Projects: Leadership, Mentoring and Coaching

  • Effective implementation of these three components allow business leaders to mould company climate and culture, helping to develop resilient, effective and self-sufficient people so that delegation and trust become the norm. Leaving you the time you need to think ahead.

 

  • Three perspectives on Leadership:
    • ‘Great leaders are born, not made.’
    • You manage things…you LEAD people.’
    • ‘Leadership occurs when one person induces others to work towards some predetermined objectives.’

 

  • Each of these present specific dimensions to leadership. The first is an incorrect perception which, unfortunately too many people have. They talk themselves out of being a leader, and they also sometimes look for the wrong qualities in what makes a leader. Secondly, because you are a manager, you may also need to lead. But leading and managing are not the same thing. Finally, it is also assumed that you can only have one leader and they are at the top of the organisation. Not so. Anyone, anywhere can lead, and instilling the basics in people while they are still relatively junior will augur well for when they need to lead well. Does your business define and nuture leadership?

 

  • Coaching informally gives people the skills they need – hard and soft – as they build their career. Core skills tend to be learned through formal, structured training. But there are many other skills needed in the professional’s toolkit that need communicating somehow. How do you identify the people who can coach, and those that need it? How do you deliver it so that it develops – rather than destroys – confidence?

 

  • Mentoring, goes one stage further. Although it can encompass both of the above, it completes the personal development plan by filling in the gaps and looking at the complete individual. I find, it is unevenly treated in the working world. Some businesses insist on it. They’ll pair you with a mentor or mentee and your relationship is formally assessed. Some individuals realise a benefit and seek out a mentor. Few businesses sit anywhere between these two extremes. Mentoring is not managing, and it requires special skills. They aren’t magical, but they are different. Get it right and you have a very robust support network for your people as they navigate fresh challenges and deal with the 360 degree world we call ‘life’.

 

  • In all three cases, the perspective I offer is NOT one of the psycho-analytical expert. However, I have been the recipient and deliverer of all three in a long and varied working life. I have seen and experienced the benefits from both sides of the relationship. I have successfully implemented techniques across all three aspects and have seen the powerful effect good practice can have.

 

  • And so my service is less about ‘everything you need to know’, but more about understanding how these aspects can be incorporated into your organisation in an appropriate way. To understand how some simple assessment, reflection, planning, experimentation and review stages can transform your people from ‘doers’ to empowered and activated colleagues who can eventually be left to run your business while you find the time you need to plan ahead.

 

Example One: Leadership

This company realised that there were too many managers who were task-oriented and were not developing the people below them. It created a succession-planning problem. The solution was to embark on a major leadership training programme. The second most important aspect was that all managers received the same training. It set a benchmark, it transformed so many aspects of personal behaviour, and the effects on some individuals genuinely amounted to something of a revelation.  However, the most important aspect was the attitude each individual was encouraged to develop within the sessions. If you engage, loosen up and talk honestly and openly, it is surprising what happens. I was a recipient of this experience, I went on to practice it with great success within my business function and I can also put you in touch with the organisers who can deliver the ‘full fat’ version of what I experienced. You have to start somewhere and I can help leaders at all levels in your business to understand what leadership REALLY is and how to unlock people’s true potential.

Example Two: Coaching

Amongst my peers I’ve noticed I’ve been unusual in routinely making time to coach. Without ever becoming the Company Agony Aunt or Shoulder To Cry On, I reached out to people who were in danger of sinking, and was also approached to help or simply listen. And we all ended up learning something. If you have the right culture it is easy to do, and the benefit comes when you find that your colleagues are stepping up to the plate to take something off yours because they feel empowered, confident and trusted.

Example Three: Mentoring

Another outcome of the Leadership programme mentioned above, was the decision to implement a mentoring programme. After appropriate training I then mentored two colleagues in distant functions (generally, it works better that may). I have also been a Business Mentor for the Prince’s Trust. This put me in contact with people who were often in ‘last chance saloon’ in terms of career options and they were not always natural entrepreneurs. I have also had a mentor of my own and his own advice and pithy aphorisms have stayed with me as much as anything else I have learned. As a result, I can present the case for having a Mentor programme and provide ideas on how to encourage and implement a programme to nurture the individual in any aspect of their life such as they require – as and when they need it.

Projects: Pricing, Sales Promotion and Category Management

  • I group these together as there is a natural link between them when it comes to moving your product off the shelf and into the basket. The process is the same whether it’s goods or services.

 

  • Correct pricing is crucial, but too often it is used as the only marketing tool; a blunt instrument to shift product. And if you get it wrong, it’s hard to get back on track. Or maybe your sales force are opening new accounts rather than profitable business? Do you know how much your products REALLY cost? If not, you are not in control of your profit stream. And if you are selling along a convoluted route to market, how do you work to keep your fair share? I can help.

 

  • Sales promotion is directly connected to pricing. If you aren’t in control of the above, you are probably not in control of your promotions. Do you promote on percentage or cash margin? Does it matter? Do you check in advance whether you are going to actually financially gain from it? Surprisingly few people bother. Point-of-purchase promotions are a fascinating exercise in understanding consumer behaviour. Often, price has nothing to do with the promotion mechanism. And when you do promote, is the product actually on shelf to be bought? Discover how to avoid giving your products away.
  • Category management is a more specialised discipline but it introduces fresh challenges: obtaining and using market data, conducting commercial analysis of what it suits you to sell, and what it suits the consumer to buy. In retail nowadays, suppliers are often effectively renting shelf space off the retailers, in which case you don’t want to have goods on the shelf gathering dust!

 

Example One: Pricing

This company operated across three distinct distribution channels and also exported. The sales force was generally well resourced and managed, but the sales managers themselves were individually given a long leash in how they negotiated prices. I was concerned by the complexity of the price structures and whenever prices files changed, it was a very complex admin task – even with very comprehensive systems. Each customer’s pricing was effectively bespoke. It didn’t always take account of their size and when you tried to compare product prices across customers or channels, there was no consistency. I was working with an external consultant and we proposed developing a standard price list which managers could then apply an approved discount against where it was justified. The issues were getting senior level approval and sales manager buy-in, along with having to unravel and re-present some extremely complicated customer price lists. Fortunately the Commercial Director supported the plan and attempts to undermine the idea failed. This immediately provided an ‘anchor’ so that anyone could see where to start, and clear boundaries were also implemented to ensure that any major deviations were approved in advance. Even the sceptics came to realise that it just made life easier – including negotiations where the go/no-go line was much better defined. We walked away from unprofitable business rather than succumb to the temptation to point to the ‘success’ of opening another problem account.

Example Two: Sales Promotion

This company sold a highly seasonal product which was an essential Christmas purchase. It was asked to price promote the product in the run up to Christmas but it declined. It didn’t go down well with the retailer concerned but we explained our logic. If you are in a highly competitive category then there is some sense in incentivising people to put your brand in the basket. However, the company had already ensured that it had a high share of supply. It provided both branded and private label products to the retailer in question so provided the customer was in that store, they would probably be buying the product in some form. Retailers like promotions to enhance their price credentials, but it doesn’t always work for suppliers. Why cut your prices when people are buying anyway? Of course there are exceptions, but you sometimes need an experienced head to decide what suits you best. And sometimes, if you are unsure of a payback,  it’s best to do nothing.

The second example concerns international markets. It is tempting to think that globalised industries work the same the world over. But they don’t. I have worked on a number of launch projects in the US. Early on, we assumed that the supply chain worked the same as in the UK, such that we shipped the order, the US distributor would deliver it to a depot and voila! It would appear on shelf.  Some weeks later we went to visit some stores to see the products in all their glory. Except they were nowhere to be seen. Had they reached the store, we asked? Yes they had. Why hadn’t the store people taken the products from the warehouse to the shelf then? Because, in the US, store workers don’t do that. The suppliers do, via an army of contracted ‘merchandisers’ who roam the store network and put the product on the shelf. No-one told us! But then, we didn’t ask and the distributor thought we knew. Some parts of the world love British goods and brands. But don’t assume they distribute them the same way. There is plenty of help around, but it’s good to know the right questions to ask in the first place. I’ve learned the hard way!

Example Three: Category Management

This business was a major supplier to a particular food category and regularly had to present insight to the retailers’ commercial teams. The deal nowadays is that as a responsible and valued supplier, you provide a significant amount of the market insight to the retailer both to justify why your products should be on their shelves, but also to advise them on how to maximise the profitability of the whole fixture – not just your own portion of it. There is an established suite of market information that both retailers and suppliers use and it is robust and detailed, but expensive. Retailers sometimes nominate one supplier to be their ‘Category Captain’ and this is a mixed blessing: it brings you into regular and close contact with your retailer Buying team, but the cost of the insight you need in order to perform the role satisfactorily is beyond the reach of most.

We addressed this by being creative about the information we were presenting. We were fortunate in selling not only to retailers, but also to wholesalers and manufacturers. So we had a complete picture of the vertical market. We also used our social media activity to harvest insight that was both rich and unique. Only we had this information and within it was all manners of clues as to what customers were using, why, when… and what was still lacking. We didn’t have the grunt of the big boys, but we were nimble, imaginative and intelligent. For the price of managing a genuinely interactive social media programme, we kept a seat at the top table when it came to listing decisions AND we could innovate with purpose and confidence. If you don’t have unique insight, find it. If you have it, use it!

Projects: Innovation and Product Management

  • Maybe you’ve always made what you make or provide. Maybe you invented it and then converted the world to use it? Either way, you need to actively manage your products because the one constant in life is change. Be prepared for them to be a novelty, then a staple and, eventually, a white elephant.

 

  • Most products go through each of these phases. You may have one product going through each of these phases, or you may have a wide range with every product at a different phase in its life. Are you in control, or just hoping your luck will last?

 

  • You may have widely differing margins, selling some products at a loss – or profiting hugely on the latest flavour of the month. Or worse still, you may not even know how profitable each product really is. Every product you sell at a loss is impeding you: possibly killing you. Selling a few units at high margin may be easier and less stressful than selling many at low margins. Hitting the ‘sweet spot’ can seem like doing a Rubik’s Cube. But with a bit of order, analysis and hard-headedness, you can take back control and sell what it profits you to sell.

 

  • Are you a production-led company? Maybe sales-led, or even market-led? Why does it matter? I can tell you the difference and why one – and only one – is the better way. Here’s a clue: if your customer doesn’t want or need it, they won’t buy it. End of!

 

  • Do you have a product pipeline? If so, what’s next? What will insulate you from becoming obsolete? What do you expect to be selling in 3 years’ time? Five years? How do you know what your market will want then? How long will it take you to respond if people stop buying from you? What even IS ‘innovation’??

 

Some examples of work I’ve done – but no names to protect the innocent!

Example One

This company had over 600 products on its books. A proportion of these sold at a loss. Others sold so infrequently the stock was out of date by the time the order came in. The value of stocks was increasing. Previous attempts to cull the range had failed due to the influence exerted by salespeople and their mantra that ‘the customer gets what they want and they expect (insert name of loss-making product here) as a service’. We had plenty of data and information. Great systems. But that wasn’t the issue.

In the end, someone had to grasp the nettle. It was me. I was responsible for product management but most people expected that to mean I just added new products to the list. It couldn’t go on. So, I teamed up with the head of supply chain who had all the information we could wish for. He was no mug: he’d previously project managed the building of nuclear submarines. He was also as fed up as I was with our efficiency and service levels. That was why I chose him as my key project ally.

We quickly established that half our range – 300 products – were turkeys. So, we matched the cull list with alternatives to offer where we could. Then we told the sales force what was going and when we’d like it to happen. We also prepared for the expected backlash, and ensured the board knew what we were doing, why and that they supported us. For the first time in living memory it happened. We lost no customers, we reduced stock and the factory ran more efficiently. And for me as a product manager, I had half as many products to manage, so I managed them twice as well as before. The moral of the tale here is that to do nothing is not an option! Everyone has information in hatfuls nowadays, but where’s the action plan?

 

Example Two

This company had a problem with ‘Innovation’. It hadn’t defined what it meant by the word. For every person who thought it meant blue sky, ground breaking revolution, there was another who thought it meant one spoon of sugar rather than two, or the same product in a new jar with a new label on it. No wonder we were confused and mired in inaction while our competitors caught up!

There were other problems. A long list of new products was under development. We had more forms than you could shake a stick at. Meetings were shambolic. Except for the development team, everyone else in the business regarded innovation as something that got in the way of the real job. And the products would fail anyway: they always did.

My first response was tactical: we had agreed to launch a range and we were going to deliver it come hell or high water. We made what we were good at and sub-contracted the ones we weren’t good at. We revised our processes to make them more proportionate: enabling us to be swift and nimble at trying out ideas with minimal risk rather than betting our shirt on The Big One that needed a hundred signatures to sign it off.

Strategically, I asked us to be clearer on what we defined as Innovation. And I also helped the business to better understand that Existing Product Development (EPD) is actually less risky than New Product Development (NPD), and can deliver a quicker result to the bottom line.

Example Three

This company made both its own products and products badged for other people. Private label as it is known. Unfortunately, when you are a small producer and your trade customer is a multi-billion-pound household name, it can be a problem to hang on to your crown jewels: the products that your customers know you for. How do you protect them?

There is a temptation to roll over and hand them over, for sure. And there is also nothing wrong with taking the opportunity to do private label. Indeed, there are real advantages. But if you do want to develop and sustain your own brand long term, you must stand firm. But don’t be obstinate. One company I worked for took this to the logical extreme and insisted that it was their brand that went on shelf, or nothing. Successfully digging us out of that hole is why I have the medal to prove that I can square the circle. It requires you to be innovative to ensure there are enough products to go around, but you must also understand your own customer and the end consumer thoroughly so that you can work out why one size rarely fits all, and that flexibility and astute product management can create a genuine win-win. That’s what we did in this case. We identified a key difference in the proposition and it all fell into place. In one business we ensured the private label offering lagged behind the brand. In another we actually proposed the most innovative products for private label first. Both can work well IF you know why you are doing it.

It is said that eight out of ten new products fail. I can help you radically improve on this and help you avoid betting your shirt on a 100-to-one shot. Innovation has many facets. I can help you find the one that suits you best and then excel at it.

 

Projects: Branding and brand management

  • Your brand defines your business purpose, your values and personality.
  • At least it should do. It is much much more than a logo – although it does no harm to have a logo too!
  • Brands need to be treated as your most important employee. Which makes sense as they do your most important job in telling the world out therer about your company and what it offers (what’s known as the ‘Brand Promise’). When correctly managed, it can become the biggest asset you have in the form of ‘goodwill’. So it makes sense to develop and manage it properly.
  • Developing a brand needs careful thought about issues such as what your business does, what makes it distinctive, where does – or will – operate. And not least, it ideally needs to be protected through trademark registration so that others cannot ride on the back of your success and pass off their product as yours. Believe me this happens a lot and is a pain to deal with!

I have developed new, and launched existing brands in domestic and international markets, sometimes with marginal investment. I have nurtured and evolved existing brands both owned and managed. Here are some examples:

 Billington’s  – A Sweet life

This is a brand selling the very best unrefined sugars. Now owned by ABF plc as part of its grocery brands, between 1858 and 2004 it was the flagship brand of a private family company trading in Liverpool and its brand positioning and values still reflect that heritage and I was responsible for marketing it.

The job here was to ensure that the brand remained ‘current’ whilst articulating the right sense of heritage (expertise and longevity rather than fusty and old-fashioned) as well clearly presenting an outlier independent brand, clearly different in approach to the big sugar refiners like Tate & Lyle and Silver Spoon. I managed two brand revisions in my 10 years there and also developed the brand and products into Organic and Fairtrade sectors.

English Provender Company and Very Lazy – Divide and Conquer

English Provender – or ‘EPC’ as the trade called it – was a small company acquired by Billingtons in the 1990’s. Through acquisition and private label success, the company grew suddenly and rapidly and so moved its heartland from ‘moms and pops’ shops to the shelves of the major grocery retailers. It made superb chutneys and condiments and also had a small but very successful range of chopped ingredients – a very lazy way of using garlic, chillies and ginger! My problem was that the two really didn’t sit very well together: they had different applications and target customers.

So, in 2009 I stopped trying to put square pegs in round holes and separated the brands. They had different positionings, personalities, liveries and even websites. We (re)launched Very Lazy in a blaze of publicity with a small but imaginative satellite TV campaign featuring an endorsement by the World’s Fastest Chopper, Lazlo Vaslavsky. The campaign also enabled us to regain an important retailer listing which more than paid for the marketing investment. And to this day, the brands are still there in most food stores and each with a distinct and distinctive presence.

Renshaw – The worldwide phenomenon of cake decorating

Renshaw is another great English company and brand with heritage – as well a royal warrant. When I joined the business in 2010 the brand was just coming out of suspended animation after an understandable but misguided period of cost-cutting. Despite having an excellent reputation amongst craft bakers and hobbyists, the Renshaw brand had virtually disappeared off the product packaging. My job was to restore the brand to its former glory and create a strong and compelling positioning worthy of its century-old heritage, as well as to make it relevant to key overseas markets such as Europe and the US. International marketing is always caught between the two stools of ‘global branding’ and ‘acting locally’. It forces you to combine the need for order and clear brand hierarchies, to understand whether in fact you can even market your brand in certain territories (in one we found we couldn’t: drat!), but also to recognise that even people who speak the same language have a completely different response to your brand and product compared to the domestic market. We aimed for a launch in the US market and after careful research and development, we successfully launched in 2015.

My other challenge was to create a new brand to deal with a common issue of ‘channel conflict’. First and foremost, Renshaw is a professional baker’s brand. It does not sit well in the mass grocery market even though we saw huge potential for the product in that arena, as the desire to get stuck into cake decorating percolated down to the mainstream. Private label was an option but the intricacies of retailer policies on colourings made this tricky. My solution was to create another, more accessible brand specifically for use in the mass grocery market. It suited the consumer and it suited the retailers. Launching a brand in this arena can be a big investment and risk, but we were canny, sought reassurance from both trade and consumer, and went for it. Listings that were otherwise very difficult to land, followed with gratifying ease. Maybe we were lucky. But sometimes you make your own luck!

There have been lots of other brands I’ve been involved with, but these stand out as each having great stories behind them, and specific challenges that the brands’ development had to address. Behind these stories are a whole load of techniques and processes that maximise your chances of success. Brands can very easily be damaged or even destroyed (for example remember Hoover, Dasani and Ratners?), so it makes sense to avoid silly and costly mistakes. I can help you avoid the bad and accentuate the positive!

Mark Bosworth

Bonfire Consultancy Services            bonfiremarketer.com              07742 110018

Why your customers love you when you fail

I suppose I’m not alone in recently being invited into people’s living rooms, kitchens, bedrooms, garages etc., via Facebook Live. Most of it has been unintentionally amusing and also made me realise I am a lot better at keeping on top of housework than I thought. In the name of research I watched one for a smallish business and wondered whether this was really helping with their digital strategy. When I met up with them the other day, I realised why it was.

While I was watching, I remember thinking ‘why would any brand owner put themselves through this?’ It wasn’t a simple product demo.  It was fraught with danger: a real high-wire act. I hope they’ll forgive me when I say there was a touch of ‘Acorn Antiques’ (remember that??) about it – as there would be with any production team who weren’t seasoned professional broadcasters. So I was surprised to learn that this was already proving the single most effective digital activity they had done in terms of engagement. There was an audience, there was interaction and ..lo..there were sales!

And then, most importantly there was an epiphany,  unexpectedly arising from an on-screen disaster. Burnt cakes!! Live!! On air!!! But snatching victory from the jaws of defeat as it turned out, the unflappable demonstrator extemporised by explaining how to salvage these burnt offerings, and a whole new avenue opened up right there and then. The wires glowed red hot with appreciative comments. This was clearly a common scenario amongst the viewers and the resonance of the broadcast soared further as it became clear that this was REALLY what folks wanted to know.

It’s rather like a story I heard long ago – pre-social media – from a PR company who handled a turkey producer’s account. They set up and manned (sorry, personned) a telephone hotline on Christmas Eve to help the hapless cook with their turkey trauma and in doing so, saved countless Christmas dinners, reputations  – and maybe even marriages – by focussing not on what goes right, but what to do when it doesn’t.

It’s weird when outtakes and other epic fails are such a big part of general broadcast content today, that brand owners don’t more readily – and seriously – deal with the creek and paddle situation. As my contact put it himself, it did wonders for their brand reputation, affinity and personality simply by being honest and – obviously – authentically knowledgeable.

Yes, we offer helplines and Customer Services and these often deal with the grim reality of life. But embracing the thrill of live performance to a potentially vast audience shows real confidence and the strongest demonstration of authenticity. I would have played safe, videoed it first and left the whole mishap on the cutting room floor. And I would have missed a huge trick. So credit to the brave ones. And maybe have another look at live performance as part of your ‘conversation’?

Is secondary education failing in North West England? And why should we be worried about it?

Maybe I am prone to the odd sweeping statement, but how about this? I’m beginning to think we in the North West of England are at something of a ‘Gladwell-ian’ tipping point, and that this is just another sign that on its current course, the good ship Capitalism – on a much  broader basis – is heading for trouble.

Recently there has been a string of hugely interesting and relevant comment on education in NW England, on where and for whom the benefits of the Northern Powerhouse are going to accrue and on the wider issues of economic distribution of wealth and the role of capitalism. Interesting in their own right, but synthesise the common points and see what emerges.

If secondary education in the region is not delivering, what’s the real cause? Poor delivery or poor reception? Outgoing OFSTED head Sir Michael Wilshaw has warned of ‘fissures’ opening up between North and South Secondary educational standards. See the Daily Telegraph’s report on it here

Some of the statistics are shocking: apparently in Liverpool half of secondary schools are rated less than good, with it being 30% in Manchester and only 10% in London. Why? This can’t be blamed on areas of deprivation or other totems like immigration.  Sir Michael quickly went beyond these educational fissures and pointed to a wider feeling of alienation, expressing concern that the North was a lower priority at Westminster and alluding to the Brexit vote as another manifestation of Northern alienation. The North  – excluding the big cities – seems to be being blamed for the result. The issue is close to home for me, as my youngest daughter is at a school currently in Special Measures – although I can’t help feeling even this status is a political artifice.

Is it a supply issue? Apparently, schools regionally are involved in ‘auctions’ to attract teaching staff, suggesting a shortage of good teaching professionals. Elsewhere, commentators blame the parents for not being as pushy or aspirational as their southern counterparts. And yet this is a big region, with two – possibly more depending on where you draw your boundary – world-class cities in the region as well as a plethora of medium-sized towns with plentiful and varied industrial activities.  Why do Northern parents not see the same value in education?

All the more puzzling when we see the Northern Powerhouse happening around us. Oh yes, that’s why Manchester is gearing up to be the London of the North, with public transport infrastructure investment and a look and feel -and parking prices –  increasingly in sync with The Smoke. Isn’t this something to be excited and optimistic about? Well, yes and no. George Osborne MP, the architect and (former) bankroller for it all  – and now Chairman of the Northern Powerhouse partnership –  has recognises that voters in the North, outside of the major cities, were in favour of Brexit. Speaking in Liverpool he admitted:

“I think one of the big challenges we have got ahead is that there has been an amazing revival in these city centres in the north over the last 20 years but the industrial towns in between and the suburbs have felt, I think, a bit left behind. There have been a lot of good government initiatives from all governments to revive the waterfront, to rebuild the [Liverpool] docks, but go a bit further out from the city and people I think feel that they haven’t seen enough of the economic growth of the country.” See article bearing this quote here

Hardly coincidentally, Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England also chose Liverpool and his Roscoe Lecture to say that ‘free-for-all’ capitalism has not benefitted everyone, mainly because  there is less and less trickle-down of wealth, more accentuated winners and losers, and a lack of faith and optimism in where it is all going. The type and quality of jobs for ordinary people is not changing for the better, and again he supports the view that outcomes like Brexit votes are a manifestation of this lack of optimism and dissatisfaction.

And then there is a very similar message painted on an even bigger canvas by Stephen Hawking. In the scientist’s typical forensic and undramatic language, he points out that Brexit and US elections are but two cries from the people that the establishment has failed them. In both cases, as with our stewardship of the planet, we have seen a lot of effort going into the forces of destruction (economic markets, political alliances, the environment, jobs, people, ancient tribes and culture) without the corresponding effort to replace and create a new, sustainable way forward for humanity and its planet. He contrasts the investment in technology with the persistent state of poverty for many in the world and warns that if the working classes were decimated by automation, the middle classes will be decimated by Artificial Intelligence (Ai), leaving very few winners. Something that Carney echoed in his speech. This used to be the stuff of sci-fi, but it’s surprisingly close and already happening.

As a Marketer I am increasingly being asked to provide an almost entirely technological toolkit to understanding and acting upon what humans do and think. On this basis we are already well on the way to reducing Marketing to an AI process where the likes of me only bring human error to the party, or so you’d thing from the many job specifications now circulating in cyberspace. It might work – but should we let it? Recently I read somewhere a quip about the rise of hand car washes. A sure sign of economic decline when an automatable process is actually done manually – and more cheaply. Of course, we could automate everything, but should we? I’m not a Luddite, but I do wonder who is going to buy consumer goods and services if too few people have the disposable income that employment brings. Nothing wrong with harnessing the benefits of ‘progress’, but what are the human implications?

Wow, how did we get from failing schools to thoughts on life, the universe and everything? The common thread, I think,  is hope. People need it, and lots of people need it. We are being naïve if we think this problem of North West England’s secondary schools is an isolated phenomenon that can be addressed with an educational sticking plaster. But unless we find a way of redistributing hope – in whatever form it needs to be to make people content and valued – we are heading for some very big rocks. And for now, maybe it starts with the parents of at least some North West schoolchildren thinking ‘Secondary education for my child… why?’

Is it a localised and specific problem? Just maybe it’s a hugely important signal about where we are ALL heading.  Stefan Stern –  Visiting Professor at Cass Business School – in his  Guardian piece points to the implications of the disconnect between quantity and quality of jobs (i.e. pay). He refers to a study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation which shows that employment is not necessarily a route out of poverty. A lot of people now have jobs like these: the ‘gig’ market as it is called. Those surviving on ‘gigs’ may not see a lot of value in education per se, just being good enough to turn up and do a day’s work, like the Liverpool stevedores used to.

And in closing here is an example of my own predicament: The Grocer is THE trade magazine for my sector (FMCG food). Yesterday I did a simple search for ‘marketing’ jobs. The results, broken down by UK regions, were: 191 positions advertised, 175 being in London and the South East: that’s ninety one percent! It may or may not be representative over time or across roles, or sectors or industries, but that’s what it shows. Is anyone else worried?

 

Feeding the (Young) World

John Lennon once said something like ‘life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans’. My WordPress renewal subscription metaphorically hit the doormat earlier this month and reminded me I had a blog. Time to reassess what I did with it given that it’s hardly been compulsive to write it!

So now will be some additions and offshoots to the previous themes and content. As always focussing on what matter to me. Food – and drink – being an everyday joy. As is making sure that money gets spent in the right places. Along with a wish to leave the world a better place than I found it. And an opportunity to indulge in another occasional interest in food photography. Etc etc.

Mix all this thoroughly together and here are the beginnings of a series of writings on cooking. Practical, hands-on stuff.

One catalyst has been the current TV series ‘Eat Well For Less’. New viewers  start here. I’ve not watched too many of the programmes but the recurrent themes are that people spend humungous amounts of cash on really quite mediocre food in the name of ‘convenience’ and also lack confidence and basic knowledge on how to get the most from their food. It was also sad to see occasions when individual diets and preferences resulted in stress and a kind of ‘food apartheid’ of different meals prepared and consumed separately. As well as nourishing,  food is supposed to bring people together.

Before I’m accused of being holier than thou, I have made many of these mistakes too. And the result is two of my three girls now living away with a fairly superficial and disjointed knowledge of food and how to buy and prepare it in interesting ways – along the way becoming a confident, curious and competent cook. So, even though I doubt they’ll be tuning in, I thought I’d pitch in with some help. I hope they do though.. it’s nice to give something back. And passing on cooking skills is very much along the lines of the old saying of ‘give a man a fish and feed him for a day…’. Giving people life skills is perhaps the most satisfying thing of all.

This is going to build slowly, so bear with. The timing might be good. September is traditionally a time when young people leave home and learn to fend for themselves. So there will be a mix of cooking suggestions and how to find and serve tasty, but relatively  inexpensive  food. I think I might also occasionally veer off into drink too. Why not?

Lastly some caveats. I am not a dietician nor do I have any professional qualifications in cooking or baking. Neither do I have any particular dietary  needs or preferences. If you do, all my comments need to be taken with a pinch of salt – unless you are trying to avoid that too. All my experience has been gained from day in/day out cooking both for myself and others. I have worked in the food industry for many years and this gives me a certain perspective on what, where and how I buy.

I’ve also been incredibly lucky in my job to meet some amazing cooks, chefs and food technologists and eat at some great places. Some of this skill might have rubbed off. I won’t name names and I am not going to filch any recipes created by others – those shown will be entirely my own – although I’ll point you towards some good sources.

So, that’s the way it goes. Now on to some proper content.