Unprecedented with Hugh Pile
At Unprecedented, we had the opportunity to speak to Hugh Pile, CEO of Blue Skies, who spoke to us about the importance of earning and maintaining ‘Respect’ in your business and attracting talent in a post-pandemic world.
A background into you and your business?
Blue Skies is a supplier of fresh-cut fruit, freshly squeezed juices and dairy-free ice cream to major British and European supermarkets from a network of global sites. We are primarily an own-label business and, whilst you may not have heard of us, you will certainly have enjoyed our products. Our unique business model uses a network of factories that export from source (Ghana, Egypt, RSA, Brazil, UK, Benin) to be as close to harvest as possible (and therefore as fresh as possible). We then prepare in-country and fly overnight on passenger aircraft.
With the coronavirus lockdown(s), our business model was rendered ineffective overnight. We were hit with the double whammy of entire supply collapse (all passenger airlines stopped flying with zero notice) and withering demand as retailer sales plummeted. Clearly, we were in unprecedented times!
Blue Skies employs up to 4000 people at times during the year and accordingly makes a considerable contribution to local economies. We place great emphasis on our people, ensuring a happy mixed-gender team, and we also look to impact the community around us in other positive ways.
Some examples of this:
- Through our Sustainability programme that looks to care for the environment.
- Through our Blue Skies Foundation which makes contributions to valuable local community projects like schools and hospitals.
- Our partnerships with farmers offer advice and expertise as well as quick payment terms. Our large fruit procurement volumes over the years have helped farmers and their communities to thrive.
Define leadership and what being a leader means to you.
The pandemic has hammered home with a stark power just how critical leadership can be. Leadership will carry a business and its people through tough times; leadership will help define new directions; leadership will help ensure motivation and a sense of togetherness; so without leadership, a business drifts without purpose.
For me, being a leader is leading for people. Our business is not one of ego or the individual, but one where every success is built on the collaboration and partnership of many. I believe in ‘service leadership’ where the role of each person in the organisation is to help those who are closer to the ‘frontline’.
What would you like your Leadership Legacy to be?
I hope that my legacy is one that evolves our business from an entrepreneurial family business into a fresh-food powerhouse. One with reliable growth, bullet-proof finances and a diversified portfolio. I remain a (moderately) young CEO and hope that over the next 30 years of my tenure, we can achieve exciting, inspirational things – and have a lot of fun along the way!
What are the “non-negotiable” behaviours that you expect you and those around you to live by?
Above all, Respect. Our business is built on respect and positive intent. So if there is disagreement or challenge, we are encouraged to speak our minds but always with empathy. Our business has a thousand different styles, faces, cultures, religions, nationalities but we view all as equal, all as having the potential to add value, create change, inspire with ideas. We call this our “seamless society”, and it has respect at its foundation.
Positive Intent and Growth Mindset. I abhor the shooting down of ideas and struggle with behaviours that don’t feel that change and growth is a good thing. We are such a fast-moving business that agility and flexibility are essential; negativity and nay-sayers do nothing for operational excellence, let alone morale!
What are the Unprecedented opportunities or challenges you/your business are now facing?
Sadly, for us, the logistical challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic still exist and we anticipate them remaining for a couple of years as the airline industry cautiously opens back up and people travel once again.
But Covid has left in its wake an equally challenging phenomenon and that is the exponential rise in inflation. Every single element of our P&L is facing a double-digit increase and this is putting immense pressure on cost management.
In terms of opportunities, Covid-19 has allowed us to assess our office environment and ways of working. We are more agile and openly encourage hybrid working. Additionally, alongside the challenges of sourcing talent in the marketplace, we are also re-examining the benefits that we offer to ensure we remain at the forefront.
Additionally, Covid has forced us to be more innovative in exploring products that are not so reliant on air freight. We have a really exciting list of innovations that we will hopefully be able to launch in the years ahead.
Fast forward to 2050 .... what would you say to your future self … that you did well or badly in 2020 to learn from.
What we did well:
We quickly recognised the importance of communication. Our successes depended entirely on the energy and drive of our people, and from the very start of the pandemic, we built up a clear cycle of internal comms that engaged different stakeholders with different messages. Morale, despite all we faced, remained high.
What we could learn from:
We learnt that clear KPIs drive so much and can mobilise a large organisation so effectively. We could have built and defined the critical KPIs earlier, and then driven resources against these to deliver what the business needed.
Looking back to March 2020. If you could change one decision that you made, what would it be?
I wish I had personally been more visible – it’s just so critical for a leader. This wouldn’t have had to be in person (as it wasn’t possible to fly to all sites), but we could have pushed out more comms from me that wasn’t always about performance. Sometimes a leader just needs to be seen, felt to be sharing the challenges.
Looking ahead, what are your predictions for the economy? For your business/sector?
It would be amiss not to mention the war in Ukraine and how that is affecting global economies, inflation and – above all – morale. As our people feel such sadness for the tragedies of which they daily read.
Specifically looking at the fresh-cut industry, it is a challenging time. Inflation is rife and cost management is critical; we envisage that we will have at least another year of difficulty here, as we navigate a path through an ever-changing landscape. We will need to work closely with our customers and also on mitigations within the supply chain and production sites. To top it off, it is also stretching to find talented labour (especially in the UK).
That said, we feel buoyant and excited for the years ahead. We have come through a challenge that many believe would sink us and it has given us yet more positivity and belief. We have won a few pieces of exciting new business, we are branching out into new categories (e.g. Bircher and fruit muesli) and we’re unlocking many new efficiencies at the site.
Most business leaders are talking about the lack of available talent being the main inhibitor of growth (achieving their strategic goals) – what are your thoughts on this and what are you doing about it?
Our business has a really strong culture. We are fun, dynamic and very inclusive and this helps us attract talent. In fact, a lot of our recruitment comes through word of mouth.
But there is no denying that there is a genuine paucity of talent within the market and that roles are much harder to fill than they were before Covid. Accordingly, we are working closely with partners like Macildowie Recruitment and Retention to both understand the market and also to meet its needs.
The Pandemic has caused many of us to reassess what is important in our lives. In what ways have you recalibrated your own personal priorities and goals.
The pandemic’s first lockdown coincided with the birth of my first daughter, Felicity. As transformative and challenging as the pandemic was, it was the birth of Felicity that was the greatest factor in a reassessment of life priorities. I would like to think that I now notice the little things more – because they are the things that really matter.
If you enjoyed this blog and would like to learn more about Hugh, you can request to connect with him on Linkedin. Alternatively, you can learn more about Blue Skies on their website. Visit the Unprecedented Website today to read more blogs like this.