Lessons in leadership from 30 years of food industry experience

4 March 2019 11:24
Mark Thorpe, KP Snacks, CEO poses with packet of McCoys Crisps

In the early 1980s, Lancaster was looking for new ways to get closer to its local communities. It was because of this that Mark Thorpe (BA Economics, 1984, County), captain of the University’s new pool team, got to experience life in the Lancaster and Morecambe league and regular matches at all kinds of characterful pubs and social clubs around the region.

“You can imagine how they felt about this bunch of students coming into their pub,” remembers Mark. “It was the full package at Lancaster that really set me up career-wise. I was a typically naive 18-year-old, quite shy, and it was the campus life, being thrown together with people from different backgrounds that was so important.”

After 30 years in leadership roles in the food industry, Mark is now the CEO at KP Snacks, the UK’s second largest snack manufacturer with brands like McCoy’s, Hula-Hoops, Tyrrells and Butterkist. 

“IQ is important, you to have to prove you have a capability for learning. But if you want to go into leadership then you have to be thinking about developing your EQ - and there’s no better place than a university like Lancaster to develop your interpersonal skills, people are brought together from totally different cultures and backgrounds and it is a great place to learn how to make relationships, to network.”

Mark can look back to a store of special moments.

“I wanted to be living on a campus, not part of a university that was dotted around a city. The collegiate system means you’re part of a real community. All the inter-college sports, the War of the Roses weekends [with the University of York], going to see gigs. Lancaster has an amazing history for music. There’s been people like Queen, Deep Purple, Eric Clapton playing on campus. I got to see U2 in the Great Hall in front of just 1,000 people; the Eurythmics when the Sugarhouse [the Student Union club] first opened.”

Getting a foot in the door of the food industry was eventually down to Mark’s people skills.

“I had no clear career plans when I left Lancaster and spent six months after graduating travelling, staying with friends in London. My father knew the factory director at United Biscuits in Manchester who said he could get me some work experience there. I enjoyed my time getting to know the teams and learning the manufacturing processes and the director recommended I apply for the graduate scheme. I was rejected - and it was only luck that meant I got my chance. All the national factory directors met up soon after and talked about the challenges of recruiting good graduates. My contact said it was no wonder, giving me as an example of someone who’d been turned down on paper, but would have been perfect. The London office was soon on the phone to me explaining they’d made a mistake.”

Mark more than demonstrated the value of this U-turn in the coming years, progressing from graduate to factory general manager at United Biscuits to become operations director - responsible for national production of household names like McVitie's biscuits and Jacob's Cream Crackers.

“From what I’ve seen there are three ways to progress through an organisation: some are pulled up by bosses; others climb over people with little regard for the consequences; and then the most robust way, by working hard and progressing with the support of colleagues, peers and bosses. That’s how you build strong foundations for your role.

“Anyone could buy the ingredients and machinery we have, but what makes us different is our brands, our culture and our people. Manufacturing is all about the people. Fast Moving Consumer Goods and manufacturing are a great place to work with people and teams. My job is to have 2,000 colleagues at KP who are our brand ambassadors, who all want to make KP a better performing business and a great place to work. When they’re out at the pub they’ll be asking the landlord why they’re not stocking McCoy’s.

“We have colleagues working 24/7 shift patterns, working at midnight on a Saturday night, I think it is important to understand the personal challenges this can bring. Management is not about controlling, it is about motivating and stimulating colleagues at all levels to want to make a difference. As leaders we want to engage and motivate colleagues to feel they can make a difference, to be involved with continuous improvement, making tomorrow even better than today. At the end of the day leaders are here to develop the next generation of leaders, and leaders whatever level they’re working at in the business.”

When Mark was director of a factory in Harlesden he would often be visited by Hector Laing, the life president at United Biscuits, dropping in on his way to the House of Lords.

“I’d just get a call to say that Lord Laing had arrived. He’d been based at the Harlesden factory many years previous, and would like to come and see what he called his ‘favourite biscuit factory’, ‘so how’s my factory?’. We’d go around the factory floor and Lord Laing would ask me about everyone so that when he was introduced he’d know their name, could ask after their family. He knew the importance of making people feel individual and valued - and they’d love it.”

Mark believes more graduates should be looking at the food manufacturing business.

“There are great opportunities in everything from engineering, to finance, sales, technical, marketing, supply chain, HR and product development. Whatever the technological and social changes happening, we’re always going to need to provide food; and now’s the time when we, as a sector, are having to take on some complex problems. How to increase productivity to meet the needs of a growing global population in sustainable ways, making the best use of the land we have. How we can minimise all kinds of waste, reduce the amount of packaging we use. Producing great tasting snacks, developing the right mix of healthier products and more education to address issues of obesity. We’re at the heart of all of these challenges, and need the best graduates to help us tackle them."