Paul Lindley was born in Sheffield, England and moved to Zambia when he was eight years old, where he lived for 14 years. He attended the International School of Lusaka, Barlborough Hall School and Mount St Mary’s College in Derbyshire, UK.
- The father-of-two, who named the business after his daughter, has enjoyed much success since he founded the company in 2006. He’s grown Ella’s Kitchen from a one-man band working out of his children’s playroom to 60 staff in the UK, a subsidiary company in the US with 10 employees, and a turnover of £50m.
But despite his achievements – he was chosen as Entrepreneur of the Year at the City AM Business Awards last year – Lindley says he conformed for a long time before he had the confidence to do what he wanted. “My daughter Ella was born in 1999 and my son Paddy followed in 2002, and I was a very active father. I was going through the weaning stages with Ella and was having trouble getting her to eat certain foods. That was when my idea for a business started to form.
“I was general manager of children’s television channel Nickelodeon at the time, and I’d been there for nine years. It’s a really entrepreneurial business and it’s where I learnt about children as consumers – it’s a channel that kids think is for them and by them.”
And, says Lindley, he took that concept to the heart of Ella’s Kitchen – healthy food that appeals to children as much as it does to parents. “In 2004, I decided to give myself two years to get the business off the ground. I felt that if I didn’t follow my idea through I would regret it far more than if I tried and failed.”
Lindley initially invested £20,000 of his own savings to fund the business. “I developed samples, created recipes and worked with labs and manufacturers to get the product right, and once I’d done that I started approaching supermarkets. A lot of new food businesses start at farmers’ markets and delicatessens but I went straight to the supermarkets. It took tenacity to find out the people I should be approaching, get them interested enough to take my phone call, and then arrange a meeting. Of the six different supermarkets I approached, Sainsbury’s was the one that agreed to work with me after I pitched to them in the summer of 2005.”
So what’s the secret of a successful pitch? “To encompass the three core skills of an entrepreneur – tenacity, creativity and passion,” he advises. “First, you have to have tenacity because you’re going to encounter a lot of people who will say no to you. Second, you need to be creative because the people you’re presenting to will have seen hundreds of pitches before. You’ve got to show what your unique selling proposition is, why you’re different and why the consumer will want it. You can use creativity to stand out. And third, you must be passionate about your product or service. That’s the beauty of pitching yourself rather than employing a professional – you’re the only person who is going to be able to show how much you care about what you’re trying to sell.”
Lindley notes that the same skills are found in his target market – toddlers. “When they’re learning to walk, they need to be tenacious because they fall over a lot. There are often obstacles in their way but they’re creative and work their way round things. Their capacity to adapt is incredible. If leaders thought like toddlers more often then business would be much simpler.”
Exporting, says Lindley, has been key to growing the business. Ella’s Kitchen now has an 18 per cent market share of the UK’s £250m baby food industry but the company also exports to 11 other countries including Sweden, Norway, Australia and Ireland. “We’ve gone from two products on the day we launched to 80 products
and from Sainsbury’s to all the supermarkets and major retailers in the UK as well as trading overseas.”
Lindley believes that exporting has never been easier for UK companies. “We’re riding on the wave of 2012 when Britain gave the Olympics to the world. It defined what Britain stands for – winners. The world watched as we won medals, and provided a Games that was smooth and efficient, and had humour and humility. It’s the perfect time for SMEs which want Britain as part of their brand to trade overseas.”
His advice to business owners is not to be frightened about exporting. “Business broadly works the same way wherever you are in the world. It’s vital to do as much research as possible and make sure you understand why another business or country might want to trade with you. But there is no excuse not to go and visit the market that you’re considering.”
Lindley is speaking from experience. “China is a huge market, it’s got a large middle class and it trusts western brands so in theory it should be perfect for Ella’s Kitchen. However, when I visited and watched how people shopped and wandered round supermarkets it gave me second thoughts. There isn’t a baby food market there – there is infant formula milk and some dry food, but that’s it. It means we would be creating a whole new market as well as bringing in a new brand, which would be a vast challenge. I would advise business owners to visit any country they’re considering exporting to.”
He admits that one of the most difficult aspects of running a company is getting the right people on board. “My job is to make sure that my employees share the firm’s vision. So I try to ensure that the company’s cultural values are built into the recruitment process. It’s a person’s mindset I’m looking for – not necessarily the most skilled individual. When it comes to attracting and retaining staff it’s important to make sure the person fits on a cultural level because if they don’t it’s not fair to the individual or the rest of the team.” So how does he motivate his employees? “I try to ensure that my staff know how they fit into the company and how their job contributes to what Ella’s Kitchen is trying to achieve in the bigger scheme of things.
It’s important to give people autonomy – if you’ve employed someone to do a job then stand back and let them get on with it.”
The key to being a successful leader, he says, is to be consistent in your thinking, risk-taking and approach. “It’s crucial for business leaders to be seen by their employees. I try to wander round our offices and understand what my team is doing as much as possible because people need to feel recognised for their work.”
The culture at Ella’s Kitchen, he says, is quite feminine. A third of the board, half the management team and 75 per cent of employees are women. “We’re dealing with a subject [baby food] that is naturally more involved with women. We have a high proportion of working mothers in our business, so we aim to be as flexible as possible.” And Lindley, an ambassador for the Family and Parenting Institute charity, has developed his own proposals for flexible working in response to deputy prime minister Nick Clegg’s plans to extend such rights.
“My idea is to encourage employers to find jobs that are flexible for working parents and carers. In the periods of the day the working parent can’t do, such as early mornings and late afternoons, employers should take on an unskilled young person to cover the hours,” he says. “The employer would pay the young person for those hours and the government would cover the hours in between.
It is to the government’s advantage because instead of paying benefits to someone who is at home all day the individual is receiving work-based training, the employer benefits because their job is being covered, and the young person is learning new skills. We’re getting everything in place at the moment and in a few months’ time we will be trialling the idea at Ella’s Kitchen to show that it works.”
One of the firm’s aims in the next five years is to reach a billion tiny-tummy touchpoints – or one serving or unit of Ella’s Kitchen food sold. The company reached 200 million touchpoints in the first six years of business.
But there’s plenty in the pipeline for 2013, too. “There are four ways any business can grow,” says Lindley. “You can sell more products to your existing customers, you can acquire new customers, you can create new products and give people more occasion to buy those products, and you can expand your business into new territories
– we’re planning to do all of those things.”
Not only will the business be launching 25 products this year but it is also releasing the first of four cookbooks – Ella’s Kitchen: The Cookbook – next month. “It will be available in all major booksellers and we’ll also be launching it internationally. Children, like adults, eat with all their senses and this book is about engaging all the senses. It was a team effort and my children were involved in testing some of the recipes – it’s exciting.”
Alongside the cookbook, Lindley says he will focus on the Ella’s Kitchen Foundation. “I grew up in Zambia and we’re working with a children’s home outside the capital, Lusaka. It’s important to give something back.”
Lindley smiles when asked for his highlight since launching the company. “The fact that I have 60 people working for me who put their heart and soul into the business, and have been inspired is incredible. Their lives have changed because I chose to change my life, and I still find that hard to get my head around.”
Looking back, what advice would he have given himself when launching the company? “There’s a great Mark Twain quote that hangs in my office and it’s something I continue to tell myself. ‘Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover’.”