In the next in our Industry Voices interview series, we sit down with food industry consultant Malachy O’Connor and talk strategy, food fraud and brand positioning. 

Sitting in the Foods Connected Belfast office, wearing a dapper brown jacket and cradling a cup of coffee, Malachy Connor is a man ready to chat food.

Maybe his quiet confidence comes from advising businesses on strategy and commercial training on a daily basis or his twenty-year career working for nearly every major supermarket on the island of Ireland. Whatever the driver, it is clear this is a man who knows food retail.  

O’Connor had always wanted to work in food, but actually thought he’d end up as a scientist in a lab. Then during a food science degree at Queen’s University Belfast, he did a student placement at Marks & Spencer. “I was hooked.”  

He rose through the buying departments of Spar, Dunnes, Tesco, Aldi, Superquinn and M&S, before deciding to go it alone and set up his consultancy – Food First Consulting – in 2016.

The importance of brand positioning

Since then he has also become a partner at International Private Label Consult and a coach with Uspire. He has learnt much along the way. But the moment that he credits as changing as how he thinks about retail – his very own road to Damascus moment - came in 2009. Several years into a buying director role at Aldi, O’Connor was asked to take on the marketing director brief as well. “Then three reports landed on my desk. A shopper satisfaction survey, a supplier satisfaction survey and a staff satisfaction survey,” he explains. 

Presented with opinions from three of his most important stakeholders, one thing clearly stood out. “They all had completely different understandings of what the Aldi brand and the Aldi business stood for – its personality and its identity. And it just really struck me; we're missing a trick here.” 

Today, he calls it the most powerful project he’s ever been involved in, especially as the resulting brand positioning piece still informs who Aldi is in the marketplace. 

So why did it have such an impact? “When, as a business, you understand what your purpose is and your values, how you make decisions, and then do it consistently, it makes everything more efficient and more effective. It absolutely revolutionised the business – and that was a massive learning for me.” 

When you understand your purpose, your values, and how you make decisions... it makes everything more efficient and more effective... that was a massive learning for me.”

He does admit that always thinking from an industry perspective can make approaching things as a consumer difficult. “I can't really separate the two,” he says. “I do the shopping and the cooking in our house. And when I'm doing my shopping, I'm a shopper. But I'm also an industry person as well. So, if I see something that’s changed, I'm thinking was that done for the customer? Or was it done for the business? And where it's clearly done for both, I give a quiet round of applause to the retailer who's done something really smart.” 

Tapping into your demographic

He picks out Fulfil and Vit-hit as brands who are really striking a chord with consumers. “They’ve tapped into a specific demographic and built quickly, manufacturing products at a relatively low price and producing them in a format that’s visible all over the market.” 

Even when he observes something he doesn’t agree with, it’s about understanding the why behind the business decision - “I know what it's like to be a buyer under pressure. You've got targets. You've got budgets” - This then informs his insight into emerging industry trends. 

Connecting rising costs and food fraud

So, what is he currently monitoring? Instances of food fraud are high on his radar right now. “I’ve done a bit of a research around food fraud – and identified a definite rise in incidents with a time lag after a commodity price spike.” Following inflationary highs in 2021 and 2023, he’s already tracking olive oil and pork as areas where there are issues.  

"I know what it's like to be a buyer under pressure. You've got targets. You've got budgets."

It reminds him of 2009 and 2011 – and the horsemeat scandal that followed during his time at Aldi. “I’d been given a 50 percent cost increase for the trim that was being used to make burgers that year. I was paying a lot more. Somebody saw an opportunity to cut a corner and that's how horsemeat ended up in the supply chain.” 

It was a moment that shocked the industry. But O’Connor wonders if it couldn’t have been anticipated, noting that “if the industry end to end, from the primary producer to the manufacturer, the retailer and the shopper, can’t find a way to spread out the burden of a cost increase, then you'll create unnatural blockages – and that’s when somebody ends up doing something stupid.” 

He knows the last couple of years have been tough for businesses and believes a lot of companies have been in survival mode. But this year feels different. “I think it’s just about having the bandwidth to be able to take a breath and actually think strategically.” 

“If the industry end to end... can’t find a way to spread out the burden of a cost increase, then you'll create unnatural blockages – and that’s when somebody ends up doing something stupid.” 

And that is what he thinks the industry needs – more strategic and collaborative thinking. “Businesses need to have an idea about where they want to go and a vision to help them get there,” O’Connor says. “You’ll be much more prepared for the unpredictable if you're working to a plan rather than just reacting to the environment.”

Investment as a long-term saving

To achieve this there needs to be investment though – and that can be tough when margins are tight. But he sees it as a saving in the long term. “I think the average manufacturer needs to invest in procurement professionals – either externally or internally. So, they're not just ordering ingredients, but actually developing strategies to source and buy differently. If you do something different, then you can extract the value that comes from it.” 

He'd also like to see more open channels of communication. “If we can encourage buyers and sellers to work more collaboratively, then they might find ways of working – such as multi-year agreements. If you only win a contract for a year or six months, how are you going to be able to invest confidently in your business?” If instead the business is secured for three or five years, then significant value can be released from that relationship.   

He imagines a sector where instead of arguing about cost prices, that effort is instead put into innovation, understanding shopper needs and providing solutions. “That,” he says, “would be quite revolutionary – and a food industry I’d love to be part of.” 

Watch Malachy discuss the sector in his own words in our Industry Voices video


If you'd like to discover more interviews in our Industry Voices series, you can read the John Hood article here.