"There should be a law against him. He knows what's happening 20 minutes before everyone else."
That quote by the former Scotland manager Jock Stein, is about England’s World Cup-winning captain, Bobby Moore. Who also, as it turns out, happens to be the CEO of the Food & Drink Federation, Ian Wright’s, favourite football player. Along with – he’s a big Crystal Palace fan – Wilfried Zaha. Stein was talking about Moore’s uncanny ability to read a game – anticipate danger, sense opportunity, execute a perfect tackle.
As my interview with Wright progresses it occurs to me, on more than one occasion, that he, although obviously competing in a very different arena, shares some of those same anticipatory traits.
Wright comes across as a man of passionate conviction, who can call on a wealth of business experience, spent, in part, at beverage giant Diageo, to fight the good fight for the industry he enthusiastically champions – to be, as he says, “Its voice in the world articulating the things that it believes are important.”
When I ask him to a name a recent example of the Federation’s practical effectiveness, he is quick to cite the ASDA and Sainsbury’s merger and its referral to the Competitions & Mergers Authority. “We brought pause for thought; the issue here would have been the creation a retail behemoth… 60% of the buying power in the market would suddenly have been centralised. Our job was to protect our members.”
Behemoth no more, it seems. As Sainsbury’s 7-billion-pound acquisition of Walmart-owned Asda encountered a large hiccup in the form of the CMA’s recent investigation and eventual decision against it. An example, perhaps, of Wright’s own ability to anticipate danger – stepping in for his members and protecting their interests against overly-aggressive retail expansion. As the Federation afterwards commented “Given the evidence provided by FDF members (and others) of substantial competition harms, it is hard to see how the CMA could have come to any other decision. We are pleased that the concerns of food and drink manufacturers have been heard and acted upon.”
But not all of the Federation’s recent campaigning has had positive results. Wright and his team fought hard against the imposition of the UK Sugar Tax, but, ultimately, to no avail. His voice becomes more animated as he outlines the results of the government’s – as he would see it – unnecessary legislation. In addition, “the amount of tax taken by the exchequer has actually been far less than they projected”. Warming to this theme, Wright continues, “Self-regulation has many benefits, as long as the aims of the industry and consumers are aligned, it can work very well. It seems better to me that industry effectively polices itself rather than government producing a large body of regulations which are, often, just ignored or adhered to only fitfully.”
When pressed on this point he reveals a clear reason as to why he thinks governments fall into the all-too-common trap of over legislating. “Having worked with regulators, my experience is that one of the main reasons they don't trust businesses is because they have not been in business themselves. So, when politicians speak they do not speak from experience.”
But, when being critical like this, Wright’s underlying instincts seem to be towards fairness and offering even-handed analysis. He is quick to give praise to the government if he thinks it is due. In the long and torturous run up to Brexit (still, at time of writing, waiting to happen). The organisation has sat on Defra’s Food Chain Emergency Liaison Group, which includes food supply chain stakeholders, to plan for all scenarios ahead of an EU exit. “Alongside people like Michael Gove,” Wright says, “there are many excellent civil servants, who, from first-hand experience, I can't fault for energy and commitment.”
What about the minimum wage, I ask. “Hasn’t that particular piece of recent legislation created real issues for the Federation’s members?” Here, he clearly disagrees. “I'm strongly in favour of the minimum wage…and the apprenticeship levy. I think they can play a part in persuading the younger generations – Millennials, Gen Z, of the benefits of capitalism. That capitalism can work for them, too.”
But – a note of real conviction enters his voice - he adds a caveat. “I was listening on the radio this morning and I heard a story about someone who is running a small fish and chip shop with about four people. They made the point that if they have to pay paternity or maternity leave for one of the staff and take somebody else on at the same time, well, for a business of their size that might actually mean closing down. So, legislators need to be very careful.”
As our interview winds up, I’m left with little doubt that on this last matter UK legislators will hear from the Federation. As Wright, its pugnacious CEO, much in the manner of his hero, Bobby Moore, executes a well-timed intervention.