Known as being the “most relaxed, understated and eloquent tour de force a small business could hope for,” Paddy Willis is a respected mentor and advisor for a range of food and tech start-ups, as well as an investor, director of Grocery Accelerator and CEO of Bathtub 2 Boardroom.
He co-founded and exited a fast-growth organic baby food business: Plum Baby (now Plum Organics) the world’s first premium baby food in the ambient sector, which was sold to Darwin Private Equity within year five on sales nudging £14 million at retail.
As one of the UK’s fastest-growing new food businesses, the company was listed in over 2,500 supermarket stores within twelve months of launch, achieved 5% market share within two years and was a finalist for the New Product Launch category in the Marketing Society’s annual awards, just losing out to Magners Cider.
Paddy is passionate about ideas and helping to make them work as successful businesses. He currently works on making the charity Bathtub 2 Boardroom the most inspirational place to launch a business in London by providing early stage entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds with incubator-style co-working spaces, professional advise and mentors. He also helps ambitious entrepreneurs seeking to grow food and drink brands via Grocery Accelerator Ltd.
He co-founded Grocery Accelerator with experienced hospitality professionals, Simon Lacey and Rob Ward. The six-month programme is designed to support promising young brands with high-growth potential by providing them with equity funding, networking opportunities and mentorship from an experienced FMCG (Fast Moving Consumer Goods) advisor.
Paddy is also a registered and approved Growth Coach under the Growth Accelerator and Business Growth scheme.
Crowdfooding was lucky enough to interview Paddy to find out about his career journey to date and discover how he finds the time to manage all his various work commitments.
How did you develop your passion for food and wine? Was it a big part of your childhood upbringing?
I think it probably stems from family holidays in France. After leaving school I travelled to Bordeaux to pick grapes and then went to Australia where I spent three months working at a winery in Victoria (I was “adopted” by the family of Bullers Winery in Rutherglen and I worked at Seppelts in town). When I decided to quit university in London after just one year I decided I wanted a career in the wine trade, so I went back to Bordeaux and stayed three years at Chateau Senejac in the Haut-Medoc. I absolutely loved it and had some great experiences.
How did you fall into working for the telecom business Equant (now Orange Business Services) and what was the greatest thing you learned from your time there?
I’d had a few years trying to make some money from various business ideas so when I started a family I needed a more secure income. One of my friends had just started in the Telecoms sector and was able to wangle an interview for a sales role. I ended-up spending a dozen years in the corporate world, which was never my scene but it helped pay the bills. I guess the main lesson I learned was to believe in myself, as I had to learn fast in some pretty stressful and high profile client relationships.
Ultimately you left a corporate career in ICT to become a self-proclaimed “start-up junkie” – why?
I never felt I belonged in the corporate world and I yearned for some of the excitement and freedom I’d experienced in small businesses, where you can make a decision and act on it the same day. My (then) wife and I were working on the idea for Plum Baby whilst I was working and I was able to secure a six month sabbatical to go full-time to support the launch in 2006. In fact, my boss was keen to invest! That was it, once I was out there was no going back.
From ICT to baby food… can you please tell us the story behind Plum Baby Ltd?
Plum Baby was the inspiration of Susie, my then wife, who was surprised at how poor the offering was for parents in the baby aisle. There was an eight-year gap between our second and third child, and she couldn’t believe there was no progress in that time, so she set about researching the market and working on some recipes. Whilst she worked on the product development I built the business plan in my spare time and we went out looking for investors. Susie’s first meeting with a retailer ended up with them saying, “Great, you can have the 350 stores where we are about to delist our own-label range.” That was fantastic, but we had no idea who was going to produce the product for us! There then followed an 18-month journey to find a suitable manufacturer with the equipment (and belief) to help us bring Plum to the market. During that time the buyer changed three times but thankfully Sainburys stood by us and we finally launched in March 2006. By the end of that year we were in all the major retailers, including Boots, and ranged in over 1,200 stores nationwide.
What were the fundamental operations and commercial elements that helped bring the business to break-even within 20 months of launching?
Our search for a manufacturer led us, eventually, to a small family business in the Loire valley of France, but their production line was old and so our cost of goods was high. We quickly grew to a level where we needed greater capacity and fortunately Heinz had just cancelled a range that was produced for them by the only dedicated (and very modern) independent manufacturer in northern France. We had a very painful transition but once the dust settled we added 10 percentage points to our gross margin, which made a step-change to our business.
We were also quite prescriptive about the ranging with retailers. When Boots said they wanted to list us but couldn’t take all six of our SKUs (Stock Keeping Units) I told them that was a huge shame but perhaps if that changed in the future we could speak again. I put the phone down and said to Susie, “what have I just done?”
The hunch that they would have to find a way round the problem to adopt our market-shifting brand paid off and the next day the buyer called back to say that the operations team had found the space to range all six recipes. It would not be an exaggeration to say that I danced around the office when I put the phone down!
Can you tell us about Grocery Accelerator and how the idea came about?
After we sold Plum Baby to Darwin Private Equity I often had calls from people asking for advise on how to launch their food or drinks business. Like us, most people start from a point of having little or no experience of the retail trade so they tend to ask the same questions. I’d made a few small investments in start-ups, one of which was in the digital space and had won a place on a tech accelerator programme. I started to think that there must be a way to apply the same idea to FMCG businesses and when I met Rob Ward at a retail industry dinner we bonded over the idea, as he had been a finalist on the Seedcamp accelerator programme for a food-tech project. We met again for lunch and decided to approach Simon Lacey, who had been Sales Director at Plum, to join us and we then ran a pilot workshop in early 2014. The response was amazing so we set about looking for a source of funding that could back the businesses, which we would seek through a national competition. Gradually that all came together and we launched the first accelerator programme in early 2015. Form over 100 applicants five received a total of £250k and joined an intense support programme over six months.
What attributes do you look for in an entrepreneur, and what is the best advice you can give to entrepreneurs just starting out?
Clearly you have to have a great product and a scalable business model, but equally important is the person behind the idea. Tenacity is a key attribute; resilience when things don’t go to plan, and a willingness to listen are all vital. I’m always saying to founders “If it was that easy everyone would be doing it”. Starting a business in any sector is a massive risk and people who do so merit respect, but there’s a fine line between being focused and being pigheaded. The role of a mentor is to help the founder see the wood for the trees, step back and focus on the most important priorities.
As for advise, I’d say, “Never underestimate how much money you’ll need”. People tend to always under call it when raising finance as plans rarely go to plan. When we first set out to raise investment I thought we needed £400k to see the plan through to a year five exit. We did exit in year five but in the meantime we raised almost ten times that to achieve a similar end result!
What are the biggest trends you are noticing in the food and beverage realm right now? Are there any projects that you are particularly excited about?
I find it very encouraging to see how much innovation is out there to support the shift towards healthier eating. Of the 300-plus applications we had for the last accelerator programme you could probably count those that weren’t part of this trend on the fingers of one hand. Within our existing cohorts of young brands we have some very exciting products that I think are all set to make a big impact. Two have been going through major re-branding and re-formulation and will be launching soon. One is a range of easy-to use gluten free kits to make loaves that taste like regular artisan bread, the other a sophisticated adult soft drink that should become a regular choice for those seeking to cut back on their alcohol consumption without compromising on taste or sense of occasion.
You are currently CEO of Bathtub 2 Boardroom, Director of the Grocery Accelerator, NED at Capital Enterprise, Strategy Advisor at Ultra Social Ltd as well as an all-round start-up mentor and consultant. Can you give us your two cents on work-life balance? How do you successfully manage all these activities… and find time to sail?
Haha, what work-life balance?? I count myself very lucky to do what I love, supporting founders in nurturing their businesses and bringing ideas to market. The important thing is not to kid yourself that you should do everything yourself. I’m lucky to have two great co-founders at Grocery Accelerator and we share the load pretty fairly. Bathtub 2 Boardroom is a not-for-profit that supports early stage start-ups from all sectors and I’ve been fortunate to attract a great team. The trick to good management is to always recruit people who are genuinely better than you and – over time – to make your role redundant. The last few years have meant there is little time for sailing but I did buy a kayak recently and I hope to be able to snatch a few hours on the local river soon!