Iain Baxter has a tough but simple mission: to grow the value of Scotland’s multi-billion pound food and drink businesses and cement our reputation as a land of outstanding produce. Quite a challenge for this engaging and friendly former whisky industry executive, who will need a backbone of titanium to lead the disparate group of primary, tertiary and advanced producers who stock our national larder through the times ahead.

Baxter, who became chief executive of Scotland Food and Drink on Hallowe’en last year, taking over from the veteran James Withers, has already had a hectic morning and afternoon in Edinburgh. He arrives for our interview at Bonnie & Wild, the foodies’ marketplace in St James Quarter, where there is a host of aromas emanating from a series of stalls, and sips a coffee after declining the jovial offer of a lychee cocktail. Baxter has marched down from nearby St Andrew’s House, where he was among Scottish business leaders at the inaugural meeting of the New Deal for Business Group.

Scotland’s First Minister, Humza Yousaf, promised that the Scottish Government would ‘reset’ its frosty relationship with the business community, so the creation of this group is an acknowledgement that relations between the government and business had deteriorated during Nicola Sturgeon’s reign.

The New Deal for Business Group, co-chaired by Wellbeing and Economy Secretary Neil Gray, MSP, alongside Dr Poonam Malik, Head of Investments at the University of Strathclyde, opened with round-the table debate on Scotland’s economic conditions and performance; how to ensure a better environment for business and a transition to a wellbeing economy.

Baxter, who will be heavily involved in this group, is ahead of the game. His organisation is preparing to launch its food and drink strategy, Sustaining Scotland: Supplying the World, at the Royal Highland Show at Ingliston, in the coming days.

Before 2007 our national food and drinks industry was a melange of self-interested parties, all vying for attention. It was dominated by the outstanding global performance of the Scotch whisky industry, our leading international export by a country mile. Then the Scotland Food & Drink Partnership was created and, during Withers’ tenure, it has been able to energise food and drinks companies, encouraging international exports and product innovation.

The food and drink industry became the shining star of Scotland’s rather lacklustre economy until the Covid pandemic hit in early 2020. Now, in post-pandemic recovery, the sector faces mighty headwinds with rising commodity and energy prices and on skills, where there remains an acute shortage of labour in primary production areas such as seasonal farm labour and fish processing. This has been exacerbated by a series of Scottish Government initiatives which were viewed as ill-thought out and rushed through without proper consultation with the business community.

Baxter is clear that the partnership’s new strategy will recharge the ambition for Scotland’s producers and suppliers. Today, the partnership is an influential smorgasbord which includes organisations and trade bodies: the Scotch Whisky Association, Seafood Scotland, Scottish Bakers, Dairy UK, Quality Meat Scotland, the Food and Drink Federation Scotland, Salmon Scotland, Agriculture, Horticulture Development Board, the National Farmers Union Scotland, the Scottish Agricultural Organisation Society and leading research institute, SEFARI. It also encompasses the Scottish Government and its agencies: Scottish Enterprise, Scottish Development International, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, South of Scotland Enterprise, Skills Development Scotland and Opportunity North East.

As a relative newcomer to his role, his plan of engagement in those opening first months has been comprehensive, with a willingness to listen and assess the bigger picture.

“The first thing for me has been understanding and getting to grips with the sheer breadth and depth of where we sit as an industry leadership group. The partnership is very broad, ranging from primary production to the public sector and policymaking. It’s a really broad church representing what is a huge £15 billion a year plus industry for Scotland.”

The plan is to substantially increase this figure to more than £20 billion in the next ten years.

“The beauty of Scotland Food & Drink as an organisation is that it sits at the heart of the partnership. I speak regularly with everyone who leads their sector. Through the partnership, we represent around 90 per cent of food and drink in Scotland, including over 450 of our members. I have this network and they are the sectoral experts. As well as the partnership there is Scotland Food & Drink Board which has a great deal of knowledge and wisdom about the industry in Scotland.”

For example, individual distilleries are members of Scotland Food & Drink but also the main industry body, the Scotch Whisky Association, is a member too.

Baxter makes a clear distinction. “The strategy is not a Scotland Food & Drink strategy, it is the Scotland Food and Drink partnership’s strategy. They have agreed to sign off the strategy. This is the industry saying what it needs and wants.”

This will then give the Scottish Government and its policymakers a far clearer direction on how to build sustainable economic success and, hopefully, devise better policies that don’t take food and drink businesses by surprise.

Then it is Scotland Food & Drink’s task to manage the strategic delivery plan across supply- and demand-side sectors, identifying a series of ‘enablers’ and working much more collaboratively with the UK and Scottish governments.

“When I joined, we had really just started the process of defining and developing our food and drink strategy which we are about to launch. Historically, there has been a big focus on growth but in the aftermath of the Covid pandemic, inflationary pressures and the Ukraine war, there was a need to build greater resilience in the sector. This strengthening of our food and drink resilience wasn’t there the last time we developed our strategy.”

He says the drive for growth remains the key objective, but to achieve this the sector must do more work on making itself sustainable and capable of withstanding economic shocks.

“Clearly, net zero as a sustainable target is very important. We must work hand in glove with government to do that, but there is also the economic sustainability piece we need to consider as well. So, when we consider the most important parts for the industry there is the right regulatory environment, a proper way to alleviate cost pressures and a proper focus on the supply of labour.”

As with so many of Scotland’s businesses, the shortage of labour and a paucity of the required level of skills remains worrying. With both an ageing population in Scotland and one that is predicted to fall back to below 5.1 million citizens, there is a real battle for talent.

“Our new strategy will be looking at both the supply and demand side, making sure that we do have a strong environment for businesses to grow. We want to reach a place where we are the best country in the world [in which] to own and operate a food and drinks business. That means we have to secure our economic base to achieve this aspiration.”

There will be a focus on supply chain and logistics, although Baxter says there is a realisation that shorter supply chains often come at a higher cost for the consumer. That raises a finally balanced point about the affordability of basic produce and whether the farmers are being encouraged to produce staples, such as milk, that give them a decent profit margin. One of the enablers will be the examination of Scotland’s supply chain resilience and the cost of our shopping baskets.

“For the first time in generations, we’ve seen empty shelves in our supermarkets. This is a wake-up call to the fragility of our food supply and we must work harder to ensure that everyone has access to high-quality produce that does not cost the earth.”

Another enabler will be on training and purpose to show that the food and drink industry offers genuinely sustainable careers and that there is a need to help improve the productivity and innovation on farms and in food and fish processing plants, where it is acknowledged that working conditions can be tough as well as seasonal.

Baxter remains determined and says that while he is excited about the future and the prospects for Scotland Food & Drink, he is realistic about the challenges ahead.

“I believe in my heart of hearts that this whole sector is about passion – and that we make things that people can see, feel and taste. With such passion, you need to keep encouraging it and rekindling it when it wanes.”

Scotland Food & Drink’s Excellence Awards, the Oscars of the industry in Scotland, held on September 7, will remain a spotlight for very best, but there is also another call to arms. The industry now has – through The Knowledge Bank – a wealth of data which can be shared with food and drink businesses.

“What we want to do is share best practice and give the Scottish industry the data tools to examine, improve and innovate. We’re open to help and we extend this invitation to all Scottish producers in the sector.” 

Precision and a passion for products’

Born in Alloway, Iain Baxter studied English at the University of Dundee, and then completed an MBA in marketing at Dundee School of Management. Equipped with this, he became a business and consumer analyst with Glenmorangie, becoming a brand manager. It was an interesting time as Glenmorangie was acquired by Moët Hennessy-Louis Vuitton (LVMH), the world’s leading luxury brand.

In 2005, he moved to Inver House Distillers – with its five distilleries, Pulteney, Balblair, Knockdhu, Speyburn and Balmenach, where he worked in marketing for International Beverage, which is part of ThaiBev, Asia’s leading drinks business. While the main distillery and bottling were in Airdrie, Baxter’s role meant a lot of time spent in Asia, including Thailand, which has become one of his favourite foreign destinations.

“I spent 15 or 16 years mostly in the Scotch whisky sector, but also with other spirits as well. That was wonderful. There was a lot of travel involved to meet customers and I gained an insight into working with foreign-owned companies.”

In addition, Baxter has held directorships and consulted in housing and transport including as sales and marketing director at the Caledonian Sleeper, but recently returned to the drinks world, consulting for start-up distilleries and working on product innovation with Iain Macleod Distillers before arriving at Scotland Food & Drink in September 2022.

What makes his new role so exciting for him?

“My background has been mostly in the whisky industry and what I loved about that sector is you have people who really care about what they are making. There is precision and there are crafts people with a passion for their products. That is endemic throughout the whole food and drink scene in Scotland.”

He believes that for anyone growing crops, rearing cattle, or baking cakes, there is real care and attention which not only delivers nutrition and sustenance, but also a great deal of pleasure. “It is a wonderful industry to work in.”