A decade in the driving seat at Epic

For the past 10 years BOCM Paul’s John Cessford has held the reins of the Egg and Poultry Industry Conference, serving as chairman of the organising committee. This year’s event – the 48th Epic – will be his last in the role. Philip Clarke reports

Why have you decided to step down now?

I have always felt that Epic should be managed like any other business – and having a long-term strategy is vital. Successful businesses need to think about the medium and longer term, and that involves succession planning. I have spent over 30 years on the Epic organising team, the last 10 as chairman. I felt it was time to hand the reins over to a new person, while continuing to support the group as a “back bencher” as it were. Consistency and continuity is important and I will continue to work on the Epic group, albeit one step back from the firing line.

So, it’s a combination of factors really, but the key is continuity and we will be announcing the new chairman in due course.

What have been the key changes you have seen or made to Epic?

When I took over as chairman in 2005, Epic was suffering from changes in the industry and falling numbers. We were below our critical mass of 200 delegates.

The organising team sat down and developed a strategy which involved making sequential improvements year on year. We were keen to ensure we were targeting the correct audience and constructing programmes that were both interesting and informative.

The move from Blackpool to the Forest of Arden was a key milestone, something that was encouraged and driven by our new secretary, Howard Birley.

We were also conscious that conferences today have to be expertly stage-managed, to enhance the delegate experience. To facilitate this I brought in Stephen Dempsey of Europa Consultancy, a Preston-based firm. Stephen and his team have been working with us for a long time and their audio visual skills are there for all to see.

I’m delighted that on my “watch” I have been able to work alongside some great people to help return Epic to its rightful prominent position in the poultry calendar
John Cessford

These improvements began to have an effect, so much so that our numbers rose from the unsustainable 160-170 to 275 at last year’s event. This 60% rise, together with the generous support from our sponsors in a relatively challenging market, has been a highlight.

One thing that has not changed, oddly, is the chairman’s name. By some statistical anomaly the last six chairmen have all been called John – John Calvert, John Maunder, John Coles, John Foster, John Farrant and myself. John was clearly a popular name back then.

The theme of this year’s Epic is “Sustainable Intensification – a Question of Balance”. What does that mean to you and what do you hope to hear from the speakers?

The term sustainable intensification was originally coined by the Royal Society and its objectives are legitimate and timely. The aim is to increase food production to feed the growing population from existing farmland, while minimising pressure on the environment.

Global food producers need to utilise scientific advances and implement them at farm level. Infrastructure, investment, training and education are vital components in helping to achieve the objectives laid down.

Speakers, who include Defra secretary Liz Truss, will address this theme from their particular area of expertise.

Epic is mostly attended by senior industry executives. Should poultry farmers and farm managers be encouraged to attend?

We like to think that there is something for everyone at Epic, so all are welcome. Having said that, the conference has always been positioned as an event for the “captains of industry” and we construct the programme accordingly. Epic is not a technical or management techniques event. There are other regional/national events in the calendar specifically designed to appeal to farm managers including the Poultry Meat Conference, the South West Chicken Association conference, regional NFU turkey meetings, and the Bfrepa conference.

This year EPIC is moving from the Midlands to The Celtic Manor in South Wales. Won’t that dissuade people from the core poultry areas of East Anglia and Lincolnshire from attending, not to mention your native Scotland?

The conference had to move to protect its future. As previously mentioned, our numbers were rising and we literally outgrew the Forest of Arden. Success breeds success and sometimes you have to make tough decisions to secure your future.

I live in East Anglia and Celtic Manor is quite a trek. However, the new venue is close to the motorway network and, while less central than the Forest of Arden, it has many other attributes which will help mitigate the extra travelling for some. The reality is, if Epic was to be located anywhere in the UK, I would still want to be there.

We did extensive research and there were very few locations that ticked all our boxes in terms of numbers, cost, value for money, accessibility etc. The Celtic Manor was by some considerable distance the most outstanding venue – and I’m delighted to say we have secured such a prestigious location at cost neutrality to the Forest of Arden.

Delegates will be stunned by the facilities, the ambience and atmosphere of the place. It really does have the “wow” factor. I have attended many conference venues in my work all over the world including USA, Australia, Japan, Russia, Germany etc, but there is nothing quite like The Celtic Manor in my view.

What have been your best and worse memories of Epic?

Some of the best memories of Epic are the incredible support from our delegates and sponsors. As we made the changes and upgraded the event, people saw what we were trying to do and supported us. Equally, the Epic organising committee is an outstanding group of individuals and entrepreneurs. We act as a team and are always trying to seek a consensus. If we can’t do that, seasoned colleagues are on hand to pass on their wise counsel.

My best individual decision, however, was when I persuaded Howard Birley to take over as Epic secretary. Six or seven years ago Howard’s personal situation was changing and I believed he still had a lot to offer, given his energetic approach, industry contact network and overall positivity.

Another interesting memory was one when Jonathan Choat was addressing the conference. I think it was the year when the “Lion” was relaunched. Jonathan walked on the stage with a Lion’s head on. I remember he was doing something which required the Big Ben chime to be played. On the night before his paper there was still no Big Ben chime to be found, so it was panic stations for a while. But Stephen Dempsey of Europa, as he has done many times, resolved the problem and downloaded the chime just in time for Jonathan’s entrance.

How can Epic stay relevant to the needs of the industry?

We are continually striving to keep Epic relevant and maintaining its connection with our target audiences. That is our vision, our goal and what we do. The diverse make-up of the Epic group helps ensure we keep our focus and relevance.

I’m delighted that on my “watch” I have been able to work alongside some great people to help return Epic to its rightful prominent position in the poultry calendar.

Putting Epic to one side, what do you see as the biggest challenges for the poultry sector and for the feed sector within it?

I see many challenges, but that in itself is nothing new. I am continually impressed at the way the industry rises successfully to the challenges it faces. The salmonella in eggs crisis in 1988 and the subsequent rebirth of the Lion scheme is an excellent example. What an amazingly successful initiative that was – quite outstanding.

The globalisation of the poultrymeat and egg supply chain is another challenge, as were three raw material crises in the five years from 2007. The industry continues to adapt and galvanise itself to stay relevant and competitive.

I’m confident the industry will go from strength to strength. I’m a product of the college system and believe passionately in education and training. I studied for an NDP (still a highly respected qualification), in the early years and latterly a master’s degree in marketing half way through my career. That, I think, will be key going forward. People have to adapt, change, retrain and reinvent themselves throughout their careers. I applaud the British Poultry Council’s training initiatives and the on-going work at our flagship institutions such as Harper Adams University and the SRUC in Scotland.

As for the feed industry, it continues to adapt. When I first started, there were eight or nine nationals. Now there are two. R&D is going to be even more of a priority in the future of the feed industry. This, together with the investment and focus on biosecurity, attention to detail and excellent customer relationship, are key factors now and in the future.

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