Ross MacMathuna finds himself on something of a learning curve as he’ll admit himself.
The former special adviser to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Simon Coveney for three years describes his former employment as “interesting for someone with no political experience about how a government takes decisions”.
The job required someone with experience of working for a large food company and he’d worked for Glanbia.
“I’d worked with Glanbia Agribusiness” he tells me, “providing inputs for farmers and contributing to strategy.
“Before that I’d worked for McKinsey Management Consultants in strategy, largely in food and consumer goods.”
Now, as ABFI’s new Director, his task involves representing the drinks industry’s views to government and the wider public, “… ultimately that’s the consumer,” he adds.
He sees this role split into two tasks.
“One is minding the reputation of the sector and trying to ensure we get a fair crack of the whip.
“The other revolves around trying to ensure that the right policy environment is in place to help the sector grow and drive jobs.”
Brewers, distillers, wine retailers and now whiskey distillers as a single unit form ABFI’s constituent parts.
“We have work programmes that we undertake for each of those sectors and my role’s to co-ordinate and take a holistic view for the drinks sector.”
Representing a single sector is not something that Ross has ever done before.
“In my last role I’d a minister to keep happy and in this one I’ve a diverse membership to keep happy who’ve different objectives – from small start-ups right through to global brands.”
Right now, he can think of “a whole heap of things related to the time we’re in” that he’d count as ‘challenges in his new post’.
“I’m new to the organisation, new to the brief and we’ve a relatively new team in place.
“The enactment of the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill is imminent, so there is much to work on around that.
“There’s also a variety of exciting new developments across the sector – most notably with the massive global growth in demand for Irish whiskey – but also across other areas of the market and we need to support and enhance these areas of growth for our members.
Only yesterday, he points out, they’d the Minister for Health in IBEC. He’d indicated that he wanted to have the Health Bill enacted before the end of this government’s lifetime.
“At the same time though, he did commit to meeting representatives from the industry in the future.”
Clearly, the successful enactment of the Bill would give some certainty to the sector.
“There’s a lot of talk around the restriction and regulation of advertising and it’s not clear what that means. It’s the same for what exactly the labeling regulation will entail.
“This obviously has an impact now on businesses’ decision-taking for 2016. If you discuss a new product but new labeling regulations are coming in and you don’t know what this will be exactly, how do you adjust the labels in time?”
In the meantime, ABFI has developed a good campaign around excise to ensure that there’ll be no excise increase in the Budget “… and hopefully a decrease” he adds, “The Minister himself said that excise increases don’t work”.
Long term challenge
Of course in the longer term ABFI’s real challenge is to ensure a sustainable environment for the drinks industry in which to do business.
“We need a healthy home market. Bord Bia reports that we export over €1 billion-worth of product a year and 80% or more of it is alcohol so we need an environment at home allowing companies to start-up, grow, innovate and be supported by government.”
Public Health (Alcohol) Bill?
ABFI welcomes the publication of the Public Health (Alcohol) eaHealHBill. It provides a measure of certainty.
“People were just not sure what was going to be in and what was going to be out,” he says, “It gives us a sense of what’s coming down the tracks.
“We’d be in favour of a lot of the Bill and had called on the government to implement some of this a long time ago such as pregnancy warning labels etc which the industry agreed to back in 2008 and which the government never implemented. Most of the industry has already done this on a voluntary basis.”
He adds, “We’re in favour too of giving the consumer the appropriate information to make a decision but we’ll be equally interested to see the detail of exactly what’s proposed.”
Similarly, ABFI remains in favour of the proposals in the Heads of the Bill for structural separation.
It welcomes too the proposals to move advertising and marketing codes onto a statutory basis, just as it’s in favour of proposals to address the sale of cheap alcohol, but a ban on below-cost selling remains the best way to approach that, he thinks.
“We just don’t think that MUP is going to work,” he says, “The real issue for the industry is in not knowing. When it is known and the legislation is applied equally, one can deal with it.”
Government assistance for the industry
One of the industry’s biggest challenges remains that one has a public health view on one hand and an economic view on the other, says Ross. It’s difficult to get some sort of government consensus between the two diametrically opposing views.
“A nuance of understanding is required” he feels, “as international companies will consider the regulatory environment in a country in deciding their investment planning and strategies.”
This lack of communication between the two camps could well hold back international investment in the sector.
10 years on?
ABFI came into being in 2008 and since then has co-ordinated the approach of companies across the sector. In doing so it’s had to think of what’s good for the sector as a whole rather than just the individual company.
“10 years from now it will be different again, for sure,” he says, “There will be new players and probably a shift in terms of the importance of the different sectors. There will probably be new ways of working and in how we co-ordinate our membership and how we structure our activities.”
That ABFI only representats the larger muntinationals is a view often expressed by some of the smaller companies in the drinks sector – but it’s one Ross disagrees with, pointing out that ABFI’s credibility helps all its members (and non-members too).
“People who’re not members have a view of ABFI which I don’t think is necessarily true as we’ve made progress in bringing the industry forward in terms of representation at national and international level,” he says.
“Indeed the challenge for us is in trying to capture the potential and make it real and that’s around how do we set about exporting more of the great brands that we have and how can we make the country proud of the contribution that we make to society as a whole?”
So how does one grow the sector while addressing the issue of alcohol abuse? That’s where ABFI hopes to see progress over the next few years and Ross hopes he’ll play a part in that.