Meet Dennis Overton – the new chair at Scotland Food & Drink

I was delighted last week to get the chance to meet Dennis Overton, who is set to become Chairman of Scotland Food and Drink (SF&D) in April. Dennis is one of the driving forces behind Aquascot which is Scotland’s largest employee owned company and a hugely innovative aquaculture business.

For Dennis this new role will be both exciting and challenging as SF&D have just published their vision for expansion of the Farming, Food and Drink sector over the next 12 years. The target is that by the year 2030, this will be Scotland’s most valuable industry – recognised at home and abroad as a model of collaboration and a world leader in responsible, profitable growth.

The sector has already achieved impressive growth figures since the launch of what was the Scotland Food and Drink Partnership back in 2007. Industry Turnover has increased by 44% to over £14.4 billion and Exports are up by 56% to £5.5 billion, but perhaps the most telling statistic of all is the Scottish manufacturing growth rate is twice the UK average for Food and Drink!  

Dennis explained that success to date has been due to collaboration between hundreds of individual businesses, government and its agencies, all united in a joint mission to achieve this staggering growth. The way that SF&D have done this is now being studied by other countries hoping to learn valuable lessons in growing their own farming, fishing and food and drink industries.

However, it’s here and now in early 2018 where the story really gets going with ambitious plans to double the value of turnover in Farming, Fishing, Food and Drink to no less than £30 billion by 2030!

That statement of intent from Dennis was immediately followed by a torrent of answers centred on achieving such a massive rate of growth, given that it is already the biggest single industry in Scotland, having left oil and gas trailing in second place a while ago.

Joining the SF&D team locally is well-known businessman John Murray coming on board as business development manager for the Highlands and Islands. So with an ever strengthening team, exactly how does Dennis and his colleagues plan to achieve such huge growth targets?

“To try and double output from the land and sea won’t be possible, given the relatively small physical area that Scotland occupies on the globe and the nature of our land and coastline … we’ve got to be smart when doubling the value of our industry … we’ve got to think about things like adding value and selling less primary produce … the growth in small scale production of drinks like craft beer and gin will continue alongside more conventional farming with better livestock management techniques and increases in cereal production … new technology will play an increasing role in food production with agri-robots and farm drones becoming commonplace alongside many exciting technologies still under development.”  Dennis is also involved with some ground-breaking developments at his own company – Aquascot, where they are developing new methods of farming crops in the sea (more of that another day!) and moving things like salmon production away from inshore waters which are now “full”.

Add to all of this an ever increasing population and fast changing food buying methods along with the effects of social conscience on responsible production methods, eliminating plastic waste with innovative packaging methods and Dennis quite rightly points out that the whole industry must be agile in adapting to change.

My final question was something close to my heart … What about the future for farmers – the primary producers, who feel left behind in this race to expand the Scottish Food and Drink Industry and don’t enjoy the benefits that the rest of the food chain gets? The answer is as stark as the question … “the food chain will get even shorter and farmers will get closer to the market as farm support gradually disappears … farmers will get connected into more collaboration and get closer to their customers and naturally will benefit from the future success of the industry … those who don’t or won’t look at what their buyers want and streamline their production methods, simply won’t survive.”  

Some straight talking there from highly successful and innovative food producer, Dennis Overton who takes over as Chairman at Scotland Food and Drink in April. He has a mammoth task ahead of him, but with a team led by Chief Executive James Withers whose knowledge of the industry and track record are second to none, the “Ambition 2030” growth strategy is already under way.  The answers to how, why, when and where, have been well thought out, the strategy is in place and Dennis left me in no doubt that the highly ambitious targets will become a reality.

This column first appeared in The SPP Group of newspapers on 16th February 2018.