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Our judging panel represents the very best in Food and Drink. 

The aim of the judging panel is not only to acknowledge those who have shown endeavour and enterprise but also to strongly encourage other companies to be continually seeking to improve performance and standards of commercial excellence. The glittering awards ceremony will be staged on Friday 22nd March 2019 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, Belfast. Good luck!

Nigel Walsh

Director of Commercial Banking NI - Ulster Bank

After graduating from University of Ulster in Finance, Nigel was awarded a DENI scholarship to complete a MSC in Computers. He subsequently commenced a Business Banking career spanning over 20 years.

Within Corporate & Commercial NI, Nigel is the Director for South and West Region and leads a team of Managers that look after SMEs across Counties, Down, Armagh, Tyrone & Fermanagh. Nigel also has responsibility with Ulster bank NI for number of sectoral teams across primary agriculture, food and drink, and healthcare.

Prior to this he held the positions of Regional Director, Ulster Bank Business Banking NI and the all Ireland role of Head of Sectors & Specialist Sales,  Nigel also held the position of Associate Director in Bank of Ireland. Nigel is also an active member of the Institute of the Board of Directors; and is an active member of Food NI.

 During his time in the Northwest, Nigel sat on the Institute of Bankers Committee. He also completed an internship with Sovereign Bank, Boston, Mass US 

Simon Layton

M&S Head of Region for Northern Ireland

Simon Layton started his career with M&S nearly 16 years ago through the Business Placement Programme while studying for a degree in Retail Management at Loughborough University.

After graduating, Simon took up a Commercial Manager role at M&S Fosse Park, followed by several other management positions in stores across the UK, before taking on Store Manager posts in both The Trafford Centre and Manchester city centre stores.

After a short spell out of business as a Regional Manager with Wickes, Simon returned to M&S as Head of Region for the East Midlands before being appointed as Head of Region in Northern Ireland in 2018.

Simon is responsible for leading the team of 21 Store Managers across the province with a focus on new store development which saw M&S open a new Foodhall in Craigavon in October 2018. A further opening is scheduled for Carrickfergus in Summer 2019.


Colin Smith

Industry Development Manager - Livestock & Meat Commission for Northern Ireland

 Colin has been Industry Development Manager with the Livestock and Meat Commission for Northern Ireland (LMC) since 2012. He has overall budget responsibility for a wide range of business activities from the NI Beef and Lamb Farm Quality Assurance Scheme to LMC's Education Services and Consumer Promotion activity. In 2018 Colin joined the Board of Animal Health and Welfare Northern Ireland.

Colin is a graduate of the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne and after returning to Northern Ireland worked as a Policy Officer and Senior Policy Officer with the Ulster Farmers Union for 5 years covering the Animal Health, Pigs, Poultry, Rural Enterprise and Rural Development portfolios in this time. Colin has also completed an Advanced Diploma in Management Practice from the University of Ulster.

A former Vice President of the Young Farmers' Clubs of Ulster, Colin has a passion for food and agriculture. He thoroughly enjoys all sports, particularly rugby and spending time with his wife and daughter.




Emma Swan

Local Buying Manager - ASDA

Emma graduated Queens University in 2013 with an MA in Modern History. Emma has worked for ASDA for 4 years and has recently taken over as Buying Manager for Northern Ireland. She is responsible for looking after the 80+ regional suppliers, supplying into ASDA's 16 Northern Irish stores.

Michael Bell

Executive Director - NIFDA

Michael has some thirty- one years experience in the food industry and is Executive Director of the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association. He worked in the bakery trade in Northern Ireland and Malta for fourteen years working closely with major retailers and obtained a place on the senior management board of Ormeau Bakery.

 He holds a Food Science (Hons) degree and several other food related qualifications and is a Fellow of the Institute of Food Science and Technology (FIFST) and a Chartered Scientist (CSci). Michael holds a diploma in Company Direction from the Institute of Directors and is a Chartered Director.

He enjoys sailing, hill walking, good food and drink.

Julie-Ann Moorhead

Senior Advisor - Agri-Food Support Branch

Julie-Ann has worked in the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs for 22 years. In her current position as a Senior Advisor within the Agri-food Support Branch she has responsibility for the management of the Northern Ireland Regional Food Programme as well as provision of technical support to the Minister and Policy.

Prior to this she was a Senior Food Technologist at the College of Agriculture Food and Rural Enterprise at Loughry Campus. She is a Food Science Graduate from Queen’s University and also has a PhD in Food Microbiology

Geoff Spence

Business Development Manager Food & Drink Division - Invest NI

Geoff has worked for Invest NI for twenty years, joining the Food Business Development team in January 2018 following five years in International Trade as Territory Manager for Europe & Russia. Geoff has worked across various sectors helping Companies enter and develop export markets, managing a wide range of Exhibitions, Trade Missions, Networks and Business Development activities across Europe & Russia.

Within the Food & Drink division he has been driving forward new initiatives in Market Research and Consumer Insights, establishing a new Consumer Insight team in November 2018 to assist food companies in this increasingly important area. He has also been developing a wider range of initiatives and partnerships to assist capability and sales development in external markets for the Food & Drink sector.


Leanne Black

Technical Manager - Tesco Northern Ireland

Leanne has been Technical Manager within the Northern Ireland Food Industry since 1998 prior to joining Tesco in August 2014.  She has experience within the Red Meat, Fish & Poultry, Dairy Produce, and Sandwich sectors.

Brian Birt

Tax Senior Manager - Deloitte

Brian has assisted a range of small, medium-sized and publicly owned food sector clients providing confirmation on the VAT liabilities of their sales lines and has successfully negotiated zero-rating confirmation on supplies on a number of products with HMRC.

He has also provided VAT advice related to the restructuring of the international supply chain for food product imports from suppliers and he has been working with a client in the agri-food sector on international expansion, including managing overseas VAT registrations for suppliers from Ireland post-Brexit.




Dr Gary Kearney

Director of Food Science - Safefood

Dr Gary A. Kearney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD, is Director of Food Science with safefood. Dr Kearney leads the food chemistry/toxicology, microbiology and food allergy disciplines within the organization, and has lead responsibility in managing the research office and its programme and other specialised laboratory services for safefood. A graduate of University College Cork with an MSc and a PhD in Chemistry, Dr Kearney previously spent nine years in the field of national and EU regulatory food compliance with the Health Service Executive in Galway and Cork prior to joining safefood. His roles at safefood have involved a wide variety of science, stakeholder development, corporate and performance management responsibilities on an all-island basis.

In addition to an MA in Health Care Management, Dr Kearney has undergone further educative training at both Harvard Business School and Henley.

He has a keen interest in strong corporate governance having served as a Board member and member of the Internal Audit Committee of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, and as Board Member and Chair of the Internal Audit Committee of Leargas - the educational, training and mobility organisation under the aegis of the Dept. of Education and Skills. In 2016, he graduated with a University College Dublin-accredited professional qualification in corporate governance (1st) from the Institute of Public Administration.

A member of the National Hygiene Partnership Management Committee and Irish Codex Advisory Committee, Gary is also a member of the Advisory Board of the CIEH Institute of Food Safety, Integrity and Protection in the UK.

Ronan O'Mara

Buyer, Food Buying Team - Lidl

Ronan has worked as a Food Buyer for Lidl Ireland & Northern Ireland for over 4 years. He is responsible for managing, negotiating and developing his designated product catergories if Lidl Ireland & Northern Ireland's 200 stores. 

He has vast buying experience in the areas of poultry, eggs, beer, wine, spirits, non-alcoholic drinks, baby food, dried ambient goods and household cleaning products.

Jonathan Verner

Business Manager - Co-op

Jonathan has some twenty-seven years experience in the food industry in Northern Ireland, having spent that time working entirely in the independent sector. He is seen as very much as a champion for the independent and has seen many local suppliers gain footholds in the various organisations he has worked.

Now the Business Manager for the Cp-op and their partners in Northern Ireland, he is very pleased that they are finally involved with the NIFDA Awards, especially as it's after lambing time!