Leading Orkney food companies are to explore new ways of working more closely together after witnessing strong inter-business co-operation on an overseas fact finding mission.
The visit to Holland’s Food Valley centre proved inspirational, with those involved now looking at the potential for profit-boosting collaborations similar to those they saw on the other side of the North Sea.
An incubation unit for the food ideas of the future, the centre brings together 15,000 staff working for international food companies, research institutes and the Wageningen University.
Holland is already the world’s third largest exporter of agricultural and food products and, by encouraging more joined-up working, Food Valley aims to enhance the country’s position as a global centre of innovation for the food industry.
The visit involved the Orkney Fishermen’s Society, the Orkney Food Company, the Orkney Cheese Company, the Scottish NFU and HIE Orkney.
It was funded by HIE Orkney, the European LEADER + programme and the businesses themselves and was the start of a year long initiative designed to put lessons learned from Holland into practice on home soil.
“What impressed me most was the level of co-operation between some pretty big businesses, some of them multi nationals,” said HIE Orkney chief executive Ken Grant.
“The respect and understanding they’d developed by working together has given them confidence and we could see that their close co-operation is bringing real returns in terms of profitability and business success.”
One of the enterprises visited by the Orkney delegation is called the Ten Kate Cluster, a unique collaboration between three companies from Holland, Germany and the United States.
The three make use of a shared raw material – pork fat – to make entirely different products.
“It was inspirational to see three companies, from three nations, working together in a way that cuts costs and makes each of them commercially successful,” said Mr Grant.
“Our visit to Holland exceeded my expectations and there’s no doubt that the Orkney businesses involved can see the benefits of exploring opportunities for further co-operation between themselves.”
Close links between businesses and the academic world were also evident, with research establishments carrying out study programmes relevant to the needs of their commercial partners.
The newly opened Restaurant of the Future brings together food management experts, kitchen designers, software developers and university researchers – with diners who are happy to be watched as they eat.
“It was a real eye-opener,” said Mr Grant. “Here was a futuristic centre for testing new food products and service systems, where the eating habits and preferences of customers are monitored closely by scientists over long periods of time.
“We produce some world beating food and drink in Orkney – where better to discover if we’re making the most of them than one of the world’s most advanced research facilities? It’s something I feel would be well worth exploring.”
Stewart Crichton, manager of the Orkney Fishermen’s Society, said he returned from Holland feeling “evangelical” about the benefits that inter-business co-operation can bring – and about making use of Food Valley facilities.
Britain’s biggest year-round crab processing plant is preparing to commission one of the Dutch research establishments they visited to explore ways to further automate some of the processes at its Stromness-based operation.
“We saw from one of the companies we visited in Food Valley how automation is cutting costs,” he said. “It’s the same with the remarkable levels of co-operation we were shown.
“Businesses were making real savings and, at a time of rising costs for enterprises such as ours, that could be critically important in giving us a really competitive edge in an increasingly global market place.
“The trip itself was really valuable – as is the fact that we’re all being encouraged and helped to maximise the potential benefits that could come from enhanced co-operation between Orkney’s food companies.
“That could also be crucial for the many primary producers – farmers and fishermen – whose efforts are supported by the processing sector. If we are competitive, it helps them to flourish as well.”
OFS and its neighbour, the Orkney Food Company, are now looking at joint ways to reduce their energy bills.
Also planned are inter-business visits between the islands’ food and drink companies.
“It’ll be an excellent way to break down any barriers that might exist between us, to open our minds to fresh ideas, to solve problems and identify ways to collaborate to cut all of our costs,” added Mr Crichton.
“I was completely blown away by what I saw in Holland and I’m confident that there’ll be real benefits for our individual businesses, and the Orkney community as a whole, as a result of this initiative.”
The project was created by HIE Orkney in partnership with the Scottish Director Development Centre at the Institute of Directors in Scotland.
The institute’s David Wilkinson, who has many years of international business experience in the food and drink industry, led the visit to Food Valley.
He said one of the next steps would be to develop a pilot project with NIZO, based in Food Valley and one of Europe’s leading food research companies.
“Each of the Orkney companies produces waste that can be expensive to deal with,” Mr Wilkinson said. “With Nizo, we’ll be looking at possibilities of generating energy by converting waste into heat.
“We’re also going to be talking to the Restaurant of the Future about putting on a special Orkney menu.”
He added: “I find it exciting that the visit has proved such a catalyst, giving everyone involved new ideas for working on joint projects that will improve their profitability and maximise the benefit they bring to the wider Orkney economy.”