Northern Ireland's most successful food companies are being driven by a commitment to innovation, an audience of food sector influencers heard yesterday at the Balmoral Show's flagship event.
Speaking at the Ulster Bank lunch in the show's main marquee, Professor Grainne Allen, head of product development at Marks & Spencer and a visiting professor at Ulster University's Business School, said that she has worked closely with some of Northern Ireland's best-known food brands who have transformed their business through innovation.
She stated that by understanding changing consumer preferences, assessing likely trends, and adapting their products, processes and marketing as a result, they have stayed ahead of their competition and achieved real success with multiple retailers.
Prof Allen added: "Innovation is simply the combination of creativity and implementation.
"There are always lots of ideas, but identifying the winning ones, ensuring they are relevant to the customer and landing them brilliantly into the marketplace is imperative."
"At Marks & Spencer, we do more than follow trends. We are continually horizon-scanning to forecast what future trends will be.
"But it's important not to be too far ahead for our customers - they have got to be ready, products have got to be relevant and have got to excite and inspire them," she added.
"And, of course, products need to be outstanding in quality and represent great value for money.
"It is never enough to stand still and continually look backwards, the pace of change is ever-increasing, rapid and exciting.
"We continually look to re-invent, re-define and keep product ranges up-to-date, drive excellence in quality and land firsts to market.
"We never forget that it is the customer who raises the importance of innovation and quality as a key factor in our success.
"We work closely with our supply-base on our innovation strategies, travelling the world in search of the next delicious food, and we research, cook and experiment with them. Then, we work closely through a clearly defined stage and gate process to ensure we launch with authority and integrity."
The Ulster Bank lunch at Balmoral Show is now in its 10th year and has welcomed speakers including Moy Park chief executive Janet McCollum, Dunbia Group's Jim Dobson, Hilton Food Group Plc chief executive Robert Watson and Owen Brennan, chief executive of Devenish Nutrition.
Ulster Bank's Head of Northern Ireland Richard Donnan said: "The food and drink sector continues to be a key driver of the Northern Ireland economy and Grainne has played an important role in encouraging innovation through partnerships between Marks & Spencer and local companies.
"Ulster Bank is strongly committed to continuing to support investment and innovation throughout the food chain and our principal sponsorship of the Balmoral Show helps us communicate that and our active engagement with the sector as a whole."
Prof Allen, who is originally from Maghera but now lives in Bedfordshire, has over 25 years' experience in the food industry.