Helen Drakakis catches up with Bidfood Scotland’s leading light, Katie Sillars
The food and drink industry in Scotland is estimated to be worth £14bn a year, overtaking traditional industries like oil and gas revenue. Last year, this prompted a Food and Drink Partnership, which brings together Scottish government and industry in a shared ambition to double the sector’s value to £30bn by 2030.
It is a huge opportunity for wholesalers who put provenance centre stage, and Bidfood Scotland has been ploughing its energy into promoting Scottish products at home and abroad.
Part of the wider Bidfood UK company, Bidfood Scotland was launched in 2015 and operates from four sites, carrying out around 375,000 deliveries a year, and moving 16.5m boxes.
Over that time, it has increased its focus on local producers, including those of fresh meat, game, fish and seafood, dairy, bakery and drinks items.
“It is difficult for small, local suppliers to break into the industry, so we work hard to champion them and support their growth, development and need to innovate within the sector,” says Bidfood Scotland’s business development manager, Katie Sillars.
At 33, Sillars is one of Bidfood Scotland’s leading lights. Having started her career for communications giant Motorola, she moved into the food and drink sector 10 years ago as a project manager for the likes of Tesco and Marks & Spencer. She went on to join Eat Balanced – a company supplying nutritional balanced meals for children via the foodservice sector – as a director, before joining Bidfood 18 months ago.
A passionate advocate for Scotland’s strategy to grow food and drink sales, Sillars created and launched a Scottish food and drink range last year.
The range currently stands at 629 products sourced from 110 Scottish suppliers, and has increased Bidfood’s net sales by 43% within the first six months.
Eighty-eight new lines will be added this year, coming from 15 new suppliers.
Much of the challenge of promoting Scottish produce is understanding exactly where a product fits in the market and working to secure opportunities, explains Sillars.
Clinching a deal with brewery and pub chain Brewdog, for example, has allowed Bidfood Scotland to drive sales of Scottish products through its outlets. “The chain now sources Scottish Mozzarella from Yester Farm Dairies, in East Lothian, for all of its 36 UK sites,” she says.
Sillars was also instrumental in launching Bidfood Scotland’s ‘hospitality hub’ in Larbert, Falkirk last year. The state-of-the-art ‘centre for excellence’ is the first of its kind in Scotland where new products are tested and developed.
“It was so exciting to finally open our doors to the hospitality hub and showcase what the site can offer,” says Sillars. “It has been planned for a long time, so it was fantastic to see our vision coming to life.”
Bidfood’s centre includes a bar, deli and kitchen and supports menu development and innovation for some of its 5,000 customers across hotels, restaurants, cafes, care homes, healthcare and education in Scotland.
“As well as driving innovation and growth for Scottish suppliers, there are opportunities for existing suppliers to gain listings across the UK, where Bidfood has a further 40,000 customers,” she adds.
Moreover, in partnership with Scotland Food & Drink, CH&Co Group – a leading catering and hospitality company – and Bidfood Scotland, Sillars launched Innovation Dens, where suppliers pitch to a panel of chefs, and procurement and operations personnel for the chance of securing a new contract.
“CH&Co is always seeking new, innovative products for its local and UK-wide venues,” she says. “This resulted in Scottish bakery supplier Cobbs Cakes achieving UK-wide listing across 750 sites.” In this context, Sillars refers to her role as occasionally involving being a “tool in my colleagues’ toolbox”.
With sustainability at the heart of Bidfood’s operation, Bidfood Scotland has fully embraced the ‘Source, Serve, Sustain’ campaign, which this summer involved Sillars cycling a 120-mile route from the company’s Edinburgh depot in the east to the Oban depot on Scotland’s west coast, delivering brochures to a series of customers along the course of the journey.
In partnership with accreditation company Green Tourism, the objective of the mission was to inspire customers and suppliers to switch to greener ways of working.
These included presenting local Scottish produce, showcasing best practice among green-minded sector organisations, as well as working in collaboration with sustainability experts to support customers as they work towards a more ecologically sound future.
“In the past ‘sustainability’ has been viewed as a buzzword or a ‘nice-to-have’. Increasingly, however, it is becoming essential to a successful hotel or catering business,” Sillars says.
Next year also promises to be equally productive for Bidfood Scotland.
The first thing in the pipeline for 2019 is an export initiative Sillars has been developing to further promote Scottish produce through her employer’s global network.
A star in the making in the FMCG wholesale channel, be sure to keep an eye out for more from Sillars and Bidfood Scotland.
60 Seconds With Katie Sillars
What is the best piece of business advice you can offer?
Do not be afraid to think differently within your job or business environment. The phrase ‘this is how it is always done’ does not necessarily mean it is the best way. Change is a good thing. Embrace it in order to improve people, teams and business activities.
What is your philosophy in regard to work?
Having a passion for what you do is really important. If you enjoy your job and the people you work with, then it is easy to keep stretching yourself. Keep it fun, and make sure what you are doing is having a positive impact, whether it is with your suppliers, your customers or your teammates.
What has had the biggest impact on your career?
When I graduated from university, I became really unwell and suffered from anorexia for a number of years. I could not physically work. However, I decided to study nutrition as part of my recovery and that led me into the Scottish food and drink sector and start-up businesses. It all worked out in the end.
What do you get up to in your spare time?
I love the outdoors. I am happiest on top of a mountain, and I am aiming to complete all 282 Munros – mountains that are over 3,000 feet tall – in Scotland by the time I am 50. I also do triathlon, so lots of cycling and running, although I hate swimming. But it would not be a challenge if it was all easy.