INDUSTRY INTERVIEW: Navitas CEO Ben Gardner on leading a sea-change in food safety management

Ben Gardner, CEO

With fresh external investment and a growing customer base behind it, Navitas Group is blazing a trail in digital food safety management. But with nine out of 10 operators still using paper-based kitchen monitoring processes, there is still a huge target to aim for when it comes to driving kitchen digitisation. FEJ quizzed CEO Ben Gardner on how the company is gearing up for the challenge.

The Navitas Group comprises four pillars, one of which is digital food safety. Where does that part of the business fit strategically within the group and how big is it?

Navitas started as an environmental consultancy set up by my father 30 years ago. That business is now part of the Navitas Group and maintains an enviable reputation in the food and health and safety industry. Digital food safety management is the newest part of our business, set up after our online training platform and compliance monitoring service, but it is strategically important and could deliver the biggest growth. That’s because nearly 30 years after the Food Safety Act 1990 permitted the keeping of electronic food safety records, the industry still hasn’t embraced a fully digital approach to food safety. So the potential is huge.

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Is there much cross-over or interaction between the four pillars – or do you endeavour to drive autonomy through each one?

In the past each pillar, while complementing the other, operated fairly autonomously. Last year, however, we brought each of these business together under the Navitas Group and aligned them closely. We wanted to create a single destination make handling food safety and health and safety as streamlined, efficient and easy as possible for foodservice businesses so doing this made absolute sense. Whether our clients are looking for environmental consultancy, compliance services, training or digital food safety, we can offer one complete package and point of contact.

When it comes to what’s driving your digital food safety business, is it purely the desire from foodservice operators to move away from paper methods?

Digital food safety is really being driven by the need for food businesses to ensure food quality and comply with increasingly stringent food safety legislation. Moving from a paper-based to a digital food safety system makes compliance easier, less onerous and less time consuming for businesses. Using our technology and software, businesses can not only monitor appliance and food temperatures but also record them, along with ingredients, allergens and use-by dates. That’s not only highly efficient and gives them accountability, it also allows them to protect their brand by avoiding food safety issues.

What proportion of the foodservice industry do you think still uses paper methods – and which sectors of the market have been the slowest to go digital?

Around 95% of the foodservice industry is still using paper-based monitoring systems. It’s staggering when you consider that the Food Safety Act talked about using electronic records to store food safety information way back in 1990. There isn’t a sector of the market that has fully embraced digital technology, but the public sector – hospitals, schools and universities – are probably leading the way. There’s a perception digital food safety management is expensive, when it costs around the price of a cup of coffee a day.

Like any market, there are other providers out there offering digital food safety management solutions. What is different about Navitas’ systems? Is there anything you offer that is completely unique to Navitas?

What sets us apart from many other providers is that our technology creates a fully integrated food safety system – not merely a series of digital checklists. That’s because while we are a tech-savvy business, we’re experts in food safety and health and safety. We offer the complete package – consultancy, compliance auditing, training and food safety – and we don’t rely on third party suppliers for this. One area we believe is unique is our allergen food labelling system. By integrating a mobile label printer with our system, we can provide businesses with a cost-effective, safe and compliant allergy labelling and food safety platform.

Around 95% of the foodservice industry is still using paper-based monitoring systems. It’s staggering when you consider that the Food Safety Act talked about using electronic records to store food safety information way back in 1990″

Last year you secured a £745k equity investment from the Midlands Engine Investment Fund (MEIF). How is that investment being used to expand the business?

The injection of capital from the MEIF is primarily being used to ensure we can realise our plans for growth by opening our own manufacturing and R&D facility. We’ve also invested in new core business systems and made some key hires, strengthening our commercial team to help roll-out Navitas technology across the UK and overseas

Has the new investment triggered a change in management approach and objectives?

We’re a growing business and with the investment we have some ambitious targets which have inevitably required a change in management approach. I started the digital food safety management business in 2014 and built it up myself from scratch, so I’m used to being hands-on. I’ve had to accept I can’t do everything myself and focus on creating a senior management team. I’m still focused on sales, but I’m increasingly taking a wider view, for instance looking at creating operational efficiencies within the business.

What are your growth targets for 2019?

We’re aiming to increase and strengthen our footprint overseas this year. We’re already working with Generator Hostels across Europe and have recently secured a significant contract in Dubai. We’re also starting conversations that will hopefully see us push into the North American market. I can’t say too much about those at the moment, but there are definitely some exciting times ahead.

Bringing manufacturing in-house

All of Navitas’ hardware is currently sourced from UK manufacturers in the Midlands and South West, however the company is in the process of bringing certain aspects of manufacturing capability in-house as part of a move that it believes will deliver greater benefits for the business.

“We have a good relationship with our suppliers and outsourcing has not been an issue,” explains CEO Ben Gardner. “However, bringing production of some elements in house will allow us to better control our supply chain, realise the benefits of R&D to drive product development, drive greater quality improvements and keep pace with anticipated demand.”

With Brexit on the minds of many businesses, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think that this might be a factor in the company’s thinking – however Gardner insists that’s not the case.

“Brexit hasn’t really impacted our decision to bring hardware manufacture in-house,” he explains. “This is something that has been on our radar for some time. Of course, the ongoing wrangling and debate around Brexit is causing some uncertainty within the foodservice industry, as it is in many other industry sectors, but aside from that we haven’t been unduly impacted by it.”

Tags : Ben GardnerDigital Food Safetyfood managementfood safetyNavitasNavitas Group
Andrew Seymour

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