February 23, 2022

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Gemma Scott: So David, thank you so much for joining us today, it’s great to have you as part of the very first SIAL podcast. First and foremost, can you just give us an overview of what ESMA is and the importance of the company?

David O’Neil: ESMA is an organisation that was founded back in 1975. Over the years it was focused on bringing distributors together under the umbrella of ESMA, which stands for the European Sales and Marketing Association. It’s an organisation made up of distributors from around Europe, and has developed into what is now a global organisation consisting of manufacturers and distributors. So, initially distributors and now manufacturers and distributors.

What we do is bring manufacturers and distributors together under the umbrella of ESMA, and we promote the development of the relationship between them. We don’t actually have retailers in our organisation because we supply retailers, so manufacturers and distributors together work as one. 

We are a global networking organisation for business people. ESMA members are made up of either the owners, the CEOs, or the senior directors of the companies, so you’re networking at a top-to-top basis. We are work across 47 different countries around the world. We have 149 members between manufacturers and distributors in our organisation and we are what we would call an elite organisation. There’s no organisation like us in the world that is involved in the FMCG, the fast moving commodity goods sector. 

In joining ESMA, most people get to know us through networking at trade shows or on our website. Our website contains quite a lot of information in relation to ESMA, and there is a process there where you can apply for membership. If you do apply, you actually present your credentials to me as the CEO, along with an application form. The application form and credentials are then circulated to the other seven board members within ESMA. Between us, we adjudicate as to whether a company deserves the membership of ESMA, or it’s sadly rejected. If it is rejected, we give the reasons why.

You mentioned some of the events that you’re part of. Of course events are starting to get back up and running, there’s a few bumps in the road still with the pandemic but let’s focus on the positives. What can you tell us about some of the exciting news that’s coming out of these events?

Well we held our ESMA annual conference on the 16th September 2021 in the beautiful city of Prague in the Czech Republic. At that convention we had a total of 120 ESMA delegates attend from 21 countries around the world. There were 54 of our members in total who actually attended. 

What we experienced with the convention and the trade show is that our industry really was very successful during Covid. We’re in the food industry, our challenge as an organisation and for our members was to keep product on the shelves for our consumers. I’ll give you an example Gemma, one of our members is Barilla, biggest pasta producer in the world. You have a situation whereby the Barilla brothers, of which there’s three, decided that they could not keep up with production during normal working hours and asked – not demanded – their staff if they would go the distance in terms of turning around and working overtime in order to be able to fulfil the orders. Every single employee rose to the challenge and Barilla ended up producing pasta 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to meet the demands of their consumers. 

We discovered that people could no longer travel. You had consumers based at home, with their family, so they were cooking breakfast, lunch and evening meals. After a period of time, menu fatigue started to evolve, so you then had consumers who had entered our local supermarkets and walked down aisles that they had never walked down before in their lives. They’re walking down the aisle for Chinese food, Indian food, pasta, Mexican, trying different foods that they would have never had before just to try and get rid of this menu fatigue. They travelled through the supermarket and through their kitchen, instead of travelling through countries. They experienced the cuisine of the countries that they couldn’t actually visit owing to Covid and lack of flights. 

It’s lovely to hear about the positives that came out of Covid and of the industry really growing and thriving. I believe by 2023 we’re expecting online grocery shopping to keep growing and hit a potential 66% turnover growth in Europe. Looking at how people have been shopping since Covid, many are doing their food shopping online. Do you think that online shopping is something we have to adapt to? Do we have to prepare for this growth in any way? Or is the industry there already? 

Our insights indicate to us that Covid has actually somersaulted online shopping five years ahead of where it should be. You have consumers now who traditionally always went to the shop, they no longer have to do that. I have to say, to be fair, the supermarkets, the online shopping networks that are there, they got their act together as well and smartened up their businesses so that consumers could actually place an order and have it delivered within 30 minutes to their house, phenomenal! 

The stigma that was always aligned to online shopping, and especially for groceries, was “oh God if I bought a carton of cream, it may only have two days shelf life on it, we get the worst. […] if I went into the shop myself I could probably get eight or nine days”. That’s not the case. The online shopping providers would always give you the freshest produce and the best produce they can give to you because they need your business to be repetitive, and online shopping is growing, and growing exponentially at this moment in time. 

Well it certainly seems that we are transitioning and that there is change on the horizon, which brings me nicely to the SIAL theme for 2022: Own the Change. David, one final thing I want to ask you, what would be your advice to people listening to this podcast? What can they implement today to make a positive change for tomorrow and the future?

We all need to work together to work our way through this. It’s very easy for me to say this, not having any suffering through it from a personal point of view, but a lot of suffering has been experienced by families. Whether we like it or not, I believe it’s here to stay, this pandemic, and we need to live with it and what we also need to do is be positive, respect social space, respect each other and we have to get on with life. Life is important and we all need to travel and we all need to be out and about, but we need to do it in a managed way. 

Equally, we have a situation where organisations like SIAL and the events they put together, are so important to us as an industry because we are always looking for NPD (New Product Development) within our sector. SIAL is one of these launchpads for any NPD that’s coming into the global market. All of our members attend SIAL, they have to, because it’s such an important exhibition that happens once every two years within Europe, and it’s an important and must-attend event. 

It’s from events like SIAL that we can take the positivity that we will get through this pandemic, but the grocery industry is always going to be around, and we clearly demonstrated that through the very, very dark times of Covid. Our brands were available worldwide to our consumers thanks to the incredible turnaround that our manufacturers did in terms of having availability of their product wherever, whenever and however the consumer wanted to purchase them.

Which is exactly what we need. David, it’s so nice to have chatted with you. Thank you very much for your time and your insight into the industry, the current market trends, and of course giving us more information about your organisation ESMA.

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