The Business Big Interview: Donna Fordyce, chief executive, Seafood Scotland

Scotland’s seafood sector forms a critical part of the nation’s economy, supporting thousands of jobs both directly and indirectly.

Donna Fordyce, chief executive, Seafood Scotland. Picture: Alan Richardson
Donna Fordyce, chief executive, Seafood Scotland. Picture: Alan Richardson

However, like every part of the food chain, the industry has been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, while facing a range of other challenges, not least the UK’s impending departure from the EU.

Donna Fordyce, chief executive of industry organisation Seafood Scotland, provides some insight into how the sector is addressing its future.

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Can you explain your remit as CEO of Seafood Scotland, and what you and the organisation aim to achieve?

Since taking on the (acting) role a year ago, it is safe to say that no two days have ever been the same, and my first full year in the job has certainly felt like a bit of a rollercoaster ride. As the national trade marketing body for the Scottish seafood industry, Seafood Scotland operates worldwide, in partnership with key government stakeholders such as Scottish Development International and Scotland Food and Drink, to promote the wealth of Scottish seafood to both domestic and global trade markets.

We were set up by the industry, for the industry. We focus particularly on the retail and catering trade, targeting buyers, wholesalers, influencers and chefs across the US, Europe, the Middle-East and Asia, while also keeping a keen eye on emerging markets. This targeted trade marketing approach is designed to achieve sustainable business development for the industry.

Ultimately, my remit is to lead our small but talented team in growing opportunities for the industry both at home and overseas. Although our overall objective may be ‘big picture thinking’, we are a real relationship centric organisation. If we do not have the trust and support of all of our stakeholders, we cannot push the industry forward as a whole, so our day to day interactions with those on the ground in Scotland are as vital as our international outreach.

As such, myself and the team spend a lot of our time travelling up and down the country (virtually during Covid-19), listening to the needs and challenges of seafood companies and we’re proud to offer our free advice and support for all, inclusive of any size, scale or part of the supply chain.

Your role at the helm has coincided with the sector’s most turbulent period to date - how has Seafood Scotland and the broader industry adjusted, amid hurdles such as widespread restaurant closures?

With Brexit on the horizon, I was prepared for 2020 to be an ever-changing and uncertain landscape, but we certainly got more than anyone had planned for.

Covid-19 has had a profound effect on the industry and compounded by the looming Brexit deadline it has been, and continues to be, a deeply challenging year for. After whisky, seafood is Scotland’s second largest export and with borders ordered to close during lockdown, parts of the seafood sector were completely decimated overnight. Added to that the temporary collapse of the domestic hospitality markets left many seafood businesses and coastal communities fighting for survival.

There were some very dark moments, particularly at the beginning of the pandemic where business owners could see no light at the end of the tunnel. I quickly learned from speaking to business leaders from Argyll to Aberdeen that they urgently required consistent help to navigate the changing regulations. We therefore put our global market development work on ice and focused on the task of daily updates for the industry giving key updates and practical advice while remaining in constant dialogue with our in-market food & drink specialists throughout the globe to get the latest information and insights from Scotland’s export markets.

The industry also needed urgent financial support, and we worked closely with Government and the sector to help pull together aid packages for the sector. We then pivoted to assist Government with processing the applications to get cash quickly to those who needed it most.

As the immediate shock and impact of the pandemic began to subside, we started to think more strategically and prepared for the slightly longer term, rather than simply reacting to the most urgent daily matters. This led us to developing a series of webinars on important topics, in addition to setting up an information hub that acted as a central online point for the overwhelming stream of information coming from the Scottish and UK governments, Food Standards Scotland, and other bodies, to ensure it was all easily accessible and crucially, digestible for all.

Pre-pandemic, Seafood Scotland had only ever worked at a B2B level, but as exports drastically declined and the hospitality industry folded, a number of smaller Scottish companies adapted their selling patterns to go direct to consumers. Again, Seafood Scotland offered its support, including running a series of virtual ‘Seafood Supper Clubs’ which capitalised on the following of foodie influencers to help change domestic consumer buying habits and encourage Scots to buy Scottish. This type of activity by Seafood Scotland, and others, contributed to fishmonger sales lifting 300 per cent throughout the pandemic, and we are currently carrying out research to ascertain whether the current ‘buy local’ trend will continue to grow beyond the ‘new normal’.

Brexit is obviously a massive issue for the sector. You have said, for example, that admin and regulation will have big financial implications for seafood companies. Can you give more details on this and how prepared companies are in Scotland?

Despite the sector putting its shoulder to the wheel to prepare for Brexit, ultimately, it is incredibly difficult to prepare for the unknown. Many companies have put a lot of time and effort into their Brexit arrangements and have got as far as they can with help from available tools such as the Government’s ‘Check, Change, Go’ readiness calculator, but as we’re still without a deal, there are many questions that remain outstanding.

What we do know for certain is that there will be a whole new level of bureaucracy that companies will face, including but not limited to catch certificates, health certificates and export forms. At the moment, seafood companies who trade with London for instance, could just as easily trade with Spain as there is no additional paperwork required. But post 1st of January, this will no longer be the case as a plethora of new regulatory rules will be enforced. While 2020 was supposed to be a transition period, ultimately, it’s been nothing of the sort as businesses have been forced to firefight the havoc wreaked by the pandemic. There has been neither the time nor the resources to road test any potential systems capable of dealing with the new administrative rules, so it feels like we are stepping into the unknown. There is a very real risk that this will completely frustrate and potentially temporarily halt trade altogether at the start of the New Year and that is why we are one of a chorus of industry bodies who have written to the Prime Minister to request a six-month grace period on all export paperwork. Granting this request would enable businesses to trade within the new rules but without fear of significant border disruption, enforcement action and loss of further revenue, which in these incredibly tough times will give Scottish seafood businesses, some much needed peace of mind as they adapt to the post-Brexit age.

Seafood Scotland recently highlighted a report finding that the seafood processing sector across Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire presents a major growth opportunity for the region’s economy. You said there is an opportunity to transform the processing sector further - can you give more details on this?

The latest findings from the ‘Future Proofing the Seafood Industry’ study, commissioned by Aberdeenshire Council and partly funded by Seafood Scotland looked at future processing capacity post Brexit and the investment requirement that could transform the sector. Peterhead is the largest fishing port in the UK thanks to a series of strategic investments to provide modern and capable harbour facilities. What this latest research has uncovered is that there is room for growth, particularly in the processing sector. With the volume of fish landed in the North East expected to increase after Brexit thanks to the recently enacted Fisheries Bill 2020 , there is widespread support from businesses, industry bodies and stakeholders to invest in bolstering processing capacity in order to capture a larger share of fish landed and maximise value-adding activity such as portioning, flavouring and smoking in the region. The more seafood products are processed, the higher value they yield. Therefore, if we create the infrastructure required to efficiently process larger quantities of seafood, using the latest automated technology, this could create a more consistent supply, giving Scotland a real edge over competitors like Norway and Iceland. Potentially, this could result in a huge economic benefit for rural, seafood dependent communities throughout the region, creating new micro-sectors, businesses and highly skilled jobs for generations to come.

How did your career progress before your current role?

I’ve always had a passion for entrepreneurship so before joining Seafood Scotland 3 years ago I was an Account Manager at Scottish Enterprise, overseeing the seafood sector. For seven years I worked closely with seafood companies to help them grow and diversify while also regularly communicating with stakeholders to help deepen their understanding of the sector to broaden the opportunities available to seafood companies. During this time, I was also an observer to the Seafood Scotland board and sat on the European Maritime and Fisheries Projects Approval Committee.

What is your approach to leadership?

I’m a firm believer that the most impactful business leaders aren’t those that shout the loudest, but those who listen with the greatest intent. Seafood Scotland wouldn’t exist without its stakeholders so it’s crucial that I create a ‘doors open’ policy where anyone from the CEO of an international seafood company, to a new graduate within our own team feels comfortable enough to ask questions and share ideas within the organisation.

We have a relatively small but very close-knit team at Seafood Scotland, despite (pre-pandemic) regularly being dispersed throughout the world, be it attending international trade shows in Brussels or visiting emerging markets in Asia. As such, I have to really trust in my team to deliver results and give them the space and autonomy to do so, while always letting them know they can come to me for guidance when they need it.

What are your hopes and ambitions for the future of the seafood industry - for example what would you like it to look like by the end of 2022?

I sincerely hope there are calmer waters ahead for the sector. By 2022 I would certainly expect there to be no remaining pandemic restrictions in place and hopefully the concept of lockdowns will remain well within the confines of history books to allow the export and domestic trade markets to fully bounce back. I also hope that by then almost all of the remaining Brexit uncertainties will be ironed out and robust systems will be firmly in place to deal with the added layers of administration in the most efficient way.

Hopefully, the much-anticipated Brexit benefits will also start filtering through with larger and more consistent catches, attracting greater investment in a sector, driven by increased automation and innovation.

There is no doubt that the years ahead will continue to be challenging, but our team is ready with practical help and advice to support the sector not just in surviving but thriving in the post-pandemic, post-Brexit age. While some costs and casualties will be inevitable, what we have seen this year is how much can be achieved by pulling together so I hope we can face the mid-2020s as a more cohesive sector overall, collectively striving to put Scotland on the map for producing the finest seafood in the world, with a hard-working, heritage-rooted but innovation-driven workforce at its core.

Education: BA Honours Business Administration (Two years at Dundee College, followed by two years at Abertay University)

First job: Timex factory

Ambition while at school: To join the army as a bandman

What car do you drive: Range Rover Evoque

Favourite mode of transport: Flying - I love travelling, both on holiday, and as part of my role

Music: Adele, Celine Dion. I also play flugel horn in Lochgelly Brass Band and have been lucky enough to have performed at the Royal Albert Hall

Kindle or book: Book

Reading material: Autobiographies and crime thrillers

Can't live without: My phone

What makes you angry (frustrated?): Scots eating imported fish rather than Scottish fish

What inspires you: That with encouragement and support everyone could fulfil their potential. That is why I am a board member at Dundee and Angus College

Favourite place: Love a cruise, and waking up each day with a different country to explore

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