"In order to build confidence around you... you have to make it look like it's natural and easy. But resilience and sticking at it matters as well because it's not always as easy as it looks." That's how Greencore boss Patrick Coveney responded to a question about leadership in an interview in The Irish Times in 2017.
You wouldn’t exactly label Coveney’s stewardship of Greencore as natural and easy. The company has been limping on one leg since its abrupt exit from the US in 2018 – a misadventure he championed – and now finds itself in the eye of the Covid storm.
Coveney admitted this week that the UK’s largest maker of pre-packaged sandwiches had been “absolutely smashed” by the crisis, with sales from its core “food to go” division decimated, down 50 per cent in the UK’s first lockdown and struggling to recover in the second. He also said it would take until at least 2022 before the business recovers. And that’s provided a vaccine saves the day and Brexit doesn’t throw a curveball.
Yet he can still lay claim to the resilience part of his leadership credo, having been at the helm for 13 years, for still having the backing of investors despite recent setbacks, and for confidently insisting he has the right formula to bring Greencore forward again.
He was, after all, instrumental in transforming the ailing sugar business into the convenience food operator that it is today. It makes in the region of 700 million sandwiches a year, supplying own-brand products to most of the UK’s big retail multiples.
Coveney says Greencore’s reset strategy – in other words its post-US exit strategy – was coming together just before Covid hit. The crisis has precipitated a reset of its own, involving new financial arrangements with creditors, a pay cut of 30 per cent for senior staff, and just this week a £90 million cash call on investors.
It has also precipitated an era of increased digitisation and remote working, which presumably means fewer people in city centres buying “food to go”. This spells trouble for Greencore and for Coveney.