If there’s one thing about his job that gets Glenn Caton excited, it’s the daily arrival of half a million litres of fresh milk.
The president of Mondelez for Northern Europe oversees the UK factories which make Cadbury’s Dairy Milk and other familiar brands. The support for British agriculture, and the close relationships that this brings with local farmers, are an uplifting reminder of a childhood spent on the family farm in Yorkshire.
As on any farm, there was always work to be done. Lambing season is a fond memory; clearing out the cowsheds less so. Caton grimly recalls one moment in his youth when feeding time descended into chaos. Surrounded by bleating sheep, clamouring angrily at his legs, Caton leapt from the scene and sought safety in the family Land Rover.
“I wasn’t cut out for farming,” he adds, perhaps unnecessarily.
These days his younger brother keeps the tradition going, and Caton can’t help noting with a smile that the family is still winning prizes at the local show in Malham. In fact, a glance through the results shows the Caton name plastered over show prizes – everything from Blue Faced Leicester sheep to best presentation of an afternoon tea tray. It is a sign of a competitive and community spirit instilled from an early age through grandparents, parents and children.
It is also a sentiment that matches how Caton views the Cadbury business: “I think it comes from my family on the farm … The idea of investing for generations is really important to me.”
Mondelez (pronounced mon-duh-leez) bought Cadbury back in 2009, in a deal which sparked concerns over the ‘loss’ of a national treasure famous for its strong relationship with workers. Caton joined the multinational food company four years later, first running the chocolate business in northern Europe and later taking over responsibility for all products in the region.
The 45-year-old thinks his US bosses have understood Cadbury’s huge stake in its UK presence. A recent inflation-linked pay deal even prompted a glowing response from the Unite union. The firm goes back almost 200 years, to John Cadbury’s grocery shop in Birmingham, and its chocolate bars carry the kind of affection other consumer brands would kill for. The UK accounts for about 20 per cent of Mondelez’ European sales.
The group has backed that up by investing £200m in UK operations over the last five years. A big chunk of that went on new technology for the Bournville factory, which helped it close an efficiency gap on a comparable Mondelez plant in Germany. But Caton is a realist too.
“Ultimately, it comes down to a commercial decision as well. Can you still make stuff and invent new products in that place? Honestly, there’s nothing inevitable about that. We are living in a competitive world.”
The message is obvious. Mondelez is a big company, and only sentimental up to a point. It means Caton has a clear message for those negotiating Britain’s future relationship with the EU.
Caton doesn’t say how he voted, but he recalls the “enormous amounts of shock” in the office after the Brexit referendum. He now chairs a company committee looking at the implications of Brexit, and will be able to set out his concerns to Michael Gove, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary, when the prominent Brexit campaigner visits Bournville later in the year.
He says that he will tell Gove that aside from a thriving economy, Cadbury wants reassurances on frictionless trade and access to talent – two issues that strike at the heart of the Brexit negotiations over the single market and freedom of movement.
Cadbury employs more than 50 nationalities at Bournville, and Caton estimates that a good majority are from the EU. He also points out that it is not just a factory, but the research and development site for the global business.
“That idea of giving security to the talent that’s here today, [having] the flexibility to give people exciting careers around the world who are British, and making sure we’ve got a diverse workforce here is very important.”
Handling the fallout from Brexit might end up being the defining moment in many executives’ careers, but Caton still catches himself wondering how he got here in the first place.
Speaking at the offices of one of Mondelez’s marketing companies in London, he admits: “It’s probably the proudest moment in my life, getting the job running Cadbury and Mondelez in the UK. I pinch myself to this day.”
Pride is big in Caton’s vocabulary, but he’s not so proud that he won’t name his favourite non-Mondelez chocolate: those red-foil-wrapped Lindor balls. It may not be a coincidence that they are made by the Swiss firm Lindt, based just a stone’s throw from Zurich where Caton’s family are now based. He spends half his working time at Mondelez’s European headquarters, the rest at the UK base in Uxbridge. That may account for a softer Yorkshire accent than you might find among the farmers back in Malham.
A Swiss base has its advantages, of course: perhaps financial, but there’s also the skiing and the weekend biking around Lake Zurich – where, he says, he gets soundly beaten by his eldest son. The quieter moments are taken up by trying to unpick the cunning plans in whodunit novels. Patricia Cornwell is a favourite, as well as Agatha Christie.
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But there was no grand Machiavellian strategy for his career. Caton was encouraged by his parents to look beyond the farm – and as he would admit, he didn’t need much encouragement. His path was travelled by chance rather than design. A business degree at Aston University in Birmingham gave him the foundations; a decade at global consumer goods group Procter & Gamble gave him the experience to aim for bigger things.
If he has a business hero from his own career, he says it’s probably Robert Hiscox, the insurance company founder for whom Caton worked from 2006 until 2011. He also looks with great affection and admiration to Tony and Barbara Laithwaite, the couple who built their own direct sales wine business where Caton worked before Mondelez. He chuckles as he accepts some responsibility for those Laithwaites wine vouchers that seem to tumble out of every magazine and newspaper.
So how is he planning to inspire the 6,000 staff working under him now?
“The biggest responsibility of leadership is to develop other leaders, and I work towards this by giving everybody the responsibility to lead.”
He wants his staff to try and leave things better than they found them, and have the wherewithal to put their good ideas into practice. Caton recalls that slightly self-effacing Steve Jobs quote about hiring clever people: not to lecture them, but to learn from them.
“That’s a philosophy I think is just wonderful and something I try and inspire others to do.”
If there’s another business philosophy he reaches for, it’s from his father, and it’s one straight from the heart of the Yorkshire Dales: “It doesn’t matter if you’re mucking out the cows: if you do it with a smile on your face and some pride in the outcome then you’ll feel better about it and enjoy it.”