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Career interview: Ben Hutchins, Lye Cross Farm

31st March 2022

Ben Hutchins has had an admirable career in Sales that has taken him to North Downs Dairy, FMCG giant Premier Foods, Ecotone (formally Wessanen), Tolsa and now Alvis Brothers (Lye Cross Farm) where he is the Sales & Marketing Director. We spoke to Ben about his early life and lessons in Sales, his experience of hybrid working, success at work and the career moves he’s made over the last 20 years.

Lovely to meet you, Ben. Let’s start our chat at the beginning of your career. Seven was established in 2002, can you remember where you were at that time?

In 2002 I was working for North Downs Dairy as a Sales Development Executive, visiting supermarkets, wholesalers and cash & carries trying to promote the Pilgrims Choice brand and their own-label products to get space on-shelf for them by doing local promotions where I could. That kind of role is a very different role now; everything is centrally ranged and controlled so negotiation is different. I don’t think some of the big organisations now can quite achieve what we used to be able to when we were able to negotiate space!

Definitely not! What was your biggest learning from that role?

The biggest thing I learnt was not to be shy if you feel like you can give more. After 6 months I felt like I had more to give so I kept pushing my boss for that and I was fortunate that they put me on some training courses, and I was promoted to be a National Account Executive. So, I learnt not to be shy. You must say when you can deliver more; push and show your eagerness.

It’s particularly easy to sit in a role in a big organisation and stop pushing for more but it does have to come from you doesn’t it. You mentioned training there; how important do you think structured training is, versus natural ‘on the job’ training?

Early on the structured approach is important. I did a couple of sales-based training courses which were useful. Latterly I’ve not done so much. Most of what I’ve learnt is from working with people and sitting with people; you sit in meetings and learn how they negotiate and what they can get away with and what they can’t for example. You see the good and the bad, you learn what to copy and what not to! So, a good mixture is important when it comes to training, also to vary what you learn. I did an advanced Excel course for example, and it has helped in areas I didn’t expect.

You’ve raised a very on-trend topic there – being in the room with people and learning in that way has been lost with working from home during the last two years. For those who are early in their careers now, how should they tackle this?

I do think they are missing out. You just can’t get that time back. The hybrid working system is where we are now, but they need to grab the experience of learning from people. You just can’t beat it. In the office environment you are hearing people on the phone and hearing how they handle problems; you’re not getting that exposure at home. Sometimes in negotiation you need to position a topic by building a story around it and really you need to be in person for this. Instead, you’re being told what to do virtually and it’s just not the same. Instructions can be very specific and blunt.

Lots of our clients and candidates are saying this. Hopefully some of those in-person experiences can return now. Going back to your career, what’s been the main driver for you when you’ve changed roles? How have you decided which company to go to?

I’d say there’s both push and pull factors to these decisions. Relationships have been a driver for me. I had the chance to leave with a colleague from North Downs Dairy in 2006 to increase my pay and look after some bigger accounts. I was leaving to work with someone I knew so it was a comfortable move for me, then when I went back to North Downs I returned at a much higher level and ended up taking on the bigger account, as I’d learnt so much working at Premier Foods.

I’ve returned to two businesses in my career. I left Alvis Brothers to join Tolsa for a chance to grow, then had the chance to come back here a year later to an opportunity that didn’t exist when I left. That’s where I am today, four years on. Never burn a bridge and always leave on good terms!

Location has also been a driver for changing roles. When I had young children I wanted to be at home. So a couple of the roles that I took I expected to work a hybrid model, then for various reasons they wanted me to be in the office which wasn’t what we agreed up front, but I ended up doing it!

How is it stepping into a new role and how does the office affect a workplace?

Each time you start a new role, you’re sold a vision of what the home working will be and the reality is often different. It’ll be interesting to see how hybrid working plays out, because sometimes there’s a tendency for organisations to make the role fit when they’re talking to candidates, but in reality there needs to be a much more honest appraisal of what’s required and how that really fits with company culture.

Often this happens for the right reasons; you can’t beat being in the office sometimes as we’ve said already. Some of the circumstances changed when I was there, and there’s no doubt these remotely based roles can be a challenge because you’re just not meeting people. So you pop into the office more, and then you’ll find there’s an expectation to be there, and then that expectation grows a bit more, and then you feel like you’re getting more out of being in the office because instead of someone ignoring your phone call you can stand by their desk and speak to them directly. Eventually you’re there all the time and it really can upset your work/life balance.

If that was your experience of hybrid model pre-Covid, it’ll be interesting to see whether employers stick to the arrangement or whether everyone eventually slides back to the office! My final question is around success at work. What does success feel like to you and how has that changed over the years?

I guess success is feeling challenged and feeling that you can make a difference, and that your voice counts. Whether that’s getting the business to a more profitable position or integrating a new starter into the team well. That goes for all levels, not just when you get to a senior position like I’m fortunate to be in now. Everyone’s voice needs to count all the way through the organisation. Not every idea is a good idea, but it’s important to not dismiss people’s views.

Agreed! Thank you for your time, Ben!

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