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Gráinne Allen, BA Hons Home Economics with DIS, Jordanstown

In a new feature for our monthly newsletter, we’re giving students the chance to pose their questions to our experienced graduates, those from whom they wish to learn and whose career journeys they hope to emulate. What better opportunity than to hear from those who have walked the journey before you.

First in the spotlight is Gráinne Allen, Director of Food and Innovation at McDonald’s, who answers some questions from Mount Charles scholarship recipient, Kerri Grant who is in her final year of a BSc Consumer Management and Food Innovation at our Coleraine campus. Kerri is the first in her family to have gone to university and has been passionate about the food industry from a young age

Described as “one of the top 10 food product developers in the country”, Gráinne Allen is Director of Food and Innovation at McDonald’s where she is leading innovation and menu direction across a number of strategic projects and categories. Gráinne is Visiting Professor at the Ulster University Business School where she is determined to encourage and support the young people who will be the innovators of tomorrow.

Kerri: What was your first step after graduating?

Gráinne: I studied a classic home economics degree which had a broad syllabus covering food and textiles. I successfully applied for a placement year with Marks and Spencer’s product development food team in London which opened up the world of food product development, retail and customer focus.

M&S offered me the opportunity to join them as their first ever product development graduate and sponsored my final year at university. I went on to spend over eight years with M&S, working on many first-to-market and industry leading projects and always learning, exploring and feeding my constant curiosity and restless discontentment for the next great innovation.

Kerri: With the food industry being so broad, how did you choose your field? Have your experiences shaped your current position?

Gráinne: When doing my A levels, I got into Art College on my portfolio with an unconditional offer but turned it down as I always knew I wanted a career in food.  My placement with Marks and Spencer showed me that I could combine food, in its broadest sense – culinary, nutrition, safety, legality, commerciality- with creativity and design.

I chose not to specialise in a particular field such as chocolate or bread for example, preferring the much broader roles and developing the transferable skills of product development, customer insight, and business strategy, people and product leadership.

Kerri: What was the most important steppingstone in getting to where you are now?

Gráinne: I was always more of a pathfinder than a goalfinder - keen to learn, explore and develop myself and my skills, so don’t have one single steppingstone in my career.  All roles that I have been in were right for that moment in my career – I like roles that I can be absorbed in, that challenge me to be better, where people are the asset and where I feel that I truly add value.

Kerri: What skills or traits should I develop to help me succeed in your industry?

Gráinne: The best food product developers I know have a number of things in common – they are customer centric – understand in depth, metaphorically speaking, ‘who they are cooking for’; they are absolutely passion about food, they cook it, obsess about it, dream about it – they spend time seeking out the best food haunts, building strong networks with the like-minded and create their personal food point of view.

The best food product developers invest time in understanding and honing their palate – I remember in those early days as a graduate at M&S a senior executive said to me ‘we are paid for our palates’ – it was a real moment of clarity and from that day I invested.

Kerri: Do you think it is essential to gain experience outside of Northern Ireland?

Gráinne: Northern Ireland has undergone a food renaissance and is well renowned for delicious, high-quality food driven by a terrific entrepreneurial spirit – there is lots to learn from and contribute to. Wherever you decide to build your career, my advice is to immerse yourself in the subject and search out the centres of excellence and the great people that you can learn from – whether that be on culinary, creative, inspiration, strategy, or ways of working.

Kerri: What’s the best job decision you ever made and why?

Gráinne: I started my own business after eight or so years with M&S, moving up from a graduate to leading many terrific product strategies predominantly in the chilled ready meals category. I only knew the M&S way and was keen to experience product development in other parts of the industry.

In my 15 years of consulting in the industry, I gave and I learned loads. I worked with other retailers, with manufacturing and on both small and established brands.  Lots of similarities – need for customer insight and direction, striving for quality and value but lots for learnings in terms of supply chain, P&L management, team dynamics and how to adapt to different constraints and demands.

Kerri: What’s the best piece of advice someone has given you for personal and professional development?

Gráinne: The saying ‘no man (or woman!) is an island is so true, so surround yourself with great people. This is so important and the one piece of advice I now give to my mentees – great people who will give sound honest advice, challenge you to be the best you can be, pick you up when you’re struggling and cheer you on without compromise. I have made this an important part of my professional life and have a number of amazing go-to people for rich unbiased guidance and counsel.

Kerri: In your opinion, what should you focus on to climb the ladder?

Gráinne:  It depends on how far up the ladder you want to go, whether you want to be a subject matter expert or have a path towards being a global corporate leader.  Irrespective of ‘the ladder’, the ambition is to be people centric when leading teams – they are by far your most important asset in any business. Be inclusive, set clear goals and expectations and communicate, communicate, communicate.

Kerri: What is your proudest career achievement and why?

Gráinne: Gosh, so many proud moments with product launches. I still, after all these years get a buzz from seeing the products that I have invested time in land and be enjoyed by customers.  However, the proudest, stand out, career achievements are related to people. I have had the privilege of leading, training and mentoring many product developers and teams in the industry; they are what make me feel the most pride, to see talent blossom then thrive, to pick up those who are finding themselves lost and struggling to break through then putting a virtual hand on their back and guiding them through those stormy moments.  Galvanising teams to find that ‘click’ moment – that moment of realisation that they are stronger together.

Kerri: What’s in the pipeline for you next?

​Gráinne: I am fortunate to have enjoyed over 30 years in the industry. My move into the world of restaurants and QSR is relatively new for me – I reflect and wonder why I didn’t do it earlier. There is a myth that retail is where you need to be for food innovation but my role with McDonald’s affords me the privilege of immersing myself in a super impressive global brand, sharing my knowledge and experience alongside learning and adapting how to land product innovation within the QSR global brand environment. I am finding the opportunities and challenges fascinating and absorbing.

Other things in the pipeline are to continue to work with Ulster University in my capacity as Visiting Professor to the Food Innovation and Consumer Management degree, giving back and paying forward is important to me.

And who knows… there might be a book in the making….

You can learn more about Gráinne's incredible career journey when she joins former BBC broadcaster Wendy Austin on 19th May for an an In Conversation style event organised in partnership with the Ulster University Business School and the Development and Alumni Relations Office.

Book your free place now.