ECR Europe event finds future bright for Europe’s retailers and manufacturers

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Europe’s fast moving consumer goods industry faces a bright future despite the current economic difficulties. That was the upbeat verdict of business leaders speaking at the ECR Europe annual conference in Brussels this week (14-15 May 2013).

More than 600 delegates from over 30 countries – including as far a field as Singapore, Brazil, Canada and South Africa – heard the case for optimism as senior executives set out the challenges and opportunities facing manufacturers and retailers.

The conference was shared for the first time with EuroCommerce, the European retail organisation which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, and EuroCommerce president Dame Lucy Neville-Rolfe joined the ECR Europe Co-chairs, Thomas Hübner (Carrefour) and Jan Zijderveld (Unilever) in welcoming delegates.

Joanne Denney-Finch, Chief Executive of IGD, market intelligence specialists in the consumer goods industry, described this as a time of “unprecedented opportunity. I believe we’re heading for a better future – a much better future,” she said.

She identified “six reasons to celebrate”:

• The biggest explosion in history of potential new customers, thanks to the growing wealth and demands of emerging nations such as China that need European products and expertise;

• Improvements already being made in resource efficiency within the industry;

• The demand for transparency and opportunities to win lasting customer loyalty;

• An appetite worldwide for teamwork throughout the supply chain;

• A golden age of technology, stimulating innovation; and 

• The opportunity to attract some of the most talented people into what she described as “the world’s biggest and most important industry”.

Dominique Reiniche, chairman Europe of Coca-Cola, suggested three pre-requisites for growth: act collectively and transparently; switch from a “share-gain war-game” to a “grow the category pie game”; and build a new value creation collaborative model based on mutual confidence and trust.

“To recover growth in Europe I believe we need to enhance trust,” she said. Mutual trust was all the more difficult to nurture in a tough economic climate, but she urged retailers and manufacturers to “join in a leap of faith”. 

“We all have a huge responsibility to set the foundations for growth for future generations. We can today create a stronger Europe.”

Former Dutch prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende, speaking on behalf of the Dutch Sustainable Growth Coalition, a group of leading businesses in the Netherlands including Unilever, said the future was bright – but it would need to be based on sustainability.

He praised industry initiatives such as the Consumer Goods Forum’s commitments on deforestation and refrigeration, and he urged businesses to take responsibility and set the pace on sustainability. “You cannot leave it to governments,” he said.

Dame Lucy said that although commerce had been hit by the economic crisis, it remained an engine of growth and one of the few industries still growing and recruiting. The sector had a good record of collaboration on sustainability and had also recently committed to implementing a voluntary agreement on good practice in the supply chain.

“If we work together a brighter future will emerge,” she said.

The ECR Europe co-chairs pointed out that the industry, with a €2.4 trillion turnover, is not only one of Europe’s biggest and most important but is its also the largest single employer. This, in turn, brought responsibilities, and they spelt out the importance of the ECR pillars, notably sustainability and the need to transform the shopper experience.“People want to know that when they buy our products they have been made responsibly,” said Zijderveld. “That’s why sustainability is high on our agenda.”

Hübner also spoke about the need to attract and encourage the most talented people to work in our industry, and of the importance of the ECR LaB (Leading across Boundaries) learning programme. “No other industry has such a big impact on all our lives,” he said.

In a session led by EuroCommerce, delegates heard EU Competition Commissioner Joaquín Almunia on the importance of competition in the supply chain, followed by a panel debate by industry and consumer representatives.

Some enterprising examples of collaboration were on view at the conference when the five finalists in the competition for ECR Europe’s first Best Activation Award presented their projects. The finalists – from companies in Germany, Greece, Italy, Netherlands and the UK – were each given 10 minutes to outline their project before delegates voted on the best.

At an awards ceremony later in the evening, the UK project, involving a year-long job swap by key managers in Tesco and Coca-Cola, was judged the winner. 

ECR Europe’s first Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to one of its original co-chairmen, Luc Vandevelde, while Maggie Chan, from Unilever, was voted Next Generation Leader by her colleagues on the ECR LaB programme.