The best supply chains temper aggressive, short-term competition on price with efficient communication and trustworthy behaviour, argues organic veg specialist Riverford’s founder Guy Singh-Watson
Early in my farming career, I was negotiating for Riverford to supply organic lettuces, cabbages and potatoes to a chain of supermarkets. The buyer asked me to visit their London offices the following Thursday.
When I asked if we could make it Friday instead, the phone went dead. I rang back, explaining that I had been cut off, only to be told: “Look, sonny; when we whistle, you jump. The only question is: how high?”
As a virgin to supermarket supply, I was shocked at the casual, abusive arrogance but soon came to realise that such bullying was endemic in the industry and perhaps the inevitable result of an imbalance of power between four huge buyers and thousands of suppliers, combined with unbridled Thatcherite capitalism, in which a buyer’s career progress was dependent on the margins they delivered to shareholders.
“There are better ways to get the best out of people; they involve looking beyond greed as a motivator and focusing on more complex, harder-to-manage desires”
The pursuit of profit does not have to demean our humanity, but all too often it does. Perhaps I should thank that buyer for redirecting my efforts towards direct-to-consumer sales and, ultimately, the veg-box scheme that helped Riverford grow, over 35 years, into the profitable, debt-free, £100m, employee-owned company it is today.
The poet Walt Whitman suggested: “Re-examine all that you have been told and dismiss what insults your soul.” No one should normalise treating their fellows with such unprovoked contempt.
There are better ways to get the best out of people; they involve looking beyond greed as a motivator and focusing on more complex, harder-to-manage desires, such as autonomy, shared purpose and taking pride in doing things well.
Thirty years later, Riverford has itself become a buyer of £30m of fresh produce annually, mostly from small and medium-sized, family-owned farms in Devon and across the UK, as well as southern Europe and further afield.
Ninety-five per cent is bought from growers we know well, many of whom I would call friends. Slowly, we acquired a reputation for always living up to our promises, buying at the agreed price and volume, and setting reasonable, often flexible specifications, which allow growers to sell a far higher proportion of the crop.
Last year, when sales declined as Covid restrictions were relaxed, we were left with commitments to £1m of produce that we could not sell. Rather than try to wriggle out of it, we honoured those promises, giving some to local charities and FareShare, and the rest to our loyal customers.
In turn, when supply is short, growers go further to honour their promises; we have sailed through the veg shortages this year unscathed.
Good communication and storytelling have also paid for us to behave well, through the positive impact of these stories on brand, loyalty, advocacy and supplier relationships – but that is the result of being humane, not the reason to.
Over a period of years, and in consultation with our suppliers, we have formalised our trading practices in a supplier charter.
“The best supply chains temper aggressive, short-term competition on price with efficient communication and trustworthy behaviour”
This details specifically what can be expected from buyer and seller, defines payment terms and gives a course of redress through an independent ombudsman. The charter is unique in our industry and can be found at riverford.co.uk/growers. I would be delighted to see it adopted by others.
It would be naïve to dismiss the innovation and flexibility that competition can drive, but the best supply chains temper aggressive, short-term competition on price with efficient communication and trustworthy behaviour.
These facilitate long-term trading relationships and encourage you to invest in understanding and meeting each other’s needs.
On a human level, this removes a huge amount of stress from our business. It contributes to an efficient, sustainable and even enjoyable supply relationship, where growers take pride in pleasing customers – who in turn show their appreciation through some forgiveness on specs and continuity.
Perhaps I could have got richer quicker, but the wealth would not have been as long or as wide had I not dismissed what insulted my soul.
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