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Nicola Graham

Nicola Graham Investigating Officer

Be Inspired Series

Michelle Charrington

Marketing Advisor
Invest NI

What is your job?

I am one of a team of four marketing advisors working within Invest NI's food division. I am based in England and have the role of creating and developing new business opportunities for Northern Ireland food and drink companies in the GB retail and foodservice sectors.

How did you get into this line of work?

I was working on a project for Invest NI, contributing to a Food Strategy Report looking at the best way forward for the Northern Ireland food and drink industry.

Invest NI's own thought process and the recommendations of the report concluded that a business development resource on the ground would be beneficial for Northern Ireland companies.

When the marketing advisor positions were created, I was keen to apply, as it seemed like a great opportunity to contribute to the success of the local food industry, which not only plays a vital role in the local economy, but also manufactures some truly outstanding food and drink products.

What do you do on a day-to-day basis?

The marketing advisor role is fantastically varied. On any given day I can be out meeting buyers at trade shows or at their offices, ringing around to generate new buyer meetings or planning buyer visits to Northern Ireland.

I am generally in Northern Ireland for a few days each month. These days, which are generally spent getting Northern Ireland suppliers together with buyers, are often the most satisfying.

Our overarching purpose is to get more business transacted between Northern Ireland companies and GB customers and the best way to do this is to get buyers over to Northern Ireland to show them what they've been missing. Last year the team arranged more than 500 buyer meetings.

How does Invest NI help small food companies in particular?

The first hurdle for small companies is generally getting listed with retailers and foodservice operators on a local level.

This might mean supplying one or two supermarkets in a supplier's local area, or taking on a Northern Ireland listing. While our priority is generating Great Britain sales, we do work with retailers locally to arrange meet-the-buyer events on an ongoing basis and will often alert them when new and exciting products come on the market.

From Northern Ireland, many companies progress to selling into Scotland and Republic of Ireland before targeting England and Wales. As a team, we cover all these geographic areas. We can offer support with logistics as well as sales and marketing. Physically getting the product to market is often just as challenging as winning the business.

Today's small companies are tomorrow's Great Britain success stories and we are here to help them approach the market with confidence and to help them build relationships with fellow food and drink companies who are facing the same challenges.

Have you had any particular successes recently?

In terms of numbers, our team target is to influence Great Britain sales in the region of £12m per year. Invariably, this will comprise a few really large contracts and lots of smaller, often first-time listings. In the retail environment, national listings can take a long time to achieve, so it's always satisfying when these come through.

On the foodservice side, our work with buying groups has been one of our most successful tactics. When one group member is satisfied with a supplier's product and service levels, it's amazing how quickly word spreads throughout the group and we see a real uplift in sales.

How has the recession impacted your role and the businesses you work with?

Fortunately for us, of all the sectors Invest NI works with, food is one of the few to have kept growing in spite of the recession with employment actually increasing in the sector in 2008 (the UK food market is currently showing a small decrease in output).

Clearly currency fluctuations have been a boon for local companies supplying into the South, but for the Great Britain market it's not all about the money. It's a fact that many foodservice operators in particular have seen a number of their suppliers fall casualty to the recession.

These operators are having to review the range they have on offer and we are working hard to be close at hand with a Northern Irish solution to the problem. Our website, is proving to be a vital tool in getting companies under buyers' noses.

All the companies we work with (some 300) are invited to post their profile on the website. We then work to match Northern Ireland suppliers to Great Britain opportunities as they arise.

What is your background and how has it influenced your career?

Prior to working for Invest NI, I was with the food marketing consultancy, Promar International. Promar gave me an excellent insight into the global and European foodservice markets.

Working on projects for large multinational food companies, predicting how markets develop and how they should cash in on emerging opportunities gave me a great understanding of food industry dynamics.

How do you see your career developing?

Invest NI is committed to the development of the food and drink sector and every year we see a whole raft of new and enthusiastic companies joining the ranks of the industry. There's still a lot of work to be done for Northern Ireland to reach its full potential as a successful player in the Great Britain food sector and beyond. Based on the successes to date, I'm very optimistic that the marketing advisor role will continue to develop in the next few years. Longer term, I'm keen to stay in the food industry, either as a consultant or in a business development role.

What are the prospects in Britain for food companies?

British buyers are always open to approaches from companies offering distinctive products with a good quality/value ratio.

Pricing is always a challenge, but the volume potential of the Great Britain market makes it a worthwhile target. In many ways, starting to supply the Great Britain market is like starting up a business from scratch. The first few orders are hard-won and often don't generate much profit, but as products and brand s become established and volume sales increase, the door opens to real business growth.

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