Movers and shakers

By Sarah Britton

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: New product development

Movers and shakers
Food developers are constantly switching jobs. Sarah Britton looks at why staff move on so frequently and how this affects manufacturers

It wasn't so long ago that a job was for life. But today, development staff are changing teams faster than David Beckham changes hair styles. And while staff motivation is an issue that all employers must tackle, it can mean the difference between success and failure when new product development (NPD) is at stake.

Mintel's Global New Products Database director David Jago sees high staff turnover as a major problem because people don't stay long enough to see through the longer innovation projects. "The biggest challenge for NPD teams will be to keep the good people. Our economy is strong enough for people to change jobs all the time. That's why there are a lot of 'me too' products," he says.

Headhunting contributes to the problem, says Dhrutee Davé, director of West Sussex-based NPD recruitment firm Blue Spark. "There aren't as many good NPD people as there used to be, so companies are trying to poach competitors' staff."

David Peel, partner in NPD consultancy Food Development Associates, sympathises with manufacturers' plight. "Everyone's chasing the same consumers - there's only a certain amount of opportunity," he says. "To get people to switch to a particular brand or company requires a lot of resource and these things don't happen overnight. If you've got a vision for an innovation, which will take two to three years, the last thing you want is staff disappearing on you." He claims that confidentiality is a key concern when NPD staff change firms: "You don't know who the hell they're going to work for."

Director of the Development Chefs' Network and business development chef for Premier Foods, Mark Rigby, reckons many companies find themselves faced with a real dilemma when it comes to staff trust. "As soon as someone goes, you lose not only their inspiration, and the fact that they understand the business, but they also take the business knowledge with them," he says. "So what should you do with your business? Do you hide things? Or tell staff everything and take the risk that they might leave in a few weeks and take secrets with them?"

The situation is less problematic than it sounds, claims Rigby. He says that true innovation is not commonplace, so even if staff do take inside knowledge with them, it's not the end of the world.

"There are confidentiality forms filled in, but at the end of the day, there's nothing that brand new - as Marco Pierre White said: 'we're not reinventing the wheel, we're just changing the tyres'."

Reality check

Despite its title, many areas of NPD don't involve working on new products at all, which may well be why some developers find themselves disillusioned with the industry. Peel says that groundbreaking concepts are few and far between, because a large part of NPD involves improving existing products, as opposed to working on earth shattering innovations. "A lot of what people call NPD is actually brand maintenance. Actual blue sky development is quite rare and the freedom to express yourself is rare," he says.

Rigby agrees: "You can't have innovation all the time - a business can't afford it. Not many companies have an innovation team because you need to buy new kit [to make new products] and it can take years to see a return."

And even staff working on truly innovative projects can have their wings clipped. Many projects don't even pass the ideas stage because of the inability of some to link new product concepts to equipment capabilities. This can slow down the NPD process and aggravate developers, says food development consultant and interim manager at Cheftech, Celia Wright.

"The problem is that to survive in this industry, you have to have a good knowledge of the concept side and what is possible in the factory. It's frustrating for creative people to be told: 'We can't do that in the factory'," she says. "A good technical department should be managed by someone who understands both sides."

Some sectors are far more creative than others, according to Davé. "I think more of the high calibre creatives go into chilled because it's a faster pace and people move on a lot quicker. It's where you get a lot of innovation," she says. "People always want to work for Waitrose and Marks & Spencer suppliers because if you work for Asda, you have to copy what everyone else is doing."

She claims that Asda focuses heavily on hitting price points, and although she admits there's an art to sticking to a budget, she says many developers want to be ahead of the rest.

"Marks & Spencer and Waitrose are definite leaders in chilled," agrees Rigby. "They set trends on the heels of chefs in restaurants, so everyone looks to them." However, he says: "A lot of foods they ape are faddy foods with a short life and are only manufactured for three-to-four weeks because they haven't worked."

Short product life means NPD staff must constantly churn out new products. "The pressure upon people to develop products quickly has increased," says Wright. "A few years ago you had quiet periods and busy periods. Now there are busy periods and ultra busy periods and some people find it difficult to cope."

Outside help

Interim work could be an option for people who don't want the constant pressure of hitting company targets. But temporary work comes with its own risks, says Davé

"These days, if people aren't happy in a role, many are trying interim and seeing how it goes. As an interim you could go in at any level, but you're still on the outside of the team. You may feel a bit isolated because you don't have a team to manage properly and sometimes people don't integrate well."

She claims that contract work can prove more attractive: "With contractors, you're not just filling in because you have a specific job to do - you really are an expert in your field."

Wright says that outside help can also be a solution for companies wanting to ensure they have NPD cover over a period of time. "People can get stale if they stay on a product range for too long. That's why you see a lot of interim people - because they breath new life into projects," she says. "NPD goes in peaks and troughs, and at the moment it seems to be peaks and mountains. The benefit of an interim is that you're only paying for someone when you need them."

Fresh challenges

Even very creative in-house staff can find working in the same area on a daily basis restricting, claims Wright. She says that job satisfaction depends on the individual, but also on how exciting the product range is.

"With sausages there's always a limit," she says. "You can try different flavours and bases, but the best sausage of all time is pork. If you're a creative person, you will find it constraining."

"If you stay in one area, you get stale, so sometimes managers want someone new," says Davé. She believes it is paramount for employees to move around in order to build up a varied portfolio of experience.

"I think early on in their career, NPD people want as much experience in different areas as possible. In the first five years of work, they'll have changed jobs every 12-18 months. It's rare to have someone who stays for over three years. A lot of people move country and company and then find a long-term position at a good company."

It's really important to work for the best manufacturers, says Rigby. "Once you've worked for the likes of Premier, Unilever or Nestlé, there's no one that's going to turn you away because they know they're bringing in quality."

But staff don't always move on because they want more experience. Davé claims that junior staff are often forced to change jobs because they cannot progress within the business.

"Senior NPD managers don't move on that often - they stay for five years or more, so there's nowhere for junior staff to go once they've outgrown their role," she says. "Some companies are losing good people because they haven't planned their professional development. More money needs to be spent on nurturing junior technologists."

She adds that some companies are unwilling to let employees leave the confines of the kitchen. "Sometimes the reason why companies can't keep NPD people is because they don't let them out to food expos or restaurants. Even blue chip companies I know of say they haven't got time to go to IFE [the UK's largest food and drink exhibition]."

Rigby notes that, no matter how keen a developer is, everyone has a cut off point. "If you're giving more to a company than you're getting back, then it's time to move on," he says.

Davé stresses that development staff will not stay in a particular role where they feel unappreciated and unfulfilled.

"These are creative people. Regardless of whether there's a recession going on, if they're bored, then they'll change jobs." FM

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