Business Leader met with Green & Black’s Co-Founder Jo Fairley to talk about her business journey and the challenges she faced in scaling the business.
CAN YOU TELL READERS ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND?
I left school at sixteen and then trained as a secretary. One of my first jobs was working for the boss of a magazine and I ended up becoming the youngest ever magazine editor at the age of 23. This happened after he started to give me things to write and I ended up falling into the role full-time. I loved working as a journalist, and it was certainly more interesting than typing up other people’s letters.
HOW DID YOU END UP FORMING GREEN & BLACK’S CHOCOLATE?
I started living together with my now husband Craig Sams in 1989 – he was a health food pioneer and had formed and run various businesses in this space including Whole Earth. One of his suppliers came to him with some cocoa beans and asked if he could do anything with them.
He said that he couldn’t as his Whole Earth products were no added sugar brands and this was the product’s whole USP, but he organised for a contact to get a sample chocolate bar made with the beans and myself and Craig ate the bar and it was excellent. The rest, as they say, is history, and we founded the business in 1991.
HOW DID YOU GET THE BUSINESS OFF THE GROUND?
We leveraged invoice discounting to finance the growth of the company for the first nine years. It’s not the cheapest way to grow a business but it means you’re not giving away equity to grow the company; and you don’t need to keep raising extra capital.
The business grew very quickly, and we knew after nine years that it was really rocking because we had achieved supermarket distribution and were exporting all across the world. We realised that we needed to take investment to catapult the business to the next level and this is when it started to grow exponentially.
DO YOU FEEL YOU WERE AHEAD OF THE TREND REGARDING SUSTAINABILITY IN BUSINESS?
The business was always a reflection of our values and we didn’t realise at the time that we were doing anything that was extraordinary. It was interesting because I belonged to a group that was set up by The Body Shop founder Anita Roddick. It was a group of people that were all trying to achieve social good through their businesses. For example, Ben and Jerry from Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream were members of the group.
They would get together to discuss ideas and reassure each other that we weren’t mad. Traditional businesses didn’t seem to understand the message about the importance of looking after the planet and having a social purpose.
Here we are thirty years later, and it seems that this is changing the business world which is much more aligned to this purpose.
IN WHAT WAY WOULD YOU SAY THAT THE BUSINESS WORLD IS MORE ALIGNED TO THIS PURPOSE?
For example, Fairtrade alone is now a $2bn (£1.5bn) a year business. It has achieved from a standing start in 1994. The message is finally getting through that businesses have a responsibility to embrace sustainability and consider the treatment of its workers and supply chains, both at home and abroad.
You can no longer go to market and offer people a product or service that isn’t offering something better than what they can currently buy; and more importantly isn’t trying to help the planet in some way.
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY WERE THE MAIN CHALLENGES YOU FACED WHEN SCALING YOUR BUSINESS?
I would say cashflow, cashflow, cashflow. The faster you grow, the bigger this challenge often becomes. You are never paid as fast by your customers as you need to pay your suppliers and contacts.
Invoice discounting was crucial in this sense as it meant we could draw down 75% of what we were owed by suppliers and this allowed us to fund the next purchases of stock.
CAN YOU TALK ME THROUGH THE SALE OF THE BUSINESS?
Cadbury acquired us in 2005, but in business nothing stays the same for very long and Kraft then gobbled up Cadbury, which is what we didn’t expect.
What has been good to see though is that our values have rippled up into that organisation and provided a beacon of how big businesses can change.
WHAT WAS THE MOST STRESSFUL PART OF SELLING THE BUSINESS?
The night before. When you’re selling a business, you are still running your company until you’ve sold it, so you’re working on the business right up until the sale. You can never assume that the sale has happened, so you’re occupied with both selling the business and running the business.
We had planned to go to a trade show in California, but we were in negotiations to sell the business until 3am and we then had to go and collect our suitcases and go to the airport for the early morning flight.
We had finished the negotiations before we left but there was no inflight Wi-Fi, so we didn’t know if the deal had gone through. It was torturous and when we landed in Los Angeles, we called the lawyers and the deal hadn’t gone through, but we agreed to leave it in their hands.
We then had to spend the next three days at the trade show and that was a stressful period. I remember on the third night in America, I told Craig that I felt something was wrong. We called our lawyers and they told us there was a spanner in the works.
This ended up being resolved and the business ended up getting sold but it was stressful at the time.
HOW DID YOU FEEL WHEN THE DEAL WAS FINALLY COMPLETED?
It was a relief and very quickly they started to take control of the business and start running it. It was hard for me to relinquish control of the company, but they brought in so much fantastic talent to run the business that I felt comfortable they were going to take it to the next level.
I’m proud that Craig and I are still involved, and that Cadbury and Kraft could see the virtue in the founders of the business still having a relationship with the brand. 14 years on we still have a role at the company and I’m proud that we’ve managed to make that work.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO ANYBODY LOOKING TO GROW AND DEVELOP A SUCCESSFUL BUSINESS?
Well the first thing is to start because things only get done if you do them. At some point you must stop telling your friends about your ideas and go and make it happen. In the early stages there are a million things that need to be done but once you’ve done them, you can cross them off.
In today’s climate you shouldn’t need to use your property as leverage as there are so many funding options you can use. On this subject, the next bit of market research you can do is to create a pitch and put it in front of investors to see if they will back it. If they are willing to part with their money, it’s likely you have a good business idea.