‘Everyone laughed at me’ Heather Mills talks to Business Leader about the beginning of the ‘vegan revolution’
Heather Mills is an entrepreneur that led the vegan revolution before it rose to the prominence that it is today. Through her roles as the leader for VBites, VBites Ventures, Be At One and V Omega – all principal firms within the sector – she has blazed a trail for many to follow. Mills talks to Business Leader about the rise of her companies, the explosion of the vegan movement and what the future holds for her.
Can you tell me about your vegan journey?
When I lost my leg in 1993, I became vegan purely because I had an infection for five months that was not healing properly. A friend of mine suggested I changed to become a vegan as the infection was taking more and more of my leg. I hadn’t even heard of veganism, but I was willing to try anything. I was in West Palm Beach in Florida, and I went to a vegan shop – they provided organic vegetable juicing and similar things – and being a traditional Geordie who grew up on sausages and pies, I thought it was awful! Five months of strong antibiotics in the hospital hadn’t worked, but the raw vegan diet healed me in two weeks.
The media were fascinated as they didn’t understand how that had worked, so I wrote a book about veganism and went on GMTV to convince people that veganism was the future. However, everyone laughed at me.
Why did you start VBites?
I stayed raw vegan for health reasons for two years, but I was fed up of going out to restaurants and only being able to have a salad, and I really missed the taste of dairy, meat and fish – and I didn’t want to put that back in my diet.
At home I started making my own vegan burgers out of lentils, mushrooms and oats. I then studied more about vegan food. Following this, I travelled to Taiwan to see the vegan Buddhists that had made meat alternatives. I found that a lot of the factories were cross contaminated with vegetarian and animal products – and still labelling them as vegan. Being fascinated now with nutrition, I decided to take a degree and started to talk with McDonald’s about introducing plant-based products. The CEO at the time said I was crazy, but the two below him were very much behind it, so told me to come back in a few years when they were in charge.
I worked on replicating plant-based versions of McDonalds’ products, like for like, so we could offer vegan chicken nuggets, burgers, milkshakes to vegans and those with dietary requirements, like lactose intolerance. We were ready to launch in the early 2000s, but then I went through a horrific media divorce, so we had to shelve the idea as everyone wanted to talk about that, rather than the business.
My business partner and I then went separate ways. He went off to set up vegan cafes and not manufacturing like I did. I wanted to do this, as I did not want to be like McDonald’s and rely on a third party. I wanted to be able to supply to the consumer and control the supply chain.
As the leader of the industry – what opportunities did you see?
Due to many of the large players within the industry being slow on the uptake of vegan products – and knowing they would have issues such as cross contamination – I knew we could offer 100% vegan-friendly facilities and they could not. They waited until they had a larger percentage of their income from vegan products before investing into its infrastructure that we already had in place.
How did Brexit impact the business?
When it was announced, many of the larger multinational food companies left the country, meaning that I could pick up their manufacturing sites at a reasonable price and turn them into plant-based facilities. This meant that I could then control the market.
So, I went to many dairy companies and told them that we could replicate their products. One large Norwegian company, worth £1.8bn, jumped at the chance, and because of that, they were first to market. As a result, they ended up selling more of their vegan alternatives than their dairy products! That proved that if it tasted as good, was popular, had better animal welfare, and it was more environmentally-friendly – we were on to something. Ever since that moment, we kept on scaling up the business.
We now supply vegan alternatives for many of the food industries leading manufacturers, restaurants and takeaways. Many of the products nowadays that you see in the aisles of the supermarkets come from our own IP from the last 26 years of being involved in this industry.
Other than being first to market, what sets VBites apart from the competition?
What is great about VBites is that we have been pioneering this for many years – way before anyone else in the UK – so no one has caught up with us yet. You might have someone who can make an ‘OK’ burger, but is not the same level of product or the same level of technology that we use. For example, we make salmon out of algae. For every 2.5 tonnes you grow, you reduce the level of C02 in the atmosphere by 1.5 tonnes.
So, with the support of the government and the banks, we could become the world’s largest plant-based manufacturing facility. We are already on scale, but not on products, as we do not get the same level of government/bank support as other countries do. Unlike in America, the UK currently views veganism as a trend – they need to understand that it is a movement.
However, a lot of the ideas have come from the UK. The Beyond Meat burger has an IPO value of c.£9.5bn – but that was an old recipe of mine from the mid-1990s! But as no one in the UK was interested, it didn’t take off like it has in the USA. However, views are changing, and we are at the forefront of that.
Has being ahead of the movement meant you have been in a position to continually dominate the market?
Yes, it has – but more through already knowing the trials and tribulations that affect this industry – as we have already gone through what many start-up companies are currently experiencing. Unlike ourselves, most of the companies within the industry are small start-ups.
This is why I set up an angel/venture investment firm to help these companies, called VBites Ventures. This is where I personally invest in start-up ventures within the vegan movement. Many of them have products that we have already made and sold – but I am more interested in the people behind the companies, and I am excited about what we can do together. The idea is to have these small companies being mentored by myself and our team on distribution, manufacturing, as well as procurement.
Before the movement gathered pace, there was no competition – now we are leading them and through VBites Ventures we are now seeing a lot more innovation with the technology used, and the resulting products.
How do you ensure your team stay ahead of the competition?
Number one – make sure your price points are correct. However, the most important factor is to embrace innovation. We are always innovating and creating new products. For example, in the 1990s, I started with soy protein, then went on to use pea, oat, mushroom, and we are now into algae proteins.
Having led market and established ourselves as an innovative company, we have now become a trusted supplier in the supply chain and regularly export to 24 countries around the world.
We have also constantly looked at expanding our range. Many within the industry have become dependent on a single product or ingredient – and that has never been us. Innovation drives business forward in the food service sector.
As a company, we are like IBM – we have always been ahead. That was until Apple came along – we must make sure that we are the ‘Apple’ of the industry and take the vegan movement into the future.
What have been some of your biggest mistakes? What did you learn?
Some of my biggest mistakes were believing that everyone does business like me! I learnt that the hard way. I invested in a lot of people who just wasted it, but I also invested in people that really worked hard and were proud to achieve their goals. I have carried this over now into building my team.
I have had to learn to be tough in the business world, as I am very soft in my personal life. I used to be soft across both and that doesn’t work.
Having worked in warzones and difficult scenarios, I have an ability to work well under extreme pressure. That has definitely helped me in my career. In those scenarios, some people wait for a few days to deal with it – that doesn’t work. Reacting quickly to a crisis is crucial for a business. Therefore, building a team that share that ethos is just as vital.