BAS: Please tell us about yourself - why the snacks industry?
Working for the savoury snacks industry is a wonderful opportunity to help members in bringing products on the market that bring joy and fun to consumers all over the world.
Of course, it is a challenge to make policymakers, NGO and critical voices understand that snacks do provide only a very small amount of salt and fat, and perfectly fit into a balanced and healthy diet.
Therefore, we have written on our flags the motto ‘sensible snacking’ – for example, you can find us on Twitter regularly posting with the hashtag #sensiblesnacking.
BAS: What was your route to ESA?
I started as an administrative assistant in Brussels in the microcosmos of the EU law-making world that consists of the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Member States representations. Law companies, NGOs, trade associations and other organisations are orbiting around these key players.
Having learned the ropes of the trade over the years and having specialised in managing trade associations, the wonderful opportunity to lead the ESA came by. Being always interested in the food sector, it was a perfect match and I have been enjoying the job since day one.
BAS: What is it about the snacks industry that you are passionate about?
It is clearly their products. I mean, when I walk down the snack aisle in the supermarket, I get really excited (someone special tells me I turn into kid in these moments).
All the different forms, shapes, flavour combinations, packages – it feels a bit like Christmas. The creativity and power of innovation of the sector, you can experience it with all senses!
BAS: Please describe your leadership style of director general. Does your role give you the opportunity to get hands-on experience to share with your members?
I usually say that I am the ‘primus inter pares’: the first among equals.
Having learned from some great mentors how to lead a team (and from some less great how not to), my leadership is based on trust and hiring the right people for the job. This allows me to entrust everyone on my team with the right balance of freedom, responsibility and accountability.
I don’t have the high demand on myself to be the expert, for example, in regulatory affairs or in communication or in events management: I know I have surrounded myself with the people who are experts and who bend over backwards, when necessary.
I always encourage my team to engage in the decision-making process and sensibly challenge processes and ideas. And I am always eager to learn. As someone once said, ‘If you are the smartest person in the room, then you are in the wrong room.’
BAS: What is ESA’s mission statement?
We represent the entire savoury snacks industry: this includes manufacturers as well as companies within the supply chain from all around the world. Our objectives – which everyone on the ESA team works towards day by day – are to maintain the permissibility for our sector in terms of development, production and sales; to be perceived as responsible and credible industry; and to be the platform for sector-wide co-operation on non-competitive issues.
BAS: Please finish the sentence: Teamwork is important because …
… you will see a more holistic picture and different angles of a situation than you can ever have reached alone.
BAS: I’m sure your time with ESA has been filled with highlights, but is there one that springs to mind that you are particularly proud of?
There are indeed many highlights over the past several years, from the creation of our visibility flagship event ‘Share a Snack’ in Brussels to the ever-increasing numbers of our biennial trade show SNACKEX.
However, there is one regulatory topic that remains on top of my mind and which makes me proud!
We, as a small sector and a small team, were able to keep blanched peanuts in the eyes of the World Customs Organisation in the category of ‘raw’ rather than the proposed ‘processed’ one. The EU is an important market for peanuts, with around 90% of total peanut imports to the EU originating in Argentina, the USA, China and Brazil. The proposed change would have increased the zero-duty rate to a duty rate of 11.2%.
The ESA team drummed up its members as well as like-minded trade associations to collect arguments to make our case at the political level. And we made it!
We convinced decision-makers and the zero-duty rate remained. This has saved our members millions of Euros and billions of Euros in other sectors like confectionery.
BAS: What are the recent milestones achieved by ESA?
We opened a twitter account (follow us on @ESA_Snacks) and revamped our website with a new design and visuals.
In 2019, we had our best SNACKEX ever with the biggest number of exhibitors as well as visitors from over 70 countries.
We have published three videos to help manufacturers of potato crisps and potato-based snacks when implementing the new acrylamide regulation.
And last, but not least, our association joined the Circular Plastics Alliance to help creating synergies to develop more sustainable packaging solutions in the future.
BAS: From your perspective as head of ESA, what are the biggest industry trends?
The biggest trends for the time are seemingly plant-based foods and the growing conscience and concern about the environmental footprint of food production. We are perfectly placed at the ESA as our members use primarily plant-based raw materials like potatoes, corn, lentils, peas, etc. for their products.
We believe that the next bigger trend will be the further personalisation of foods – but beyond simple branding – that will, to a certain degree, allow for a personalised composition by focussing on different ingredients like, for example, protein for sportspersons, collagen for the elderly, unsaturated fats for those following a healthier lifestyle, and so forth.
BAS: Do you believe the industry is proactive in answering consumer needs and what are some of the biggest innovations you are seeing coming out?
As mentioned earlier, the power of innovation is strong within the sector, and you see a constant process of adapting and re-adapting to consumers requests.
Over the past several years, we have seen an increase of lower-salt and lower-fat products. But besides reformulating and taking out fat and salt out of the products, you can see a change in production techniques, like popped products, or the change of raw material composition where more peas, chickpeas, beans and lentils are used to increase fibre and protein content.
Currently, there is a trend of mix-within-bags where different snacks from one brand are included in one bag to increase the fun factor.
Also, you might have noticed that some flavours that have usually been applied to a specific snack are now being used for other snacks; so, you have your favourite flavour on a completely different carrier that brings an entirely new sensation.
BAS: Do you see any glaring white spaces?
In terms of trends, I am convinced that the companies – both manufactures and suppliers – have their ear on the ground and ensure no consumer request will remain unanswered.
BAS: The David versus Goliath question - the snacks space is very quickly being populated by start-ups with great innovations and while the big brands are actively encouraging them, how do you see the big producers versus start-ups scenario playing out?
I think the question is less ‘versus’ but more of a ‘together’.
As consumers become less and less brand loyal, there is a market (or a niche) for every player that can entice consumers to try their products. This snacks biosphere is very vivid and volatile; it is not anymore that the big ones are leaving the crumbs to the small ones.
BAS: What impact do you believe Brexit will have on the industry in general?
Besides the fact that Brexit is a political catastrophe that will impact both the EU and the UK, and the majority of its population, we expect there might be ruptures of import and exports of raw material and final product trade flows. All in all, our member companies seem to have well prepared for this unfortunate outcome.
BAS: On a personal note, what keeps you busy when not focused on the snacks industry?
First and foremost, the focus is my family with whom I try to spend as much time as possible.
Besides this, I try to stay as physically active as possible with many different types of sports like boxing, cross-fit, running to keep fit. I have a liking for realistic Sci-Fi novels that cast a look into different possible futures of humankind and our planet.
BAS: What is your favourite snack?
You know, as a good lobbyist and with the diplomacy and Fingerspitzengefühl that comes with my role, I have to say that I don’t have one but several, but this remains a secret.