Five minutes with… Karl Atkins, Chief Operating Officer, Foodbuy UK&IRE

Five minutes with… Karl Atkins, Chief Operating Officer, Foodbuy UK&IRE
Published: 15 October 2021

Part of Compass Group UK & Ireland, Foodbuy is a leading food procurement organisation based in the UK. With over £1bn of managed spend, they bring together the widest range of foodservice and hospitality clients on the planet to buy food, and everything associated with it. In the latest of our ‘Five minute with…’ series, Berwick Partners’ Richard Guest, talks to Karl Atkins, Chief Operating Officer of Foodbuy UK&IRE. Together, they discuss his career to date, the importance of mentoring and the latest senior hire they’re looking to make into the business.

Having left the Compass Group in 2015, why did you return four years later?

It was always my intention to return to the Group but having worked within food retail and the food service sector, I wanted to gain experience working within the food and beverage FMCG supply chain. This I felt was crucial to enable me to fulfil my career aspirations, enabling me to see the industry from a different perspective. The experiences I gained whilst working for Britvic and Coca-Cola enabled me to return to Foodbuy in a much stronger position, with a more holistic view of the challenges across the sector.  

The business really got under my skin from the outset, due to the diversity of Foodbuy and the clients it serves.  It has been hugely rewarding to see how the business has grown not only within the UK but expanding into Australia and North America. You also have the backing of a £20BN Compass Group operating across 45 markets across the globe which opens countless opportunities for me to continue to grow and develop in what is a very entrepreneurial culture.

My view is that procurement is extremely transferable from one sector to another, yes, there are clear differences and approaches, but nothing insurmountable. I always look for the broadest possible talent pool and how beneficial it can be to look outside the sector, particularly if you want to embrace new ideas to challenge the status quo.

Is there a role in your career which has been pivotal to your success?

I think there are two key opportunities that I reflect on that have shaped my career to date; firstly, I benefitted from a fantastic graduate programme at Somerfield. The grocery retail sector was a great training ground with key characteristics of focus and pace coupled with the real time feedback from sales to sharpen the mind. I also benefitted valuable insight gained from customer groups where speed of decision making, big numbers, and intensity prepared me for my career ahead. I frequently rely on the foundation of key skills and experiences which I gained during this period.

The role that really elevated me to the next level was the Commercial Director position at Coca-Cola European Partners.  This enabled me to become a global brand leader and gain the insight into their approach to planning the market, devising strategies to win market share, and a relentless focus on execution. This truly elevated me to a different level on how I think about strategy, how I plan strategy through a team, and how to operate in a complex matrix business.

What is the best piece of advice that you have received? (And how has it shaped you both as a leader and person)

There are a few examples, but one does stand out and it takes me back to my retail days when I joined as a very naive graduate at Somerfields just as they came under VC ownership. The CEO of the business who invested a lot of time getting to know the new graduates had a 121 with me and said, “no matter what you do, be hard on the facts and warm on people”. I remember this conversation so vividly and try to stay true to this every day – I’m firmly of the opinion that in order to be a successful leader that you need to focus on both these crucial aspects.

Have you had any mentors, formally or informally during your career?

I’ve had some formal mentors and learnt through the process of what mentoring is all about. The most beneficial have been when I was really clear as to why I wanted a mentor at that moment in my career, as opposed to having one for the sake of having one.

On a more informal basis, there have been a couple of times when I’ve had a great mentor; I’ve always tried to think ahead and I recall, whilst at Compass, that I always wanted to gain a deeper understanding of the FMCG landscape. I wrote to the CEO of Nestle UK, outlining where I was in my career and what I wanted to do and within a couple of days I was delighted to receive an offer of help. We subsequently built a great relationship, and both got a lot out of the interaction over the years, which I think is also key for a successful mentor/mentee relationship. I’m a passionate believer in mentoring so long as the purpose and intentions are clear from both sides. It’s often the more informal mentoring partnership that’s actually more powerful where you connect with someone outside your circle or sector, that can be a great sounding board and offer a completely different perspective.

Tell me a little bit about the Commercial Procurement Director position in your team.  

This role is one of the most unique roles within procurement and supply chain at the moment, giving a perfect hybrid of the public & private sector. It commands huge purpose and an opportunity in a watershed moment for the NHS, to genuinely play a part in bringing together and leveraging the scale of the NHS and in improving its scale, contribute directly to front line services.

The role is incredibly high profile given the nature of the NHS and the importance of food within the healthcare system, either from a patient experience perspective, or as a friend of family member of someone in hospital. 

While the role will focus on delivering cost savings to plough back into frontline care, it’s also about all the added value services we can develop such as upskilling chefs in hospitals and improving menus. The position necessitates the successful candidate to have exceptionally strong interpersonal and relationship building skills to continue to expand the buy in across all Trusts within England. The team of 60 reporting into this position are all extremely motivated with a clear purpose and are all hugely passionate about continuing to make a difference to the NHS and patient experience.

For more information, please contact Richard Guest is an Associate Partner in our Procurement and Supply Chain practice.

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