In 2004 Paul Lindley left his high-flying job and re-mortgaged his home to found children’s organic food brand Ellas Kitchen, named after his daughter. This year, families will spend over £50 million on Ella’s Kitchen foods and the company, based near Henley, has a 12% share of the UK baby food market with its sights set firmly on becoming a global brand. No stranger to awards, Lindley is a finalist in the entrepreneur of the year category at this year’s National Business Awards, held in November. So where did it all go right, and what fires up this entrepreneur? Eleanor Harris met Lindley to find out.
Paul Lindley is founder and chief executive of Ella’s Kitchen. He was born in Sheffield and grew up in Zambia. After graduating from the University of Bristol, he trained and qualified as a chartered accountant at KPMG and then worked as financial controller, rising to deputy managing director, at Nickelodeon. In 2006 he launched Ella’s Kitchen, which now has an annual turnover of £30m and was ranked in the top 15 fastest-growing private companies in the Sunday Times Fast Track 100 in both 2009 and 2010. Lindley and Ella’s Kitchen have won 31 awards in five years, including the BlackBerry customer focus award for small business at the 2010 National Business Awards and the Ernst & Young entrepreneur of the year award for the London and South region 2011. Lindley is a co-founder of The Consumer Forum, a partnership of entrepreneurial UK companies which promotes customer excellence in business. Married with two children, Ella, 11, and Paddy, 8, he lives in Reading.
Why did you set up Ella’s Kitchen?
I’ve always wanted to do something like this. I was a chartered accountant by training, but I knew it wasn’t a long-term career for me, and I then worked at Nickelodeon, the children’s television brand, for 10 years, starting out as a finance person and ending up by running Nickelodeon in the UK. Over the 10 years I was there I became passionate about children and children’s health, and we managed to create a brand which children thought was made by children and parents felt was a safe place, and that’s the heart of what became Ella’s Kitchen. At the same time I was having my own family and had fun and games trying to get our kids to eat. So what Ella’s became, the idea in my head, was could I create a brand that brought together health, convenience and fun? I had the idea of the brand before the products – most people who start businesses do it the other way round. An epiphany moment came when we were on holiday camping and we couldn’t find healthy, convenient and fun food for our kids, so I thought “this is my opportunity to put my money where my mouth is and really go on this adventure.” And I was looking for a new challenge. I gave up my job and gave myself two years to get this brand up and running, with the sole purpose of making a difference to kids’ health. Our vision hasn’t changed from that point: it is to be the world’s first global brand of premium food for pre-schoolers, a big, hairy goal from the very beginning.
How did you go about establishing the Ella’s Kitchen business?
In those two years I worked out what the brand was, I found some packaging – we introduced a brand new kind of pouch packaging, other people do that now – and started to develop products, sitting round the kitchen table with my kids, mixing fruit and vegetables together in a way which wasn’t done before, and I didn’t approach the corner shops, farmers markets or delicatessens, I went straight to the supermarkets and Sainsbury’s eventually said yes. I re-mortgaged our house, releasing £200,000, to fund it initially and we had to do a very innovative financial arrangement, outsourcing manufacturing to a trusted expert. Innovatively with marketing, I went back to the children’s television channels and proposed that if they gave advertising to me, I would give them a share of my revenue. And one of them agreed, so I got national television advertising. And then it really took off with consumers.
Can you tell me about the success of Ella’s Kitchen? How do you stand out from the crowd in that market?
We’ve gone from two products at launch to 51, from one supermarket to all the supermarkets in the UK and the major supermarkets in seven other countries, we have a subsidiary in the US which is growing very fast – about $11million of our £30m of turnover last year was from the US – and in Scandinavia we’ve got a big market. We’ve gone from families spending nothing to spending over £50m a year on our brand and they really trust it. To get trust is the Holy Grail for brands. I was going against some big boys – Nestle, Heinz, Cow & Gate and others, so to get that trust so quickly surprised and delighted me. It’s because we really thought about our brand from the very beginning and understand what consumers want, how families live their lives and the pressures and challenges of their lives. We stand apart from all of our competitors still – it’s about our brand and about really engaging children with it – the bright colours and the fun recipes. Anita Roddick once said: “If you think you’re too small to make a difference, try going to bed with a mosquito.” I think we’re the mosquito to these big guys. Suddenly we’ve got a 12% market share and growing every year, and they must be thinking how did we let that happen? It was very hard work but we punch above our weight in terms of being seen as a leading food brand and a leading entrepreneurial brand, it’s a business that has doubled its size every year in a recession.
What would you consider your greatest achievement?
Certainly my proudest point is going in to a Sainsbury’s store on that very first day and seeing Ella’s face looking back from the shelves and seeing the first person on the first day buying our products, that tops everything else. But it’s also the emotional recognition from consumers, and you think we have actually made a difference here. If Ella’s Kitchen wasn’t around then kids’ diets would be worse than they are today. Every second of every day somebody somewhere is eating Ella’s Kitchen food and we’ve sold over 100 million portions of organic fruit and vegetables in our five years and you can argue that that would have been 100 million portions of fruit and veg that kids wouldn’t have had otherwise. That’s the thing that ticks my box.
What do you think it takes personally to succeed?
One is creativity – to be able to think of things differently and imagine the impossible, almost. Creativity is what I really enjoy, the emotional reward for creating something out of nothing really gets me. Secondly, a passion for what you’re doing, a real belief, it’s not about setting up a company to make money, it’s about a clear goal. The third thing is tenacity, getting up when you get knocked over and finding ways round obstacles. Those three things are I think about being entrepreneurial.
You’re a finalist in the National Business Awards entrepreneur of the year award – would you consider yourself a true entrepreneur?
In just about every respect, yes. But what I think an entrepreneur does which I haven’t been challenged on yet or had the opportunity to do, is do multiple businesses. I’m very passionate about what we’re doing now, but whether I could do that again with something else – I think I could if I found a thing that I was passionate about and could be creative with and make a difference to, but it’s also doing something that’s not been done before. It is very humbling to be recognised, but what every entrepreneur should say, because it’s absolutely true, is you can have the ideas but it’s your team that actually delivers. Finding the right team, finding exceptional people and motivating them is an important part of our success and our team here, 38-odd strong, has delivered. The award we won last year within the Thames Valley for me was great recognition locally of establishing employment and a skillset within the area and recognition for some of the outreach and work we do locally. It’s really important locally to celebrate a business that is a national and international business now, when before it was nothing.
Would you think about setting up a company in your son Paddy’s name? Are there new business ideas in you?
The biggie out of all the challenges and pressures I think I’ve had, never mind dealing with big supermarkets and banks, was when Paddy was 4 and he said “do you think daddy will do Paddy’s Kitchen?”! I have that business idea, and when the opportunity is right we will try and do something, but there’s such an opportunity with Ella’s Kitchen to get further, to be that global brand, that it would be wrong to launch at this present time. One of the challenges with truly entrepreneurial companies is to be able to focus on delivering what you start out to do.
Are there any other unfulfilled ambitions? What’s next for the company, and for you?
To continue to grow and get our market share up in each of the seven territories we’re in and elsewhere is an adventure I still want to go on. There’s an opportunity to even more closely understand what consumers want and to innovate in even more areas and in different categories – the children’s chilled food sector is an opportunity. I also have a tax relief proposal out to the Government at the moment, an idea called consumer excellence relief – it would encourage more businesses to invest in understanding their consumers more, which would help business, brands and our exports, so that’s really exciting. We’re in the process of setting up an Ella’s Kitchen Foundation in Zambia, where I grew up. But also to be with the family and kids and not forget that that time of life with children passes so quickly. There are lots of things to do, I’m only in my forties. I’m a real believer that you live one life and do as much as you can in that life because if you don’t, you’re the one that’s going to regret it when you’re at the end of it.