Last weekend we held our biannual suppliers conference; a gathering of the 60 farmers, from Devon to Yorkshire to Andalucía, who keep the Riverford boxes full and varied through the year. Many have been supplying us for over 20 years.
Added to the joy of indulging my veg nerdery with fellow growers was a feeling of common endeavour and trust that grows every time we meet. Spending much of the ‘90s on the receiving end of supermarket buyers’ despotic petulance made us determined not to repeat such dehumanising behaviour once we found ourselves in the buying role. This extract from my Founder’s Wishes was incorporated into our new employee-owned legal governance structure last year:
‘We will build a long-term business on long-term relationships. Competition drives innovation and contributes to flexibility, but often comes at a high human and environmental cost, especially when combined with hunger for short-term profit over long-term benefits. We will avoid a culture of short-term contracts driven solely by price, in favour of stable, long-term, trusting partnerships designed to achieve efficiency, create enjoyable relationships and avoid unnecessary anxiety.’
The stress of short-term competitive contracts is bad enough – but the real tragedy is the inefficiency and waste of human potential when no one can invest with confidence in a collective future. Removal of competition can result in complacency; we must find other ways of driving innovation and improvement. I am convinced that good communication, long-term investment and an intrinsic desire to improve can deliver more than the threat of losing the next tender.
Initially, Riverford’s promises and pontification to farmers counted for nothing; they had heard it all before. The basis of their trust had to be buying what we said we would, paying the price agreed, paying bills on time, not being unreasonable over specifications and when things go wrong (as they inevitably will), and working together to find solutions and learn rather than imposing threats and penalties. Being growers ourselves also helped.
It has taken 25 years to build the trust that makes these relationships possible and makes Riverford unique. That trust is my greatest source of pride, but none of it would be possible without the trust, tolerance and loyalty many of you have invested in us over the years. Together we are showing that business can be more than brutal competition serving short-term self-interest; it can (and must) be a common endeavour towards a collective future.