Thursday 17 August 2017

Irish Mars chief underlines food giant's concerns over Brexit costs

Mars President of Global Food, Drinks, European and Multisales Fiona Dawson says her award is down to a team effort
Mars President of Global Food, Drinks, European and Multisales Fiona Dawson says her award is down to a team effort

Ellie Donnelly

Food giant Mars broke the habit of generations when it came out ahead of the Brexit vote to warn Britons that leaving the European Union risked adding whacking price hikes to many of the country's favourite foods.

The task of serving up those home truths fell to Irishwoman Fiona Dawson, the Mars President of Global Food, Drinks and European and Multisales - one of the handful of top executives on the global management team.

The Dubliner sat down with the Irish Independent before being named by the Marketing Institute as its All Ireland Marketing Champion at the AIMs on May 11.

Dawson, who lives in the UK and has spent much of her working life there, is if anything even more concerned as the anniversary of that referendum approaches.

"This is an incredibly volatile time, Brexit is not something that we wanted", she says.

Family-controlled Mars, headquartered outside Washington DC, has a history of remaining tight-lipped and even secretive, but Brexit is an exception.

"Very unusually for Mars we went very publicly against Brexit. At Mars we support free movement of goods and skills," she says.

Against a background of increasingly testy negotiations between London and Brussels, Dawson is keen not add to the war of words - describing as "unhelpful language like 'divorce'".

"We respect the vote and our objective is to work within those boundaries," she says diplomatically, but her concerns are clear and likely to be shared by a huge number of food businesses here.

One concern is the weight other sectors - like carmakers - carry in the UK narrative relative to food.

A UK exit from the EU without a trade deal would mean defaulting to World Trade Organisation (WTO) standards - which can include high tariffs on food.

"Sixteen per cent of factory output in the UK is food and drink", Dawson says, "our supply chain is undermined with customs and tariffs. If we were to return to WTO rates, tariffs of 10pc to 30pc, this would result in increased prices but we would be doing our best to reduce prices to consumers as consumers have choices.

"People need to understand the unintended consequences of moving very quickly."

Labelling is another huge concern. The single market has made standards in all kinds of areas consistent and mutually recognised across a vast market. A boon to big businesses like Mars but also to consumers.

"If we start to unwind really quickly with a potential separate label for UK, this adds huge degree of complexity to the production base - which would have a significant cost and workload implication.

"The EU has made it easy for businesses like us to do business. We are now in very uncertain time for industry and consumers, but we will find our way through it."

Apart from a few years at Pepsi, Dawson has spent her working life with Mars in roles including European marketing vice-president, managing director and then president of Mars Chocolate UK.

She's a lifer. The Mars Incorporated Leadership Team where she now serves under CEO Grant Reid oversees sales in excess of $33bn.

Dawson says that the main area which she looks after is the food segment. At Mars the segments, she says, are set up to run individually, and each is guided by the company's five principles of quality, responsibility, mutuality, efficiency and freedom. The principles, Dawson says, guide the company's everyday work, culture, and its approach to business, and, she says, very much why she has stayed at Mars so long.

As well as Mars confectionery the business produces Whiskas, Uncle Ben's and Wrigley.

Increasingly, health and ethically-conscious customers have seen the business respond - it's committed to buying 100pc fair trade certified cocoa by 2020 and working with farmers to minimise use of water and land.

"If farmers get a better yield and price we will get a better quality product", she says.

But she's less gung ho when it comes to proposals around the world to tax sugary snacks.

"We want level paying fields, people are already very savvy about the role of chocolate in their diet. Chocolate needs to contain sugar to be called chocolate, we will continue to investigate the area."

Away from chocolate Dawson says that Mars "has taken a bold step and anticipated where we think industry and consumers will move" as well as supporting WHO guidelines and having significant reductions sugar and salt content in food.

However she cautions on the need to move slowly. "We have a gradual process of reducing down salt and sugar to allow people's palates move with us."

When it comes to speaking about herself rather than the business she's less forthcoming.

Of her latest award she says: "I joined Mars as a graduate and have been incredibly fortunate to have had the most wonderful career there and I believe the award [All Ireland Marketing Champion] is on behalf of the team. There are really creative people on the team, they make my job incredibly rewarding and easy."

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