by Martin Veitch

Premier Foods CIO Mark Vickery has a recipe for M&A

Jul 13, 20098 mins
CareersIT LeadershipIT Strategy

Having battled through a seemingly never-ending series of traffic lights that comb the small town centre of St Albans, you enter the foyer of a modern building to be confronted with a mosaic of familiar images. These are the logos familiar through a lifetime in the UK; you’ll know most of them and you’ll almost certainly have several of them on labels covering jars, cans and bottles in your kitchen cupboards. Proust had his madeleine cake to remind him of the past but for any Briton these are the true gustatory levers to memory and it’s hard to avoid recalling ancient ads and taglines. There is Hovis (“As good today as it’s always been”), Mr Kipling (“Exceedingly good cakes”), Bisto (“Aah!”), Sharwood’s (“Taste of India”), Cadbury (“Everyone’s a Fruit and Nut case”), Branston (“Bring out the Branston!”), Angel Delight (“Whip up a quick dessert”), Homepride (Fred in his bowler hat), Oxo (that annoying family), Smash (“For mash get Smash”). Add in Batchelors, Campbell’s, Quorn, Ambrosia, Loyd Grossman, Atora, Be-Ro, Bird’s, Chivers, Crosse & Blackwell, Dufrais, Frank Cooper’s, Fray Bentos, Gale’s, Hartley’s, Haywards, McDougalls, Mother’s Pride, Paxo, Robertson’s, Rose’s, Sarson’s, Saxa and Sun-Pat… there are many others and 99 per cent of UK households bought a Premier Foods product last year. Take that, Microsoft. The remarkable multiplicity of brands points to the mission for Premier, which has been on a shopping spree to gain supremacy in food manufacturing. Or, as the company’s website puts it, there is “a plan to acquire great British brands and integrate them quickly to further contribute to our strategies based on scale”. In order to achieve this mission, Premier has had to buy and fold in a series of firms, and a part of that responsibility has fallen to Mark Vickery, the group IS and change director of the firm. Vickery has a CV that has been baking for a long time, having been schooled for 17 years at the mother of all fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) firms, Unilever, from 1978. He became a team leader and project manager before running IT at toothpaste and cosmetics maker Elida Gibbs. His subsequent tour of duty took in New York and much of North America but also Africa, overseeing business systems for plantations that produced goods such as tea and palm oil. This posting presented some unusual challenges, such as ensuring there is power backup in the jungle.

“To me it was a massive development,” he recalls in a soft Welsh accent. “You’re viewed with various degrees of suspicion but it developed personal skills and awareness, and you learn on your feet.” From there, Vickery moved to Holland, became corporate IT director of Unilever’s UniChem chemicals business and came back to the UK to become European MIS director for another wing, National Starch and Chemical. The various location moves sound exhausting but he says that was just business as usual for Unilever: “You’re either on circuit or you do a stint.” When Unilever sold its chemicals business interests to ICI, it was finally time for Vickery to step away from the family. “I had a look and decided I didn’t want to go to ICI – and, given where ICI eventually went, that was probably a good decision,” he says with characteristic bluntness.

United vision In 1997, he joined United Biscuits, the company behind household names like McVitie’s, Jacob’s, Penguin, Skips and Hula Hoops. “It was a big plc business,” he says. “I went in as IS director and there was a potentially bigger group job to be had. They were embarking on a major change programme using SAP and I’d done that.” For the FMCG sector, of course, having “done SAP” is the equivalent of having an MBA in running a US software business. “It’s a technically complex solution but because of that it has strength and you have to treat it with respect,” he says. “It forces you to have rigour. The value is in integration when you reach this Nirvana but until you get there… I’ve got a lot of the scars and wounds but I’m a survivor.”

Vickery had a slightly odd start at United, which had been “humming and hah-ing” about whether to insource or outsource. At first it seemed a fait accompli that it would be outsourced, but then Vickery was told “you’ll be managing 300 people”. Staff were “reasonably demoralised, not knowing whether they were going in or out. IT was very much viewed as a back-office thing to be put up with.” Vickery knew he had a tough job on his hands to manage down, across and up. He commissioned a balanced scorecard and, he explains, “got all levels engaged and explained where we were weak and where we were strong”. United UK managing director Robert Schofield became the sponsor of the £40m business change programme and asked Vickery to get involved. For a sector not known for embracing IT as a business differentiator, this was a little unusual. “It was quite a change because they were saying ‘You’re a business person’,” recalls Vickery. When Schofield went on to Premier Foods, becoming CEO in 2002, he brought Vickery along to head information systems and change, having kept in touch through the medium of a squash club where they both played. Vickery’s challenge at Premier is huge. He has to help make sense of an acquisition binge that saw turnover multiply to £2.6bn, bringing new brands and facilities under the Premier umbrella and merging systems without letting the joins show at a time when the company’s debts are being scrutinised by market watchers and branded food is being threatened by supermarket own-brands. “All my history I’ve brought to bear here,” he says of the ongoing £80m, 250-person change programme. “As you acquire companies you look for synergies, you have to make pragmatic decisions. We’ve made mostly the right calls. We’ve got a blueprint we’re driving towards [although] it gets severely challenged.” The pragmatism Vickery refers to has led to some tough decisions including the recent shutting of “a bunch of factories”.

Vickery’s relationship with Schofield is crucial, he says. “We’d done a similar thing [at United] so he knew that I could deliver and I knew how he wanted to engage.” Similarly, the board “has signed up for” the change programme so Vickery says he doesn’t have to go through any painful business of justifying IT’s role in strategy. The challenges may be on a massive scale but they are at least familiar and once again involve a move to SAP in the teeth of the German giant’s recent price hikes. “It’s a significant jump and people would say ‘for what?’,” says Vickery. “The reality is you’re paying a lot of money to keep their revenues ticking over. But functionally they’ve come on a long way, for example in warehouse management.”

Local knowledge SAP will also be the backbone of Premier’s knowledge management system, while Lotus Notes is deployed for collaboration and workflow. A shared-service centre in Manchester is also being developed and then there are new technology-enabled opportunities such as voice-driven systems for warehouse picking and RFID tags for Marks & Spencer’s supply chain. “In addition to driving the day-to-day business, we’re having to drive the business case around acquisitions and driving synergies. It keeps you very busy and you have to be good at juggling the plates. We all have to be tied in because if one of us [on the executive team] runs off ‘over there’ it has big implications.” It sounds tough but Vickery believes the change mandate plays to his strengths. “I’ve just taken the view that I respond well to a challenge,” he says. “Although I sometimes think three years in a back-water might be nice,” he adds wryly.

After a career in FMCG, has he ever been tempted by other sectors or roles? The former, maybe, but Vickery is critical of silo attitudes that lead many firms to play safe and appoint only people with direct experience of their verticals. “I’d be interested in doing another industry. Retail, leisure… there’s a lot of skill transfer. I don’t think we do enough of that. You get to the last two or three candidates and it’s a throw of the dice. In the UK we’re less daring than the US.” A recent move back home to Wales has added to his bursting agenda, enforcing long drives, but he takes solace in the renaissance of the national rugby team. “It’s a good time to be Welsh,” he says.

To read Mark Vickery’s CV, click here.