Acclaimed co-founder of the iconic Green & Black’s chocolate brand, Jo Fairley told the South’s business leaders they need to apply both a microscope and a telescope to their businesses in order to succeed.
Jo, a serial entrepreneur, journalist, award-winning author and the UK’s youngest ever magazine editor at 23, was keynote speaker at the fifth annual Solent Business Growth Summit.
The breakfast summit, now firmly established as a major event in the region’s business calendar, was staged at the Ageas Bowl’s Hilton Hotel, near Southampton and backed by four companies, including ourselves, each with a strong operational presence in the Solent region.
Alongside Vail Williams, hosts for the breakfast event included Santander Corporate and Commercial Bank, accountancy and investment management group Smith & Williamson, law firm Trethowans.
Jo Fairley told of her journey from launching Green & Black’s with husband Craig Sams, founder of Whole Earth Foods, at her kitchen table in her Portobello Road, London home in 1991, to its acquisition by Cadbury in 2005 for £20 million.
She said: “I’m completely self-taught. I’ve got six O levels and have had to learn as I’ve gone along. I have read countless business magazines, loads of business books and I just try and take away one nugget from each of them.”
“The most important lesson I learned was from US businesswoman Martha Stewart who pointed out that you need the microscope to get the detail right and the telescope to be able to stand back and look at things from afar.
“Basically that’s what I think events like today are for – it is an amazing opportunity to stand back from the fire-fighting and enjoy a brief window of telescope time. I have always found it completely invaluable to just step away and think about what you can do differently.
“Also, in business today you can sometimes feel like a lone salmon swimming upstream but when you come to an event like this and you realise that you are part of a shoal and we are all moving in the same direction – we have all got the same challenges, we have all got the same goals and somehow it is very reassuring to know that you are not alone.”
Jo, still associated as an ambassador with Green & Black’s – which is now estimated to be worth £100 million after the brand was acquired by giant foodstuffs conglomerate Kraft – began her address by admitting “I am a chocoholic.”
Speaking of the event, Gary Jeffries, partner at Vail Williams, said: “We had two really good speakers at this event; Anne-Marie Mountifield of the LEP gave us a really positive update and then we had a particularly inspiring talk from Jo Fairley, who really brought her business story to life for me. Green & Black’s is a massive story.
“To hear that journey from literally her kitchen table to being acquired by a multi-national is a fantastic inspiration to us all.”
Jo, who eats four squares every day with sea salt being her favourite flavour, gave a full insight of the emotional process of launching a challenger brand in a rollercoaster market with a £20,000 investment at a time when she had £20,034 in the bank.
Inspired by Body Shop founder Anita Roddick, Jo developed the world’s first organic chocolate – still named as one of Britain’s coolest brands – with her business based on five basic tenets – a good product, branding and design, PR and marketing, customer service and ethics.
“The secret of good business is not rocket science. We had a good quality product and I sent chocolate out with every press release. I’ve always said one square equals a thousand words.”
Green & Black’s, with its 70% cocoa, soon became a favourite of the likes of Delia Smith, Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and there was a huge wave of publicity when the church got behind the organic, first Fairtrade chocolate Maya Gold in 1994.
Jo, who was her own one-woman customer service department for nine years while still working as a journalist, said everything about Green & Black’s was done with no focus groups, no research and no advertising.
“When dreaming up new products or schemes you must simply put yourselves in your customers’ shoes – if I need something others will too. You must listen to your own gut.”
Jo’s final advice was for business owners to give themselves plenty of TLC – her preferred method being yoga and meditation – saying: “Unless you take care of yourself you cannot take care of your team.”
Second speaker at the summit was Anne-Marie Mountifield, chief executive of business support organisation the Solent Local Enterprise Partnership, who gave an overview of the region’s economy – it’s the most urbanised area in the south outside London with 1.3 million people and 42,000 businesses.
Anne-Marie, leading a team targeting a £30 billion economy in the area by 2020 while delivering investment worth £1.5 billion, said the region’s 290 miles of coastline meant it was inextricably linked to the sea and was at the heart of the UK’s maritime economy.
She said there were signs of positive growth, particularly in activity driven by ports, but there were also challenges ahead in terms of infrastructure, transport, congestion, productivity and fibre technology.
Anne-Marie said the four cornerstones of the Solent region’s future economy were to boost productivity and earning power, establishing the area as the gold standard for eco innovation, getting the region recognised as the global home of the marine and maritime industry and building a digital society and a full fibre future.
Simon Rhodes, senior partner at Trethowans, said: “I am delighted that the four founding sponsors of this event are still together five years later, working in partnership for the benefit of the region as a whole.
“It is also hugely encouraging to see so many businesses attending the summit and continuing to talk about ambition and growth. I certainly hope this event continues to be a part of the mainstream business calendar – the knowledge and information it is giving us is incredibly welcome.”
Andrew Edmonds, managing partner of Smith & Williamson’s Southampton office, said: “We got an understanding from Jo about what was going through her mind at various stages of the development of her business. You can apply the things she has learned to your own business.
“It was so inspiring to hear someone who has been all the way from vision to exit. Most people in the room will have been somewhere on that journey and could learn from her experiences.”
Gwyn Price, Santander Corporate and Commercial Bank’s Regional Director for the South East and Solent region said: “I think some of the key takeaways for me from an event like this are the sharing of knowledge and experience.
“As Jo mentioned, it’s about taking that telescope view, stepping back in your business and really understanding it.”
A draw to win a business mentoring session in London with Jo Fairley raised £500 for Naomi House and Jacksplace, the hospices supporting children and young people which are celebrating their 21st anniversary this year.