Ask John Hyman what has surprised him the most in his short time as head of the trade body responsible for overseeing the £8bn UK frozen food industry, and his answer is unequivocal – how positively the sector is viewed.
“We work across retail and foodservice, and I’ve been taken by how much both now appreciate frozen food,” claims the man who was last involved in the sector more than a decade ago, when at Heinz.
“Foodservice in particular understands its benefits, and I think consumer perceptions have changed and are continuing to change.”
It may have been a while since Hyman worked in frozen food, but with an impressive track record of growing sales at a number of food and drink firms, he seemed a more than suitable candidate to replace the retiring British Frozen Food Federation (BFFF) chief executive Brian Young last August.
Following Young’s departure at the end of 2016 after a gradual handover process, Hyman has been busily piecing together his vision for both the future of the BFFF, and growing the frozen food category further.
In his first major interview since becoming chief executive, Hyman suggests the opportunities for the frozen food sector far outweigh the challenges, and identifies the areas frozen food manufacturers should target to increase sales.
But before anything else, he is quick to acknowledge the achievements made by Young during his decade-long tenure at the helm of the BFFF, which lists manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers among its 320-strong membership base.
“Brian and everyone at the organisation has done a fantastic job over the last few years, in their marketing efforts, and in building up a bank of significant independent research that highlights the nutritional benefits, the quality benefits and the cost-saving benefits of frozen food,” he says.
Opportunity for growth (back to top)
Armed with this research, Hyman says the sector is well-positioned to grow to £10bn and beyond in the coming years.
“The top opportunity for growth has to be around quality, because I think there is still room to improve choice and make sure that every sub-category within frozen has a strong premium element,” he explains.
The second opportunity, according to Hyman, is health. BFFF figures reveal that sales of frozen fruit, for example, are growing at 35% a year, while sweet potato is up 120% in just 12 months.
“Effectively, consumers are voting with their wallets,” Hyman explains. “They understand that healthy products can be frozen in a convenient format that keeps waste to a minimum.”
While believing the waste benefit shouldn’t take priority over quality or health, Hyman says the advantage of being able to keep food safely for up to 18 months is becoming increasingly recognised by consumers concerned with food inflation and falling disposable incomes, which makes this his third opportunity.
The final opportunity, meanwhile, arises from what many would see to be one of biggest obstacles to growth in the sector.
Whereas chilled and ambient products – free of the constraints of freezers – are far easier to merchandise in supermarket aisles, Hyman believes the growth of online shopping gives frozen the ability to operate on a “level playing-field”. This is reflected by the fact that frozen currently “overtrades” fresh online by about 20%, he claims.
“We know that when people shop online for frozen, they are exposed to a broader selection of products than they see in the supermarket, and they are more likely to try new products and spend more money on the category,” Hyman says.
Traditional advantages of frozen food (back to top)
“Shoppers also love the fact that they can get lots of frozen products – which can be quite heavy to carry – delivered to their doorstep. In all, it’s a compelling combination.”
Add in what Hyman describes as the “traditional advantages” of frozen food, namely value for money (frozen food is on average 34% cheaper than fresh or chilled, according to BFFF figures), and convenience, and the sector is well-placed for growth.
However, he stresses the need for frozen food manufacturers to embrace the favourable market conditions.
“The majority of frozen products now made are ready to cook. I think generally, that’s clearly highlighted on-pack, but in some cases the packaging can be improved to make that clearer.”
With foodservice accounting for £2.4bn of the overall £8bn frozen food market, and growing faster than retail, Hyman believes the way in which chefs and caterers are embracing frozen food is another boon for the sector.
He cautions though, that manufacturers need a “slightly different” mentality in foodservice compared with retail. “Some foodservice operators are happy to take on branded products, but others just want to focus on their own brands. Therefore, manufacturers need to think their strategy through before getting into the market.”
Strategic thinking has been forefront of Hyman’s mind as well, as he plans to build on the progress made at the BFFF by his predecessor.
The main initiative announced since he took over the reins has been the launch of the BFFF People Awards. Taking place in Birmingham next February and open to non-members, the awards will seek to recognise the sector’s “unsung heroes” across 11 product categories.
BFFF People Awards (back to top)
“Usually, product category awards tend to be marketing, buying and commercial-centric. What we want to do with these awards is acknowledge those involved in the broader functions – whether that’s in production, logistics, technical or health and safety.”
A medium-term goal for Hyman is to expand the BFFF’s member benefit programme. Currently, members can take advantage of an energy scheme, but he would like to see this broadened out over the next 12 to 18 months.
His ultimate aim for the trade body, however, is to help drive long-term category growth. And while there’s plenty to be optimistic about in this regard, the uncertainty surrounding Brexit clearly muddies the waters.
Hyman says the BFFF is taking an active role in the ongoing discussions between the food industry and various government departments.
“Almost half of our members export, so Brexit is a clear opportunity for them. The big challenge, however, is the availability of labour,” he explains.
“We’ve got members whose staff are anywhere between 10–60% non-UK EU nationals, so it’s really a big issue – but we’re landed that message with government, and they understand that.”
While pleased that the food industry is beginning to speak with one voice over Brexit, Hyman says the BFFF is starting to move towards a “practical support mode”.
“For us, it’s important to take a balanced perspective,” he says. “It’s about helping our members build on the opportunities and being on hand to offer support and advice when they need it.”
It’s an approach that will clearly hold the BFFF in good stead as the process of exiting the EU starts to unfold.
JOB TITLE: Chief executive, British Frozen Food Federation (BFFF)
DOMESTICS: Married to Helen, with two children Charlotte and Ben.
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Hyman has worked in the food and drink industry for more than 23 years, beginning his career at Danone and Arla Foods.
In 1999, he joined Heinz, heading up trade marketing for frozen and chilled before leading the convenience business across all categories and brands.
He then worked for Dairy Crest before becoming sales director for William Grant UK (then First Drinks), where he was responsible for increasing UK sales by 93% over five years.
In 2014, Hyman joined Adelie Foods as UK group commercial director, where he was responsible for a large sales and marketing team within the £300M turnover company. Hyman is also chair of the BFFF/Seafish Importers Forum.
AWAY FROM WORK: Hyman enjoys family holidays, and likes to plan one big trip a year. “Last year, we went on safari in South Africa – which was one of our best holidays yet.”
He also likes to play football and coach his son’s team, and regards himself as a “proper” Leicester City fan. “I’ve seen us struggle to draw at home to Yeovil. So, as you can imagine, I seriously enjoyed us winning the league title in 2016.”