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An Evening with Karen Betts OBE

Alumna Karen Betts OBE studied law with us before going on to a rich and varied career from law to government and now food and drink. Last year, the former CEO of the Scotch Whisky Association, Karen became Chief Executive of the Food and Drink Federation. We caught up with Karen at our recent “Evening with ..” event to discuss her role and how her legal training has proved valuable in her career.

By Cara Fielder. Published 22 March 2023.

What attracted me to my new role at the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) was the centrality of food and drink to all our lives. This is a hugely diverse sector that is at the heart of everybody's everyday lives. And there are a lot of important challenges the sector is facing now and into the future, which bring real opportunity too. How we shape our food system over the coming years will have an impact on each of our lives and the societies that we live in, so I found food and drink a really interesting sector.

My legal training had been a great grounding for everything I’ve gone on to do.  Most importantly for me, it gave me a structure and a basis for problem solving. I love a good problem; trying to work out what you do with it, and how you approach it to find a solution. When you've got to find a solution, how do you work with all the other people who are involved? How do you find an outcome that works every day? I find that really appealing and motivating.  Law teaches you to strip problems back to their essentials, and to build solutions back from there.  That’s an approach I still use a great deal.

The food and drink sector is a very dynamic place to work.  We have real challenges in the immediate term, from soaring inflation rooted in the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, to making new trading arrangements with Europe work. Then there are longer-term questions as well. How does our food system play its full part in arresting climate change?  How do we manage increasing weather events and their impacts on crops?  And how too do we ensure that the food and drink we produce supports healthy and balanced lifestyles – so food is a source of health and not ill health?

My role is fascinating every day. I have a great team and we’re constantly engaged in discussions on policy, trying to find the right outcomes for all sorts of issues, from the better recycling of plastics and packaging to food safety issues and healthy diets.  Very little has a straightforward solution, but that’s what makes it interesting.

I also really enjoy the people side of what I do. Everything we do involves engaging other people, whether that's our member companies (as we're a membership organisation) companies – large and small – across the UK, to regulators, government policymakers or ministers and MPs. A lot of what I do brings my team or different groups of people together, to focus on a particular issue or to that the industry and what we do is well understood.  We currently have a new campaign, Food & Drink Powers Our Nation, which aims to do just that.

One of the really interesting things I do is go and see our member companies on-site; it's endlessly fascinating. Food manufacturing does everything that you would do in your own kitchen, but on a much greater scale. I'm forever astounded by manufacturers’ efficiency and constancy – which is what keeps consistently good, fresh food in our shops and on our tables every day. It means you could go into your local shop at almost any time of day and buy the packet of biscuits or the tray of tomatoes that you wanted. The fact that you very rarely have cause to question whether what you want will be there is an incredible achievement.

A good week at work involves me getting out to see a member and understanding more about what they do and how they do it. For me, it's vital to go and see them on-site because it allows me to see the world from their point of view. It's very different to someone coming into our offices and discussing a particular issue. For instance, I was at a cake manufacturer the other day talking about heat capture from their ovens as part of their sustainability drive. I probably wouldn't have had that conversation with them if they had come into the office.

There are some long-term challenges that the food and drink system are going to have to address in the coming years. To tackle these effectively, all the different parts of the farm to fork sector need to work together, from farmers to manufacturers, retailers and other parts of the supply chain. We need to work together to ensure the food system is sustainable into the future. There's a lot of work going on, including how we use energy more efficiently and how we use water more sustainably. None of these issues can be solved by any individual or company. Healthy diets are another complex issue we need to address together.

The government also needs to ensure – working with industry – that our sector is well-regulated.  This is a challenge for the UK post-Brexit, since for many years we have been regulated by Brussels.  We will need stronger mechanisms for partnership working if we are to do this well as a country.

My legal background has been really valuable across all my roles. If a client comes to you with a problem, as a lawyer, you have to peel back the layers of the problem to work out where the key issues and their solutions lie. I think learning how to take problems apart and how to build solutions is something you learn as a lawyer that’s incredibly useful in life.

Legal training also teaches you to be rigorous and understand the relationships and rights that you have. a foundation in the structures of law and how they frame business operations is helpful in the round, from contract to employment law. It's also helpful if you become involved in legal action. I joined the Scotch Whisky Association in 2017, halfway through some legal action they were taking, and my legal background was very useful in that situation.

The pandemic has certainly had a permanent impact on working life, particularly with flexible working.  It’s been interesting to see how accepted this has become across the board – that is, that many people can do their jobs effectively whether or not they're in the office. I think the pandemic enhanced trends that had been around for a while but where change had been slow. Working from home has now become much more accepted, as has ensuring that everyone has the technology to support them in doing so. And if that helps people to create a better balance between their home and working lives, that's good for everybody. It's good for individuals, but it's good for organisations as well. I tend to come into the office four days a week because I'm just not that good at working from home. I like the very clear start and end to my day which going to the office gives me – that clear separation between work and home.  Overall, I think it's impacted the workplace enormously and positively.

My advice for students heading into the workplace is to be open-minded and flexible about what they want to do and the skills they bring. Always be open to new opportunities, even if they’re not exactly what you were looking for. I've had a really varied career and I’ve never had a set plan for what I wanted to do and when. I have done what’s interested me and what's worked. I’d advise anyone to gather both hard skills and soft skills along the way, and be outward looking, be open to learning new things and new opportunities.


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