Face to face: Alexander Mohr, EFFA
“There is a whole level of non-verbal communication we are missing out on!”
Alexander Mohr, Executive Director of the European Flavour Association (EFFA), passionately believes associations are in the people business. So, don’t mention ‘the new normal’…
Interview: James Lancaster
I’m intrigued by the name of your organisation. I’m guessing you represent that section of the food manufacturing industry that produces flavourings, natural or otherwise?
That’s right. Our members supply high quality ingredients to the food and drink industry, here in Europe, but also to the global market. Our members are supplying flavours, natural and synthetic, to their customers who are often also represented by customer or sector associations here in Brussels.
The second ‘f’ in our name stood for fragrance, as we used to be the European Flavour and Fragrance Association in the past. But at one point it was decided to split the two sectors as the respective dossiers and challenges are too different to be handled by a single association.
So now we have another association representing the fragrance sector. We kept the acronym however, as EFFA has a great reputation and is a well-recognised name here in Brussels with the policy makers.
Do you have national association members, like most ‘European’ associations?
We have a mixture of national flavour associations and companies. National associations are very important for our advocacy work because they are very close to the policy makers in their respective countries and have country–specific challenges they have to take care of. We have 11 companies as direct members of EFFA: some stock market–listed global players, others smaller flavour houses. Having national associations as members gives us an insight into certain trends that emerge first in some member states, like organic for example, which is now a European, or even a global, trend.
You’ve been EFFA’s executive director for just over four years. What has been the biggest change you’ve made to the organisation in that time? And what do you regard as your biggest success?
In the past, the members’ – and therefore the association’s – core focus was on the regulatory and technical aspects. For example, EFFA, together with our global association, IOFI, provide the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) with scientific data on the flavouring substances, to make sure everything is safe for use. When I arrived in 2016, we started to broaden the scope of the association. Most European associations have three pillars – regulatory or technical, communications, and public affairs. We established in a first step a Communications Committee. There is limited knowledge on what flavours are. We now try to explain flavours to a broader audience, to ‘demystify’ flavours. We are also more present on social media. In 2017 we started our public affairs practice, because we felt we would like to be closer to the decision-making process in the European Parliament and the Commission. So, to answer your question, this was maybe the biggest change – to restructure the association and to prepare it for the years to come. I believe this is also the biggest success, but this is of course ultimately for our members to decide.
The last 12 months have been extraordinary. As someone in a leadership position, what new challenges have you faced? And what, if anything, have you learned about yourself?
Indeed, the last year was a challenge for the association, but also for our members. Everybody was, and still is, more or less in the same situation. All European associations based in Brussels have gone into home-working mode, following government policy. The important thing for me when the situation got serious in March last year, was to make sure that the association continued to work as seamlessly as possible. Of course, we had to change the way we work and communicate among the team, but also towards the members. Like most, we replaced physical meetings with virtual meetings.
But what else have I learned? If you look back, it is clear that this was maybe the biggest training session in your career! You will never have again such an intense and broad training session, that touched on absolutely everything, from finances to human resources, crisis management, etc. Put it this way, if you made it through the last 12 months, you will be ready for everything that comes. You have seen it all.
Has the pandemic forced any permanent changes to how your organisation will operate in the future? How you choose to convene or communicate with your members, for example?
My focus is about getting the associations back on the ‘meetings’ track. I am a big fan of direct face to face communication. Of course, there will be more virtual video platforms like Zoom integrated in our daily work. MS Teams for example is now a standard, everyday working tool, and not a feature nobody touches on their computer. When it comes to travel? I don’t know. I think this question can only really be answered in a year. But I am certain that association work is ‘people business.’ It’s important that you have physical, face-to-face meetings with members in the respective committees as well as external stakeholders. I like to sit in a room and talk to people. There is a whole level of non-verbal communication, that we are missing out on at the moment. So, let’s hope by the second half of this year that we really are back to more normal operations, because I don’t think this is healthy in the long run for an association. You can do a lot of things virtually, it allows you to continue on a high professional level, but if you want to talk e.g., about more complex issues, like strategy, or to convince people, then I believe nothing beats a direct personal meeting.
From one crisis to another! There have been some ‘bumps in the road’ already, especially around customs checks at the ports, but does Brexit pose any specific challenges for your industry?
Yes indeed, the end of last year was a bit of a perfect storm with the pandemic and Brexit. The UK flavour association is a strong and active member of EFFA, so we are in close contact with them and exchange the latest information we receive. We, as EFFA, can provide the umbrella information, updates on the latest results of trade talks, etc, but when it comes to the very details, the companies often have their own in-house expertise. But, yes, Brexit is causing problems to the supply chain and we are very concerned about it.
We are constantly being reminded to look after our mental health and wellbeing. What do you do to unwind? How do you manage to keep your work in perspective when all hell’s breaking loose?
I think my friends are my hobby a little bit. Brussels feels sometimes like a very small town. But the problem or benefit is, that most my friends work in this EU bubble, which is great, but not for those who aren’t in the EU bubble, who can find this a little bit tiring, I believe. I like to run and to read. As I work for the food and drink industry, good food is always at the centre of things. I have to say in Brussels the line between work and play gets a bit blurred. But I think I really like it that way – we have a passion for what we do.
You are a board member of the European Society of Association Executives (ESAE) and Chair of the European Secretary General Network. (ESGN) What do you get out of these roles?
Both organisations are very close to my heart. The ESAE is perhaps the only association that really takes care of the interests of associations in Brussels, so it is a really important part of this EU bubble. What I like most it that it sheds some light on the work of associations and are a platform to share common experiences and can help executives to become better association leaders.
The ESGN is sort of my baby. It started back in 2012 with about ten secretary generals having a beer after work and discussing the day–to–day challenges of running an association. Today we are about 160 secretary generals, managing directors, and executive directors from all sectors. It is a very informal, private circle that meets about twice a year. I am ‘chair’ of this network, but there is no real formal structure. Becoming a member is by recommendation or invitation only. Over the years the network has not only grown in size, but it also became a platform to exchange information or to ask other members for advice in a very controlled and private environment.
What are your hopes and aspirations for 2021 – professionally and personally.
I am always rather positive. I think by the second half of this year, maybe June or July, hopefully business can be back to a more normal routine, and we can start meeting our members in person again. I am a bit nervous of the often-used phrase ‘new normal’. I have the feeling this is sometimes used by people who want to sell their products and virtual solutions. So, I am bit reluctant to adopt this term too quickly. There were many changes in the last 12 months. Some of these changes were overdue. But now the focus must also be to go back, at least partially, to have more direct, non-virtual contact with the members. That is what keeps me going. I am sure we have the worst behind us!
Published Date: 26/04/2021