Plant-based protein—its expansion propelled by the pandemic—is poised to become an $85 billion market. But only if food makers can find people who understand the young sector.

The problem:
Although plant-based foods have great potential, traditional food firms need more talent with the know-how to grow it.
Why it matters:
Many large food makers risk shrinking in size if they don't keep up with what is becoming a major shift in consumer tastes.
The solution:
Develop new tactics and pipelines for recruiting talent that emphasize purpose, sustainability, and innovation.

In central Canada’s Manitoba province, not far from a water tower painted to look like a large Coca-Cola can, stands one of the most important links in the modern food supply chain: a $500 million pea-processing plant owned by the French-based food ingredient company Roquette. Under construction since 2018, the plant is the largest pea-processing facility in the world, capable of handling more than 125,000 tons of peas annually.

And that’s just the beginning. According to Roquette CEO Jean-Marc Gilson, the plant will initially employ around 150 people in one facility, but there is space to add another four or five more facilities that would accommodate up to 1,000 employees and hundreds of thousands more tons of pea-processing power. Based on the growth projections for the plant-based protein market, of which peas are a major part, Roquette will need the extra capacity to keep up with demand.

“It’s a race,” says Gilson. “The plant-protein industry is going to be very big, and it is a top-of-the-house priority for every food company.” 

Driven by a growing global population and consumers who are making more sustainable, health-conscious food choices, analysts forecast the market for plant-based protein and alternative meat to increase from $4.6 billion in 2018 to an eye-popping $85 billion by 2030. It’s a small wonder that major traditional meat producers such as Tyson, Smithfield, and JDS now have C-suite executives overseeing dedicated plant-based food divisions and start-ups like Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger are worth billions of dollars.

While the trends driving plant-based protein’s expansion were there before COVID-19, the pandemic certainly accelerated them. “COVID heightened awareness around the impact of meat on the environment and health, and encouraged more people to find alternatives to the animal-based food supply chain,” says Frederika Tielenius Kruythoff, a Korn Ferry senior client partner responsible for the firm’s EMEA Agribusiness practice. She says there are several reasons why people who aren’t necessarily vegetarians may be incorporating plant-based protein into their diets. Between 60% and 75% of emerging infectious diseases in humans come from other animals, for example. Kruythoff also points to the shutdown of several meat processing plants due to COVID outbreaks and the resulting supply shortages.

Great growth doesn’t happen without great disruption, of course, and the potential impact of the shift to plant-based proteins on food manufacturers cannot be overstated. Without the right talent and strategy, many food organizations could find themselves in the same predicament as newspaper and magazine companies after digital media took hold—struggling for survival. It takes a lot of capital to build a plant-based protein facility, for instance. Other challenges include figuring out which plant protein source to focus on (there’s more than peas), developing solutions that imitate the taste and texture of meat, and building a purpose- driven business at scale, among others.

Kruythoff says that as plant-based protein becomes an even bigger part of their growth strategies, food manufacturers will need to develop new tactics and pipelines for recruiting as well as enhance retention efforts to protect in-house talent. “The fight for talent is already underway and is only going to intensify,” she says.

The growth in plant-based protein isn’t coming at the expense of animal meat, however. People aren’t abandoning bacon and hamburgers—in fact, they are eating more than ever. Experts estimate the animal-protein market will grow at a compound annual rate of 6% between now and 2025, for instance, reaching $205 billion.

Much of that growth can be traced to geography and socioeconomic status. While plant-based protein is experiencing exponential growth in fully developed economies like North America and Europe, areas with less mature economies such as Africa, Asia, and South America are eating more meat. From a market perspective, Sean McBurney, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and sector leader of the firm’s North American Agriculture practice, says what’s happening is that as demand for animal protein migrates to new markets and demographics, plant- based protein consumption is rising up to fill the void.

That macrotrend is best evidenced in the popularity of flexitarianism, which refers to meat eaters who are making a conscious effort to substitute animal meat with plant-based protein in their diets. The practice has already been on the rise among younger generations, and more people appear willing to give flexitarianism a try as a result of the pandemic. For example, one in three millennials identified as flexitarian while two-thirds of Americans say they have cut back on their meat intake. Data shows that around 18% of Americans who have bought plant-based protein did so for the first time during COVID-19. More importantly, 92% of those said they would likely continue to buy plant- based meat alternatives.

“COVID led people to experiment with plant-based meat due to animal protein shortages, and those first- time buyers are turning into repeat customers,” says McBurney.

In full bloom

How big is the market opportunity in plant-based protein? Big. Here's a look at what analysts at the investment bank UBS are projecting.

graphic of market

The parallel growth trajectory of plant-based and animal proteins represents a challenge for food manufacturers from an organizational design perspective. Historically, large food companies are designed around product lines, and since many of them are commoditized, there isn’t much differentiation in how they are run. Now, however, in response to changing consumer habits, those companies require enterprise agility to develop new specialty products and quickly shift investments, talent, production resources, and more out of slow-growth areas and into fast-growing ones, McBurney says.

To be sure, Leticia Gonçalves, president of global specialty ingredients at the food ingredient company ADM, says future growth will depend on how companies can adapt supply chain distribution and innovate new plant-based protein products without compromising taste and texture. “It takes a lot more work to make chicken nuggets from plants than from a chicken,” she says.

And it takes a lot more experience. One of the biggest challenges with the plant- based protein market is that it is so nascent there isn’t a lot of talent who have experience or even familiarity with the field. Organizations need strategic talent to help determine how to develop the business, for instance, and commercial talent to formulate a sales and marketing approach for consumers. Given the complex web of regulations governing food production from country to country, they also need corporate affairs talent to navigate the political landscape. And they need biologists, chemists, nutritionists, and other research and development talent to create new plant-based food items.

One way food organizations are trying to solve this talent equation is through partnerships such as the one between ADM and the beef producer Marfrig called PlantPlus Foods. The joint venture calls for Marfrig to handle production and distribution, while ADM will contribute plant-based ingredients, flavors, and product development expertise.

“We’re creating an entirely new ecosystem in a high-growth area within the company that is separate from our other more traditional operations,” says Gonçalves.

Seeds to a tree

Plant-based protein is becoming a bigger part of consumers’ diets—and food companies’ bottom lines. Here’s what companies need in terms of skills for the field to really blossom.

Strategic thinking

Experience identifying and making new markets is vital, given how nascent the field is.

Commercial sensibility

With a more direct-to-consumer focus than ever before, food companies need talent to develop retail sales and marketing strategies.

Collaborative mindset

Partnerships, joint ventures, and co-creating mean talent must be comfortable working with vendors all along the supply chain.

Political diplomacy

Given the different regulations on food from country to country, having existing relationships and the ability to navigate the political landscape are in demand.

Purpose drive

Much of the growth in plant-based food is owed to sustainability and wellness, so talent must be versed in how to build a business as a force for good.

Technical know-how

Biologists, chemists, nutritionists, chefs, and other talent capable of combining ingredients and developing new recipes to replicate meat’s taste and texture are in demand.

Traditional food companies are also investing heavily in plant-based protein start-ups like Meatable as a way to forge relationships and gain expertise. For instance, 301 INC, a business development unit within General Mills focused on identifying top-line growth opportunities in emerging food companies, has invested more than $100 million in venture capital across a dozen start- ups, six of them plant-based, including Beyond Meat. Similarly, Tyson Ventures features an “Internet of Food” fund through which it has invested in plant-based start-ups like Future Meat Technologies and New Wave Foods.

“Large food companies aren’t as close to the ground as start-ups when it comes to consumer trends, so by investing, we can see early-stage growth ideas and how brands resonate with consumers early on,” says Pete Speranza, one of the founders of 301 INC.

In return, start-ups get access to distribution networks and operational and strategic expertise to help them scale. “There’s a lot of waste in early- stage start-ups, so we can help provide a roadmap to move them in the right direction without slowing them down,” Speranza says. That’s important, as the shrinking development cycle for new food products works against large food companies that can’t move as fast as start-ups in responding to changing consumer behaviors and trends.

Venture capital investments also provide both sides with a de facto talent pipeline. Executives at food companies making the investment often join the start-up company’s board to help recruit talent and sometimes end up on the other side as they follow their own passions. To be sure, Speranza recently left 301 INC to become the CEO of the plant-based food brand Wicked Kitchen. He made the move, he says, because for the health of people and the planet, “plants need to be at the center of the plate.” Similarly, venture investments give larger food companies a path to a merger or acquisition, bringing innovation and entrepreneurial talent in- house. “These deals put more muscle into changing food systems by taking new brands worldwide and moving traditional companies in a better direction long-term,” Speranza says.

Indeed, given the large barriers to entry and steep learning curve, consolidation along the supply chain between traditional food companies and plant-based start-ups is all but certain. There has already been sizable M&A activity, such as Unilever’s purchase of The Vegetarian Butcher, and according to one recent report, plant-based alternatives will continue to drive deals.

Another combination of sorts is taking place on the talent side, with younger workers drawn to the sustainability and purpose aspects of plant-based food production converging with veteran food executives who have the operational skills and institutional knowledge needed to scale the market.

“Right now, it’s a barbell-shaped talent pool,” says Korn Ferry’s Kruythoff. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, however, as organizations are pairing mission-driven younger workers with experienced older workers in mentor-mentee relationships. “Each side gets something from the other,” she says.

Food companies are also looking to other industries that have gone through a similar transformation journey for talent. Roquette’s Gilson is a perfect example. Prior to joining Roquette in 2014, he spent the bulk of his career in the specialty chemical industry. Gilson says that while he didn’t know much about the structure of the food industry before joining Roquette, there were clear parallels with specialty chemicals in terms of how the business needed to evolve.

“The basic knowledge about separating and refining existed, but the talent and focus needed to shift from commodities to faster-growing specialties such as peas and other plant-based proteins,” says Gilson.

Another key change, says Gilson, is that food, like chemicals, is evolving from isolated silos to an ecosystem approach. This is a key change, moving from a single-ingredient focus to working more closely with partners all along the supply chain, from the farmers growing the crops to the technicians creating new products to marketing and sales. Under the traditional model, for instance, a product specialist would focus on a particular protein. In the new system, however, there is a greater need for technicians who can marshal a broad range of ingredients to create a flavorful product at scale and in-line with rapidly evolving consumer tastes.

“The field is growing so fast it needs to be separated from other activities and treated differently,” says Gilson.

That’s part of the reason Roquette is making its pea play in Canada. Canada ranks as the largest pea-producing country in the world and exports about 95% of its annual yield of the crop to countries like China and India. From a sustainability perspective, pea farming has one of the smallest environmental impacts. Most importantly, Winnipeg, the capital of Canada’s Manitoba, has aggressively collaborated with local companies to develop talent and retention programs to attract skilled young workers. Indeed, Roquette has said most employees for its plant were recruited locally, and the company worked with Canada’s Southern Chiefs’ Organization to match talent with its employment needs.

“We want to hire and train talent close to the plant, and the area is attracting a lot of young talent out of university who, from a sustainability point of view, like the idea of working with plant-based proteins,” says Gilson.

Now that’s a recipe for success.

For more information, contact: Frederika Tielenius Kruythoff at frederika.kruythoff@kornferry.com or Sean McBurney at sean.mcburney@kornferry.com.