Business

The man who built the UK's largest baby food firm

Paul Lindley Image copyright DANIEL LYNCH

It was the answerphone message that changed Paul Lindley's life.

Left for him by UK supermarket group Sainsbury's back in 2005, it said simply: "We are going to take a flyer on you."

It meant that four months later Sainsbury's was going to start stocking Mr Lindley's baby food brand, Ella's Kitchen, at 350 of its stores across the country.

This was nothing too out-of-the-ordinary in the world of supermarkets, except for two key facts: Ella's Kitchen hadn't sold a single item before, and Mr Lindley had no retail experience whatsoever.

"I remember thinking, 'Yes! I have done it. But oh, I have to actually make it now,'" says Mr Lindley, 48.

"So it was 10 or 15 seconds of elation, and then the realisation that now the work starts. It was quite daunting."

The first Ella's Kitchen products arrived on Sainsbury's shelves in early 2006, and were an immediate hit. Soon the UK's other supermarkets were also stocking the brand.

Today, Oxfordshire-based Ella's Kitchen is the UK's best-selling baby food company, and its annual global turnover exceeds £100m.

"We went from nowhere to UK market leader in less than nine years," says Mr Lindley.

Bright packaging

Before he set up Ella's Kitchen, Mr Lindley was a senior manager at the UK operation of children's television channel Nickelodeon.

He cites two main reasons behind him coming up with the idea for a new baby food business.

Image copyright Ella's Kitchen
Image caption The packaging of Ella's Kitchen products is designed to stand out on the shelves

Firstly, due to his job at Nickelodeon, Mr Lindley says he was acutely aware that child nutrition had become a big issue in the UK, and that the growing problem of child obesity was, in part, being blamed on television.

And secondly, he and his wife had just had their first child, a daughter called Ella - from whom the company takes its name. She was at times a fussy eater.

Also, unhappy with the varieties of baby food available in the UK, he says he recognised a gap in the market for an upmarket, all-organic baby food range, with bright, modern packaging.

"I had an idea that I knew I would regret if I didn't follow it through. I thought I could make a social difference, by helping give children a healthier relationship with food, and make some profits along the way."

So Mr Lindley decided to quit his highly paid job and give himself two years to see if he could make the business a success.

Relying on £25,000 of savings, he initially spent a whole year on his own, fine-tuning his idea.

He then utilised the support and advice of the University of Reading's Department of Food and Nutritional Sciences to ensure that all Ella's Kitchen's products were as healthy and nutritionally balanced as possible.

At the same time, he started to bombard the supermarkets with phone calls and emails.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Mr Lindley had previously held a senior role at TV company Nickelodeon, home to SpongeBob SquarePants

"I must have made 500 phone calls, and sent 500 emails, to try to find the right buyer, tie them down to a conversation, and then try to persuade them to give me a meeting," he says.

"It was really difficult, and no-one should be under any illusions that it isn't. When you do finally get a meeting, you have to go in there with all your passion... make sure the buyer remembers you when they go to see their boss."

With his savings running low, Mr Lindley finally got the go-ahead from Sainsbury's 20 months after he had quit his day job, and four months short of the deadline he had given himself.

He now just had to get all the baby food made.

TV deal

Always intending to use an outsourcing model, Mr Lindley approached a trusted food manufacturer in Scotland to make everything for Ella's Kitchen.

He managed to get Sainsbury's supplied on time, but only by remortgaging his house and freeing up £200,000 to fund the business.

When it came to promotion, Mr Lindley came up with the novel idea of approaching his old bosses at Nickelodeon with a business proposition.

In exchange for them giving Ella's Kitchen free advertising space, and co-funding some adverts, he would give Nickelodeon a cut of the firm's profits.

The TV company agreed, and thanks to the promotion, the products started to fly off the shelves.

Image copyright Andrew Crowley
Image caption The company takes its name from Paul Lindley's daughter

"The feeling you get of seeing a stranger buying a product that six months ago just existed in your head is incredible," says Mr Lindley. "So I did spend the first few weeks hanging out in baby food aisles, which takes some explaining.

"But in all seriousness, the point of being in the baby aisle was to talk to people, to get their feedback."

Eventual sale

Aware that some companies risk collapse due to growing too fast, Mr Lindley says he was grateful that in an earlier life he had been an accountant.

Image copyright DANIEL LYNCH
Image caption Mr Lindley has stayed with the firm after its sale

"Thankfully I was aware that cash is king, that you have to have money in the bank rather than just chasing profits," he says.

Three years after Ella's Kitchen was first stocked by Sainsbury's, it started to sell overseas, first to Sweden, Norway and the US.

While the US business was successful, the brand faced a number of copycat rivals in the American market.

"We were growing nicely in the US, but we were competing with rivals who had much deeper pockets than us," says Mr Lindley. "And so some of them were prepared to make losses for a number of years to secure market share.

"So we were left with three choices: exit the US; or be prepared to make losses and risk the UK and the rest of the world; or try to find a relationship in the US that removed our risk. We chose to do the latter."

And so, last year, Mr Lindley agreed to sell Ella's Kitchen to US food company Hain Celestial for $103.5m (£66m).

Under the terms of the deal Mr Lindley has remained in the top job at Ella's Kitchen, and divides his time between the UK and the US.

He says he never had any intention to retire and count his money. "I'm emotionally attached to the business," he explains.

"What has always driven me is the idea that business has a responsibility to be good for society."

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