The Grocer – 21st July 2020
So the government has turned to Mr White to try to ensure a level playing field between suppliers and the supermarkets, with the belated appointment of a new Groceries Code Adjudicator.
Alas, Boris hasn’t seconded Harvey Keitel from his Direct Line ads to bang a few heads together, much as he would have been perfect for the job in many ways.
Instead, with the appointment of former Compass Group lawyer Mark White to the Adjudicator role, ministers appear to have gone for someone who knows the law inside out, even if his CV suggests he will have much to learn about some of the darker practices of the grocery trade.
Tacon herself has spoken many times in the past about how differently the past seven years would have turned out for the GCA had the job been handed to a retired judge.
While White may not be that, he is, as well as a non-exec chair of a cyber protocol employee reference checking company, also a member of tribunals used to hearing appeals from decisions by Financial Conduct Authority.
This suggests someone who will be very familiar with legal processes but not necessarily with a strong background in food, despite his time as legal counsel for foodservice giant Compass Group.
In contrast, Tacon took on the role after 11 years running the Co-operative Group’s farming business – which was to become one of two companies she later investigated, along with Tesco. Tacon’s style has always been much more about nudging and cajoling retailers to do the right thing, albeit with the threat of the big stick always lurking in the background, rather than surrounding herself with armies of lawyers.
The new appointment may send alarm bells for suppliers who have benefited from a collaborative approach around key issues such as delay in payments, drop and drive charges and forecasting problems, which could have become mired in years of expensive legal delays had Tacon chosen a different tack.
That said, there is a real opportunity for the new Adjudicator to make his mark – if he and the government have the desire to maintain the profile of the GCA, rather than allow supermarkets to slowly get back to their old tricks.
Just last week the government’s own, typically-delayed review found the Adjudicator’s role was still needed and had been “highly effective”.
Yet some have been alarmed at Tacon’s recent moves to embed self-regulation within the supermarkets, querying the suggestion that it’s a case of ’job done’ for the Adjudicator. Sadly, the brutal financial situation facing retailers and suppliers in the months and years to come is likely to prove that is anything but the case.
Tacon has already been forced to intervene to try to stop supermarkets having parts of GSCOP waived during the coronavirus outbreak, so they could delist companies more speedily without fear of intervention.
With suppliers already locked in talks on what promises to be a continued hard round of delistings, suppliers want a GCA with more teeth, not less.
So while Tacon has undoubtedly achieved huge strides on those big picture issues, an experienced arbitrator with an eye for the legal detail may be just what suppliers are crying out for.
The GCA has other unfinished business, too. How long can the government defend a situation where the GCA polices the major supermarkets – and the likes of B&M – but not Amazon? White’s biggest challenge, however, lies in GSCOP itself, with its strengths and weaknesses arguably both lying in its many grey areas.
It is perhaps vulnerable to retailers out to exploit badly trained suppliers. But it is also flexible enough to allow a charismatic negotiator like Tacon to achieve concessions from retailers based on common sense, not the strict letter of the law.
Grocery trading has – and always has been – full of grey areas, which is part of what makes it so innovative and exciting.
Let us hope the new man is not too whiter than white to put his own stamp on the job.