with the business, helping to support such a growth agenda, and Jonathan Warburton was great to work for. He had a wonderful, no-nonsense northern sense of humour. At that stage in my career I was quite impulsive and Jonathan used to say to me ‘just sleep on it, reflect and consider’. It was good advice!”

In between United Biscuits and Warburton’s was five fun years at brewers Scottish & Newcastle. “It got me back to Scotland – I’m an adopted Scot! – and it was an exciting time. I was working with some fabulous beer brands – Foster’s, Kronenbourg, among many – in my mid-20s. It was a great time to be involved.”

But much as she loved life at these giants of the FMCG sector, she felt the need to move on. But the next challenges would be markedly different from life in the big corporates she was used to – effectively ending ‘stage one’ of Roz’s career and basing her permanently in Scotland.

For her return north saw her work with two small but ambitious businesses: Lightbody Ventures – a growing brand marketing company in Glasgow which works with, among others, Thorntons, Hersheys, Annabel Karmel and Disney – and as chief executive of Genius Foods. The pair might have been operating in the same food and drink sector as the likes of Scottish & Newcastle and Warburton’s but were light years away in terms of size and structure. Why the jump? “I wanted to test myself, see whether or not I could run and build a business and move into something new. It was a very deliberate decision – could I leave the corporate world and test myself in smaller businesses?”

As anyone who has ever made the same transition quickly discovers, there are huge differences between life in a corporate and life in a start-up. “I call it the ‘dishwasher rule’,” says Roz. “It doesn’t matter who you are, what your role is in the organisation, if you are the first in the office in the morning, it’s your job to empty the dishwasher. It is very grounding and summed up the culture of both Lightbody Ventures and Genius Foods. You roll your sleeves up and do what needs to be done. It is both energising and empowering.”

While smaller businesses give you flexibility the lack of support can leave you vulnerable, too, a prospect that was both daunting and exciting. “It is quite shocking when you come out of a large organisation and you find you don’t have the infrastructure or processes set out for you, but the more time I spent in that environment the more I enjoyed the excitement of writing my own scripts as to where you operate and how you operate.”

This is where her experiences from the big corporates gave her the foundations on which to build a new career. “I took all the great things I’d learnt from the businesses I’d worked for and, in effect, introduced them to start-ups.

“Start-ups are the type of businesses that really energise me.”

But while both Genius Foods and Lightbody Ventures have huge ambitions to grow and scale their businesses – goals that made them attractive to Roz in the first place – such ambition can create its own challenges: “In any growing business, balancing rate of growth with capability of the organisation is hugely difficult,” she points out.

The need to lay solid foundations was made most apparent when she led Genius Foods to take the bold decision that transformed the business and brand. “We acquired two FreeFrom Bakeries in 2013. It was a hugely important move for the development of the businesses as it gave us control for the first time.”

Up until then Genius Foods was a brand-only, asset-light business working with co-manufacturers who baked the loaves. “By acquiring the two bakeries we literally took control overnight of the development and quality agenda, plus the customer relationships: all important to brand success.”

While hugely proud of the step change, it brought a host of challenges. “We went overnight from being a team of 21 to one of 435 – it was an interesting period to live through!”

To make it work it was vital that a huge amount of planning was done beforehand. “We invested a lot of time in our integration plan. I managed to persuade a number of seasoned experts who were experienced at integrating businesses to join us.”

Mergers and takeovers often bring with them clashes of culture and bringing the bakeries into the Genius family presented the opportunity to introduce and embed the Genius culture across the manufacturing organisation. “At Genius our people care very passionately about the products we make and it is important to create a cultural care across every part of the business.

“It’s been challenging but ultimately rewarding and successful. We are on a journey, certainly, but if I look at the things we’ve done since we took over the bakeries, the business has come an incredibly long way. ”

Genius Foods offers another of Roz’s key guides through her career, as she has huge admiration for its founder, Lucinda Bruce-Gardyne – not only for what she can do, but perhaps more interestingly, for what she can’t. “Lucinda is really tenacious and driven. She has an incredible understanding as to where her real strengths lie, which are in product development and the creation of amazing breads that had never existed before. She also knew that to grow and scale a business she needed to gather around her people who had the relevant experience, hence my appointment as CEO.”

From one inspiring female entrepreneur to another, with her role as chair of Emily Crisps where founder Emily Wong has created a stunning range of healthy vegetable and fruit-based crisps in a story that is not dissimilar to Genius: an ambitious, niche player in a fast-growing market.

“As chair, I wanted to bring the experience I gathered at Genius to play in Emily’s plans.”

At Emily Crisps a small but heavyweight team is embarking on a very ambitious plan to growth the business – “the growth plans are eye-watering and very exciting,” admitted Roz. The company has UK-wide and international aspirations and it’s looking to grow the brand apace.

Meeting the various challenges throughout her career has made it vital that Roz hasn’t neglected her own personal development as an executive, and it’s something she thinks all directors should make a priority. “When you’re in the thick of leading a fast-growing business, we all know that looking after your own development can slip down the priority list. However, you can’t let that happen; directors need to appreciate the value they can bring to their business from their own continuing professional development.”

She believes that it is each director’s responsibility to not rest on their laurels once they reach the boardroom, but is the support they need out there? “Yes, I think the support  is available but perhaps more could be done in helping directors access it. I have accessed help. Setting some time aside for leadership development is vital.

“When I was appointed chair of Emily Crisps one of the first things I did was to register for the IoD’s Role of the Chair development programme. No one asked me to but it was something I felt I had to do.

“I’ve sat on a number of boards and worked with fantastic chairmen, but in many ways I’ve learnt on the job. However, I’m the kind of person who needs to validate my position and what I’m doing; the IoD Role of the Chair course will allow me to do just that.”

It’s not the only way Roz has improved her skill-set over the years. “When I was with Genius I joined the Rubicon Partnership; it’s an executive coaching partnership. We meet once a month – members are all chief execs and MDs – and we talk about business issues, we look at best practice in everything from strategy to cultural change and developing teams. Being able to sit with a group of peers who are not members of your executive team is very refreshing and allows you to be open about the specific issues you may be facing and hear different opinions from the group as to the best way forward.”

What has impressed her as she has embarked on the ‘third stage’ of her career as a portfolio director has been the way other executives have freely given of their time to help her along the way. “I have been overwhelmed during the past few months by how much help I’ve been given. Up until now I’ve been building a portfolio career ‘Roz’s way’ but there are so many people taking different approaches. A number of people have given of their time freely and offered valuable advice. It shows that there is a wealth of talent out there that can support business leaders.”

This support should include people below director level, too, and Roz is particularly keen to help start-ups: “Quite often entrepreneurs and younger business leaders don’t need coaching; they need direct mentoring, someone with wider operational experience to show them the short cuts to get things done.”

Roz’s enthusiasm for start-ups is evident and she believes Scotland is doing a good job in encouraging entrepreneurs – though with a caveat that causes her concern.

“I think we’re good in Scotland at giving start-ups and entrepreneurs a chance but I’m worried that we don’t do enough to help them scale up. I think the biggest problem facing Scotland today is one of talent drain and talent development. Too many young people feel they need to go south to further their careers and we need to work harder to give them the opportunities they need in Scotland.”

Roz believes that organisations such as the Saltire Foundation is one way this leak of talent  can be stopped.“I’m a massive fan of what the Foundation is doing. At Genius Foods we’ve taken scholars on board and I’ve spoken at Saltire Fellows programmes. It’s all about taking young people, developing their skills and keeping them in Scotland.”

The food and drink sector is vital to the Scottish economy yet Roz believes more can be done to promote its worth, and the opportunities that exist within the sector. “We know that oil and gas are critical to the economy but so is food and drink. It needs more support to encourage talent into it and keep it.

“Scotland is famous for its food and drink. But where is the talent coming from to keep the sector alive? We need to do more to keep the talent pipeline full.”

It perhaps doesn’t help that as a sector it can be regularly demonised by the media. “It makes me so cross to read one week, ‘don’t eat this’, the next week ‘you must eat that’. It’s demonising significant parts of the industry; we need to do more to encourage people to see the sector as a vibrant one that they can join.”

If given the chance to run Scotland for the day this issue of nurturing talent would be high on Roz’s agenda: “I’d love to see more done to bring commerce and education closer together, to get the food and drink industry and the opportunities it offers on the curriculum in our colleges and universities.

“When I was at Genius we began talking to Aberdeen University about how we can encourage talent and link it to the food and drink sector.

“A career in the food industry is a great place to be – we need to do more to get that message across to young people.”

So what’s next? Alongside her continuing role as Chair of Emily Crisps, Roz continues to be an advisor to Genius Foods and a non-executive director with Lightbody Ventures. Added to these three roles are two newer ones – and for once, outside her favoured sector.

“I have taken on two Non-Executive Director positions, with Scottish Golf Ltd and Worldwide Cancer Research.”

Golf – the favoured hobby? “No, interestingly enough. My son plays, and my mum, but I don’t. I’ve joined Scottish Golf as I want to help boost the number of people playing and make it a more family-friendly experience. We need to do more to encourage people to play – too many people drift away from the game as it takes too long to play and many simply don’t have the time.

“Yet it is such a great game. My mother came to it later in life and the experience she has had has been brilliant – the fresh air, the exercise, the new friends she’s made. We need to make more people aware of the huge positives and help position it as a family sport.”

The role at Worldwide Cancer Research is her latest and one she takes up from March. “Finally, I’ve gone back to my science roots! It’s a great charity: it is different from the other wonderful cancer charities in that it specialises in funding research into early stage cancers across the globe.
“Currently it has 151 research projects across 19 countries, and has funded more than £200m of pioneering research across the world. Unlike other charities it doesn’t have one particular institution it is linked to. Rather, it has a team of esteemed scientists who look at submissions from across the globe and decide on whether to fund them.

“It is headquartered in St Andrews and it is a charity I feel very passionately about and, after 28 years working in the commercial space, it is something I really want to get involved with. If I can help secure more funding for it and raise its profile, that would be wonderful.”

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