Alumna Q and A – Helen Bowyer, Commercial Director at Wrights Food Group
We are delighted to share a fascinating Q & A with Helen Bowyer who, throughout her career, has had jobs in the food industry, working her way up to the position of Commercial Director at Wrights Food Group. Having chosen to leave university after just a few months, Helen is the first to admit that she has not followed the most classic of career paths, but her decision certainly paid off, leading to a varied and interesting career, clocking up some great experiences and achievements along the way. She has worked alongside leading names in the food industry, including M&S, Sainsbury’s, Morrison’s, Jamie Oliver and Shell, and you’ll see that the food sector offers a host of opportunities for any students who are interested in sales, engineering, operations, accounts, marketing, new product development, purchasing, to name but a few! Helen gives some really useful advice on avenues for a career in the food industry, including via top brands running graduate programs, specialist recruitment agencies and providers of food-related courses. Follow the link below to read Helen’s story.
Helen is married to Nick and has two daughters, Olivia, age 7 and Isabel, age 5. She also has three stepsons from Nick’s first marriage who are 24, 23 and 21.
Helen’s current foodie recommendation for lovers of sticky toffee pudding is M&S’ Plant Kitchen range, apparently even for those who are not vegan it is a fantastic eat!!
What A-levels did you study at Richmond Sixth Form College?
English Literature, French and Business Studies
Did you go to university from college? If so, what did you study and where did you go?
I took a year out and undertook work placements in a number of national and regional Advertising, Marketing and PR agencies whilst working at a local Gastro Pub as I had agreed to a deferred entry to Leeds Metropolitan to study PR. After my year working full time I was uncertain whether I did actually then want to pursue the planned degree but did decide to go ahead, although made the decision to leave in the December, after being there for 2-3 months.
If not, what was your first job?
After making the decision to leave university, I carried on working at the Gastro Pub whilst also getting a job in Sales/Accounts Administration while deciding what I wanted to do. This role was with Leathams, a large London-based food business that supplied manufacturers, restaurants, coffee shops and delicatessens across the UK. Their ingredients division was based in Leyburn as one of the owners of the business had taken the decision to move out of London, meaning a Yorkshire office was required.
How has your career progressed since then?
The role at Leathams confirmed my desire to work in the food industry. From the age of 14, I had always waitressed in award-winning restaurants and had a passion for all things food related. From here I then moved into a role of Purchasing and Planning Manager for a Ready Meals Manufacturer based in Masham. They were owned by an American food business and had two sister companies in the UK which gave me greater involvement than just the Masham site. Whilst here, I was attending the largest food exhibition in Europe, SIAL, in Paris and met Nick, who is now my husband. He was in the Chicken industry and based in Cheshire, so after a period of commuting backwards and forwards between Yorkshire and Cheshire I needed to make the move to Cheshire as Nick was unable to move his business to Yorkshire!
After months of looking for a role that I would like, I ended up taking an opportunity to do some Purchasing consultancy work for a previous colleague in manufacturing who had gone to work for Bakkavor in their Colchester-based manufacturing facility. Bakkavor are one of the largest manufacturing groups in the UK but they required someone to go down and review that specific site whilst also linking through with group purchasing based in Spalding. I went down there three days a week, for what was originally mean to be three months, and ended up covering that role for just over two years. At the same time, I took on a number of other Purchasing consultancy roles for other national food manufacturers and this was how I became acquainted with Wrights Food Group.
How long have you worked at Wrights Food Group?
I joined Wrights as a Purchasing Consultant and did two days a week for them for a two-year period before taking the opportunity to join them as their full time employed Head of Purchasing. After seven years in this role, I was promoted to Commercial Director in November 2016, meaning I have been employed by Wrights for 11 years but worked for them for 13 years, if I include the consultancy period. As Commercial Director for the business, I am ultimately responsible for the Commercial business strategy and the Sales, New Product Development and Purchasing departments in the business, with seven direct reports.
Tell us a little about Wrights Food Group
We are a food manufacturing specialist which supplies savoury, sweet bakery and ready meals to some of the UK’s leading retail and food service operations. Wrights Food Group was established in 1926, by Jack and Lizzie Wright, who sold pies to neighbours from their Stoke-on-Trent doorstep. Today, the company’s 600-strong workforce manufactures and distributes savoury products, confectionery and ready meals into retail and foodservice sectors and manages 15 Wrights-branded bakery stores across the North West.
Winners of the 2019 Bakery Industry Awards title of “bakery manufacturer of the year”, its innovation has been a cornerstone of the business throughout almost a century of food production, recognising the need for adding value to its product range to investing in blast freezers to bring frozen, ready-to-bake products to bakery independents in 1989.
Today, chairman Peter Wright is the custodian of the £65million turnover business which supplies savoury, sweet, frozen and bakery products to some of the UK’s leading hospitality and retail brands.
What do you enjoy most about working in the food industry?
I have always been a foodie which certainly draws you to the food industry but I also feel it is an industry that everyone can relate to, as we all have to eat! It is an area that is continually changing and exciting in terms of development, market and consumer changes and never gets boring. I just feel it is sadly an industry that gets overlooked in career education when there are a huge number of different areas for career progression in the industry – Sales, Engineering, Operations, Accounts, New Product Development, Purchasing etc.. The list is never ending!
Which food retailers do you supply to and are these branded as the store’s own ranges?
We presently supply in to M&S, Sainsbury’s, Morrison’s, Co-Op and then some of the smaller convenience retail groups. Products supplied to the big retailers are in their own brand and then we manufacture under Wrights brand for Co-Op and convenience retail. Retail is still a relatively small area for the business with around 70% of the business being Foodservice Wholesale or Foodservice End User with customers such as Domino’s, BP Wild Bean Café, Caffe Nero, Jamie Oliver by Shell etc..
What advice would you give to students looking to work in the food industry?
I would strongly suggest that students look in to the high range of roles that are available in the food industry, if it isn’t an area they are aware of. Food businesses are very keen to support students with an interest in manufacturing and we work with colleges such as Reaseheath who run a large number of food-related courses. In terms of getting in to sales, purchasing, engineering, accounts etc. there are a high number of graduate programs run by some of the top brands that are a great springboard into the industry, as well as a number of specialist recruitment businesses dedicated to the food industry that can target specific areas of interest depending on the skills/qualifications held.
Do you recommend students try and get some relevant work experience working in retail/customer-facing roles?
I think with any area of interest it is good to get work experience to help you better understand an industry or role you are interested in and work experience gives you good industry contacts that can be useful further down the line.
What did you enjoy most about your time at Richmond School and Sixth Form College?
I joined Richmond after completing my GCSEs at Ripon Grammar so Richmond was a very different experience overall. I really enjoyed the atmosphere at Richmond and have fond memories of the teachers that I had for my A Levels and the support that they gave me. In addition I met some fantastic friends who I am still close to today.
Who were your favourite teachers or were there any teachers who really inspired you?
I was very lucky to have fantastic teachers for all my chosen subjects but would say my two English Teachers – Mrs Rushton and Mr Burton. English was probably my favourite subject and they really engaged that passion for me. From a business perspective, Mrs McCafferty was a fantastic Business Studies teacher and really brought the subject to life for me and probably helped me forge my career path on the back of it.
What support did you get at Richmond School and Sixth Form College when thinking about your further studies and career plans?
We had the usual careers sessions when I was at Richmond but I think that there was very much a focus on ‘classic’ career paths rather than on industries such as food manufacturing which was very much the case in all schools at that point in time. It was great to hear that this has changed over the years and that the school and college are ensuring that students are not missing out on some fantastic businesses and industries to work in. It is encouraging to see that recently, students have taken up various apprenticeships with companies including Morrison’s, as well as more locally at Mainsgill Farm.
I am, as you can probably tell, very passionate about the food industry and hope that students can start to see the potential that lies in this industry for them to continue the knowledge and passion for many generations to come. I would be more than happy if it was ever of any help, to talk directly to any student with any questions related to this industry. I may not have all the answers but can always hopefully point them in the direction of someone who could. The main thing for me has always been to remain very focussed on what I want, being aware I may have to undertake roles that I don’t really want to, but in the knowledge that it all adds to my experience and has allowed me to step up the career path to be a Company Director before the age of 40. Life is very much what you make it yourself!
Portrait Shot – Helen Bowyer, Commercial Director at Wrights Food Group
Group shot 1 – The board of Directors at Wrights Food Group – Helen is front right.
Group shot 2 – Helen at the launch of M&S’ Plant Kitchen sticky toffee pudding and ready-to-bake mince pies
Family shot 1 – Helen with her family
Family shot 2 – Helen with her daughters