In this episode I meet celebrated healthy food inventor, entrepreneur and CEO, Anthony Fletcher, whose experience at Innocent Drinks followed by 8 years as the CEO of Graze snacks inspired his mission to remove the junk from junk food and reinvent the doughnut through his latest Willy Wonka creation, Urban Legend. He describes with great honesty and authenticity both the highlights and the tough moments of growing Graze to a $100m turnover business, facing major challenges along the way that threatened the fundamental business model. He talks about how it impacted him as a leader and how he had to change his ways of working with the team to reflect the maturation of the business. This is CEO-ship in its most raw form – fast-paced, straight-talking, no BS. Essential listening for startup CEOs and leaders transitioning from high growth to sustainable success. Grab a healthy doughnut and enjoy!
Anthony Fletcher 0:07
Within about four years of being a startup, it was around a $60-$70 million business and super-profitable and negative working capital, and it went through a private equity buyout, you know, classic leveraged buyout taking advantage of the cash flow. And then it made its kind of, I suppose, first really big bet. And it was a big, I’d say, venture capital-style bet maybe, rather than a leveraged buyout-kind of bet, and we went to the US. As you said, at the start, my God, you know, it looked like for a while we’d cracked the US. The revenue growth was absolutely phenomenal. And we’d done it all while still servicing all that debt, you know, which, you know, felt, you know, very different to maybe some of our peers who were going to the US with war chests, you know, kind of stuffed with, stuffed with dollars.
Gary Crotaz 0:59
And so what happened next?
Anthony Fletcher 1:00
Well it all went wrong! The business was over maybe $100 million now. And it was very profitable in the UK. And you know, it was trending towards profitability in the US. In fact, we’d just made a dollar profit in the US and I’d framed it and given it to the guy running the US and congratulated him on being a proper business that could make money. You know, rather than it all being illusory. And a number of things happened in rapid succession. The first was the Royal Mail privatised in the UK, the prices went up by, like I probably, I don’t know if I can even say, but triple digit. Our largest cost. We spent more on posting the boxes to people than we did on the, some of the things we put in the boxes, the impact on the margin, your future expectations on cash flows, the what the EBITDA was going to look like in six months, and how people would react to that, was was pretty ferocious. So we were working through this. And then the United States Postal Service came to us six months later and said they were doing exactly the same. So over the next three years, there was sort of super-inflationary prices they had to put through. The combination of these two things meant that, rather than having reinvented the world, crazy revenue growth, profit, you were suddenly looking at going, this could quite easily disappear very quickly.
Gary Crotaz 1:11
My name’s Dr. Gary Crotaz. And I’m a coach and author of the IDM mindset, a book about how to figure out what you want, and how to get it. The Unlock Moment is that flash of remarkable clarity, when you suddenly know the right path ahead. When I’m in conversation with my coaching clients, these are the breakthroughs that are so profound, that they remember vividly where they were, who they were with, what they were thinking when their Unlock Moment happened. In this podcast, I’ll be meeting and learning about people who have accomplished great things, or brought about significant change in their life, and you’ll be meeting them with me. We’ll be finding out what inspired them, how they got through the hard times, and what they learned along the way that they can share with you. Thank you for joining me on this podcast to hear all about another Unlock Moment. Hello dear listener, and welcome to another episode of The Unlock Moment podcast. Today I am delighted to welcome to the podcast celebrated healthy food entrepreneur and CEO, Anthony Fletcher. I can promise you that you will be hungry by the end of this episode, So grab a healthy snack and settle in! Anthony is the founder of Believe in Science, a scientific R&D business that has worked out how to make a donut which tastes like Krispy Kreme but has as many calories as a slice of buttered toast. It’s called Urban Legend and last year secured 3 million pounds in funding. Anthony is most famous as the former CEO of Graze, the UK’s number one healthy snack brand that he joined from Innocent Drinks in 2009, soon after Graze was founded. An innovative business model delivered personalised snack boxes by post to people’s desks. I remember being a Graze aficionado back in the day when it first started out and it was a way of getting healthy and sometimes decadent snacks on the go. The business was incredibly successful. In 2012, Anthony became CEO, launched the Graze product in the US with a $32 million sales run rate in its first year and took the product into mainstream retail with distribution in over 40,000 stores. The business featured on the Sunday Times Fast Track 100 for high-growth businesses. Anthony led the sale of Graze first to private equity group Carlyle in 2012, and then to leading global consumer group Unilever in 2019. I can’t wait to hear more about Anthony’s perspective on leadership in a high-profile, high-growth business, his Unlock Moment and of course the lessons he’s learned along the way. And not to mention getting the inside track on the science of healthy donuts. Anthony it is my great pleasure to welcome you to The Unlock Moment.
Anthony Fletcher 5:02
Thanks very much, Gary.
Gary Crotaz 5:04
So tell me a little bit about your upbringing. Were you always a foodie? How did you end up in these food businesses?
Anthony Fletcher 5:10
So I had a really kind of traditional academic upbringing, you know, and went off to Oxford as a scientist, and then went off to Princeton in the US and did research. But I wanted to be an entrepreneur, and I didn’t have the faintest how to be an entrepreneur. And I always maintain I got really, really lucky, but I just decided one day to go and knock on the door of Innocent Drinks in Shepherds Bush, because they seemed the sort of company you could approach and they ended up giving me a job. So I had this wonderful apprenticeship at this wonderful business, through all these different stages.
Gary Crotaz 5:48
When you say knock on the door, literally, what do you do?
Anthony Fletcher 5:51
I went to Shepherds Bush and I rang on the door, and I introduced myself and said, Can I speak to someone about a job?
Gary Crotaz 5:58
And what was your background? What had you been doing before then?
Anthony Fletcher 6:01
Well, I’d just finished this, the research. So I suppose I was a new graduate on the market. And I was idly filling out all of those forms for all of those well known brands, you know, which recent graduates go and join, and asked myself, did I really want to be a scientist? And one day decided to do this.
Gary Crotaz 6:22
And what stage was the Innocent business in that time when you first joined?
Anthony Fletcher 6:26
Yes, I think I was kind of a 20-something-th employee. So it was it was starting to rocket, and I suppose was in that sort of, it had cracked a formula and was starting to scale very quickly.
Gary Crotaz 6:40
And what kind of things were you doing when you first joined?
Anthony Fletcher 6:42
My first job at Innocent was in manufacturing, and they admitted later they gave me this job purely on the basis that I must be good at maths with my background. And my job was to work out how many smoothies needed to be made every day, and hence all of the ingredients and packaging, you know, strawberries and plastic bottles, which had to end up in our different factories at the time. Yeah, and I think I was just so lucky to be in this wonderful business and see the different stages, the kind of mucky, wild startup phases, and these, you know, these, these crazy bursts of growth you get, but also the tough times where the growth dies away, or the world just changes and how you deal with that. It was, it really was tremendous.
Gary Crotaz 7:27
And so how long were you at Innocent? And what’s your transition to Graze?
Anthony Fletcher 7:30
Yeah, so I was there through to kind of after the Coca Cola buyout, and this time, I was like, Oh I’ve learned something, I know how to be an entrepreneur, and I was driving my wife crazy making products at home, some of whom I still maintain would have been successful! But I never did any of them. And that’s because I came across the Graze box. And as you say, I just thought this was so radical, because it was a different way of going to the consumers in an industry I loved which was the food industry. And I got my job at Graze in exactly the same way as Innocent. I found out where the office was. And I went and knocked on the door and said exactly the same thing. And what I find is most entrepreneurs do need somebody to do something immediately. And they too, gave me a job.
Gary Crotaz 8:15
Amazing. And what was the Graze business when you, when you first joined?
Anthony Fletcher 8:18
I mean, there were seven founders, and I turned up, sort of, so I was maybe I was the second, the guy who had a forklift licence might have beaten me into the business. But yeah, I was there after the founders.
Gary Crotaz 8:32
And did you have a sense of mission or purpose around these food businesses?
Anthony Fletcher 8:37
I mean, Innocent was a business that was deeply driven by its values. I’d say Graze was deeply driven by how technology could be relevant to the food industry. And part of the fun or uncertainty was, could it be at all? No-one really knew whether people wanted consumer goods posted to them and personalization and things which fitted through letterbox and all these things. So to me it was wonderful because the business was full of all these people from technology. A lot of them had been, a lot of the founders had been at LoveFilm, when it was DVDs through the mail. I just thought it was fascinating, the data and the performance marketing and the relationship and the digital experiences you could create. I genuinely thought they were onto something.
Gary Crotaz 9:27
That’s interesting. So the connection with the businesses that they’d run before was about fitting something through a postbox not developing a food product.
Anthony Fletcher 9:35
Yeah, they were, they were very good at logistics, because you had to be to do the DVDs. And also oddly, they were very good at algorithms to decide what you should get. Because if you remember, Netflix [sic, LoveFilm] was all about picking DVDs you wanted and then they’d decide what to send you based on all sorts of factors. And this is what we were trying to figure out. People just couldn’t be bothered to spend lots of time telling us what they wanted. So we needed, it needed to be a service which entertained them without putting them off.
Gary Crotaz 10:06
And what did you bring from Innocent do you think that you brought into Graze?
Anthony Fletcher 10:11
I mean, I thought the technology was mind-bending, I thought the product was dreadful. I thought the brand, you know, it was very early stage. But also Innocent was a great company. So I had lots of thoughts on kind of what bits of Innocent I agreed and disagreed with and had some views on how they applied to Graze. And they ended up making me the CEO after a while, so I hopefully learned some good things from my time at Innocent.
Gary Crotaz 10:44
I’m always interested, people thinking about the first time they became a CEO. What was that journey for you, and what did it feel like, the first time you sat in that big chair? I don’t know whether it was actually a big chair, but the imaginary big chair of CEO-ship for the first time?
Anthony Fletcher 11:01
Yeah, I mean what happened was, for a while I was sort of this MD of the business or some people call it the COO in technology circles, and we had this visionary founder, Graham Bosher, but he was quite happy to let me kind of get on with a lot of things to allow him to concentrate on other things. But I think this is one of the key problems with my journey, is it all went very well to start with. So maybe I was lulled into a false sense of security. And I certainly overestimated I think, in the initial years, my own abilities.
Gary Crotaz 11:42
That’s interesting, we’ll come to some of those stories, and I think that’s, that’s a really fascinating part of your, your career where it became more challenging. In those early years where you’ve got this kind of, you’re on a bit of a rocket ship, you know, things are growing really fast, you know, how do you balance going fast with getting it right in that kind of business?
Anthony Fletcher 12:01
And I remember wrestling with this and having a certain amount of anxiety. Why isn’t this process in place? Or, you know, surely we’re, we need the perfectly documented renumeration policy, which, this is all wrapped up by a certain date each year and flows through into the budget, you know, et cetera, et cetera, a hundred things like that. I think my kind of reflection now is, you’ve just got to be very mindful of what are the most important bits to get in at any stage? And that’s a question of judgement. And if you try and put too much in, you probably can’t, and probably cause more harm than good, and if you don’t get some of the key processes in, things start unravelling pretty quickly, but I think it is one of the key jobs of the scale-up versus the startup CEO, is how to develop the organisation.
Gary Crotaz 12:52
And what’s the role of finding the right people? How important is that?
Anthony Fletcher 12:56
I mean, it’s the key. And again, timing is so strange in these rapid, rapid growth businesses. The person who’s the hero, you know, who’s driving the business one year can suddenly find that they’re not very comfortable with the next stage of the organisation or, maybe is a good manager but not a great executive in that business, or they go from being very popular to quite unpopular maybe, because of their personal style, just this… less tolerated. So, yeah I think trying to bring in the right people and trying to bring along the people already in the business, that’s definitely a difficult area emotionally and from a judgement perspective.
Gary Crotaz 13:44
Did you feel any sense of impostor syndrome in that CEO role?
Anthony Fletcher 13:50
No, I think I felt, as I said, I mean the business was in the Sunday Times Fast Track for three years and had 30% EBITDA margins and redefined a whole new channel to market which I think was dimly understood at that time, was it gonna be enormous or not? But in wilder moments you could definitely fantasise! So no, I don’t think I did. But I think I felt a lot of stress. And it was very demanding.
Gary Crotaz 14:19
And did you feel that there was anything missing from your toolkit as the business started to scale, as CEO? Or were you, did you feel as though you were sort of across all of the things that you needed to be able to be competent at?
Anthony Fletcher 14:33
I think I felt that it was very emotionally draining. And it was a little like a firehose, and we touched on just developing the organisation when you have kind of growing at 100% a year. But you know, there’s just a hundred things kind of pressing in on you and the organisation, and working out how to manage that I think is part of it.
Gary Crotaz 14:58
And how did you handle that pressure in the early years of CEO-ship?
Anthony Fletcher 15:01
By working very hard! And getting stuck into too many things. And, as I said, not spending enough time I think confronting or even being aware of what a different approach to building that management team might be. And whether that would even work in this sort of circumstance.
Gary Crotaz 15:22
So talk me through the shape of the business and how it started to shift as it scaled.
Anthony Fletcher 15:29
Within about four years of being a startup, it was around a $60-$70 million dollar business and super-profitable and negative working capital. And it went through a private equity buyout, a classic leveraged buyout taking advantage of the cash flow. And then it made its first really big bet. And it was a big, I’d say, venture capital-style bet maybe, rather than a leveraged buyout kind of bet, and we went to the US. And we went with this sort of MVP, data-led approach, where we fulfilled it all from the UK, launched the UK range, super-agile organisation iterating behind the data on a whole range of things, to de-risk the launch, then following through with all the big capex and warehouses on the ground, and Manhattan office, and all those things, and, as you said at the start, my God, you know, it looked like, for a while we’d cracked the US. And, you know, the revenue growth was absolutely phenomenal. And we’ve done it all, while still servicing all that debt, which felt very different to maybe some of our peers who were going to the US with war chests stuffed with dollars.
Gary Crotaz 16:56
And so what happened next?
Anthony Fletcher 16:58
Well it all went wrong. The business was over maybe $100 million now. And it was very profitable in the UK. And it was trending towards profitability in the US. In fact, we just made a dollar profit in the US, and I’d framed it and given it to the guy running the US and congratulated him on being a proper business that could make money, rather than it all being illusory. And you know, a number of things happened in rapid succession. The first was the Royal Mail privatised in the UK and the prices went up, I could probably go there, I don’t know if I can even say, but triple digit increase. And our largest cost, we spent more on posting the boxes to people than we did on some of the things we put in the boxes. The impact on the margin, your future expectations on cash flows, the what the EBITDA was going to look like in six months and how people would react to that, was pretty ferocious. So we were working through this. And then the United States Postal Service came to us six months later and said they were doing exactly the same. So over the next three years, there was sort of super-inflationary prices they had to put through. And the combination of these two things meant that, rather than having reinvented the world, you know, crazy revenue growth, profit, you were suddenly looking at going well, kind of, this could quite easily disappear very quickly.
Gary Crotaz 18:29
So you’re a CEO, at that point, that up to there, you’ve had this high growth, high profit, successful model, and you’ve very successfully built scale, grown it. And then you’ve got this fundamental challenge somewhat outside your control. How you feel.
Anthony Fletcher 18:48
Yeah, it all went started to go sideways very quickly, you know, what, were we going to be able to pay back the debt? What did our current shareholders think of me stroke? You know, the future prospects of the business? What would other shareholders, you know, think if we tried to get them in? And, you know, they peered at what was really going on, but below the budget, what did the employees think? Was the vision even relevant anymore? You know, how did the management team think this all started to spin out of control within? You know, a couple of months?
Gary Crotaz 19:27
And what did it do for the conversation around the table with the senior leaders?
Anthony Fletcher 19:31
One of the problems was, when you had the conversation, you know, was it a high quality conversation? But also when you had the conversation, how did people react personally, and could you have the tough conversation without people feeling crushed? Or had people around the table grasped the full context and hence the urgency, or the drama with which we need to change direction? Yeah, that kind of inertia which can creep in or disbelief or challenge of certain scenarios.
Gary Crotaz 20:04
And it required different things of you as the leader?
Anthony Fletcher 20:07
Correct, yeah. And I didn’t feel I had time to work through lots of these things I felt. You know, we had to be presenting plans and reacting very quickly.
Gary Crotaz 20:19
And at that stage, you’ve got external, significant external shareholders, owners, who are themselves demanding that you’ve got to manage,
Anthony Fletcher 20:29
Correct, and they wanted to know the story, and they wanted to know the way out of the story, if that was the story. And they wanted to know whether they should be doing some pretty dramatic things with the business such as, you know, culling large numbers of heads or dramatically dialling back on certain investments.
Gary Crotaz 20:49
So bring me into this time when you’re in the middle of this crisis period. And this is when you really start to look at yourself as a leader and the role that you’re playing with the team. What does that look like?
Anthony Fletcher 21:02
Yeah, I had a strong hunch that I wasn’t doing… that any illusion that, you know, this… I, maybe I was a good scale-up CEO and I kind of understood the how to run very fast, and put it together as I go… and the US… but I quickly realised that this was something completely different. And I was trying to find someone or something which helped me work through it.
Gary Crotaz 21:33
And what did you do?
Anthony Fletcher 21:34
Well I got lucky. And I came across an organisation called Critical Eye. And when I told this litany of issues to the people there, they kind of nodded and went, Oh, yes, sounds about normal! You know, welcome to not being the CEO of the tech business which has just struck gold and is riding this… this, this all sounds pretty normal. And they talked a lot of sense what to do. But also, I think they asked the question which occurred to them, as you know, kind of people who work with a lot of senior leaders is, Did I know what this was going to take, and how I might have to change and maybe how naive I was on certain things as well?
Gary Crotaz 22:24
Naivety can be helpful sometimes. And also then sometimes a hindrance.
Anthony Fletcher 22:29
Indeed, and what we agreed to do, which at the time I… the thing I hated was a two-day off site with the team. And of course, I’m sure everyone, anyone who’s just listening to this would ask the same question – can we do it in one day? Which was of course what we said, to which they were very firm, that no they couldn’t. So did something which was really quite rare for that business. And it had been, and especially in this kind of urgent crisis, which was we went off for two days with the team to properly talk this through.
Gary Crotaz 23:07
They led that conversation?
Anthony Fletcher 23:08
They led that conversation. And brought in a number of CEOs who’d gone through the same thing, who in a very unvarnished and honest way, talked about the reality of our situation, and what it had looked like for them moving beyond that.
Gary Crotaz 23:25
And do you think other people around the table in your team felt the same way you did?
Anthony Fletcher 23:30
I think by the end of two days, one of the advantages is we all felt the same. So rather than these discussions you were having, where people were just in fundamentally different places, by the end of it everyone was in exactly the same place on the nature of the challenge, how the team had to evolve. I put up my hands at the end of the meeting and said, Oh, my God, I’m going to have to evolve and it probably looks like this. And also, several of them came to me afterwards and said, I’m not up for this, which was helpful as well. Because, maybe part of the problem here was, you needed a set of execs for the journey we’ve been on, but maybe a slightly different set for the road ahead?
Gary Crotaz 24:15
There’s a great book by a guy called Marshall Goldsmith, who’s generally accepted as being the world’s number one executive coach. And I say to people, even if you don’t read the full book, read the title, and the title is, What got you here won’t get you there. And it is exactly this thing that you’re describing, where you can have a team that’s been incredibly successful growing to a certain point, and then there’s a pivot point where for some people, it’s not their bag, or it’s not their experience to be part of the next phase, and for other people, it can be but they need to evolve their thinking. And for you as a leader, was this moment of thinking, this is my future, but I have to be different, or were you thinking maybe this isn’t my skillset?
Anthony Fletcher 24:56
I definitely didn’t think I was, I definitely felt I’d got it wrong, that this made a lot of sense. And I needed to give it a try. And that would involve a lot of change.
Gary Crotaz 25:08
And when you say you, you got it wrong, do you think you actually got it wrong? Or do you think that you just needed to learn something new for the next phase?
Anthony Fletcher 25:15
No, I definitely got it wrong. Because I’m doing another startup now. And there’s no way I’m trying to do it the same way as Graze, I’m trying to do what I’ve learned. And my big mistake was to have these very intense relationships with the different members of the management team. Some people I shielded from the reality and the truth or other people, you, you tried to guide them more quickly towards what was going on. And what I’d missed was the benefit of educating the entire team on all the context in an unvarnished way. Being aware that some people will not be able to take that and being relaxed about then having that conversation with them, you know, and then having put that effort into the context and have… being a team that wants to do it together and feels that they can go through it together, you start to sort it out.
And so what did your role feel like in the middle of all of those individual relationships?
I mean, it was very intense. I think it was intense for me and I think it was intense for them. And it also just isn’t very effective, because it means you have to have conversations multiple times. And while all day management team meetings or offsites were once anathema to me, what I did come to see pretty quickly was actually they’re a very efficient way in lots of ways of, for instance, getting to alignment, or giving people a context which means that they will react differently away from the management team, or understanding how to turn a challenge into a bit of an esprit de corps, you know, and can pull a team together, you know, when sometimes maybe they were pretty disconnected from each other or, or worse.
Gary Crotaz 27:00
So it sounds like a bit of a shift from sort of uber-operator to leader.
Anthony Fletcher 27:09
Correct, yeah. And, and taking the time to build the team.
Gary Crotaz 27:16
I remember in a business that I was in the leadership team of, we actually looked at diaries and said, How much of our time should we spend thinking big picture, and how much should we spend running, operating the business? And we thought, if you step back, it should be about 60% big picture, because we were the only people that were really focused on that part, and 40% operating the business. And then we looked at how we actually spent our time, and it was about 95%, operating and 5% thinking big picture. And that was a real wake-up moment actually, when we thought, Well, if we’re spending 5% of our time thinking big picture, and it’s nobody else’s job to do that, you can have these real wake-up moments when you think about the way you spend your time, the amount of time you spend holding the reins versus the amount of time you spend stepping back and letting go and allowing the team to lead. Did it feel like letting go for you?
Anthony Fletcher 28:14
It did. And I think, this is one of the challenges with delegation, it isn’t always the answer. It’s a judgement call, you know, what should you be involved in? What shouldn’t you be involved in? So I maintain to the end of my time at Graze, where I certainly delegated a lot more and put a lot more effort into the team, but you still need to jump into some fires, you know, the idea that you should delegate everything is bonkers. And there are meetings you should go to and there are consumers you should do and there are things which, you know, I always felt required you to get involved in.
Gary Crotaz 28:57
I talk with a lot of leaders who recognise that they need to delegate more and let go more. And then when they reflect on doing it, they realise that they’ve intended very hard but nothing has actually changed very much. So, what practically did you do to shift yourself from so much operating to more delegating or leading?
Anthony Fletcher 29:18
Yeah, I think there’s a whole host of things. I mean, I think one of the ones is when things aren’t working, how curious are you about solving the problem right in front of you versus solving the reason it’s not working, which is often in an organisation that size, something to do with the organisational design or talent or communication of objectives or, you know, these other things or even how clear you were in the first place. So yeah, I think there’s a whole host of things like, you know, that you have to shift your personal behaviours.
Gary Crotaz 29:53
So this idea of an Unlock Moment, this idea of a remarkable moment of clarity. I mean, you’ve talked about the two day offsite with the team and external facilitation, so do you remember a specific moment within that where, that you thought, This has got to change?
Anthony Fletcher 30:10
Yeah, so I was sat by this very successful CEO at dinner. And he obviously had worked out I had a problem, you know, he was, he’d been around long enough to go, Yeah, this is the bright tech CEO who has a strong views that, you know, he’s, you know, all that. And he just told me a really basic story about spiders in the middle of the web, you know, and everyone coming to the spider to communicate. And you know, why that works? And why that doesn’t work. And yeah, it was, he was, he had diagnosed the situation correctly. And he told this almost nursery rhyme about spiders and webs. And I was like, oh, yeah, I think that’s exactly what’s happening here!
Gary Crotaz 30:54
And what came to mind in your own experience when he said that?
Anthony Fletcher 30:58
He was absolutely right. You know, he’d been around enough. And he’d worked me out pretty quickly and worked out a way to give me the feedback.
Gary Crotaz 31:11
And did you feel like you’ve missed something? When somebody gives you that, did you feel like it was so obvious, you should have thought about it for yourself, or not?
Anthony Fletcher 31:20
No, I think it was a click. As in I was like, Oh, he’s right. But you know, then your mind goes on to the, So what. Or, How do I do this? I’ve got a problem. You know, I need to evolve. And maybe like your earlier question, what does that look like?
Gary Crotaz 31:37
And what changed for you after that moment?
Anthony Fletcher 31:41
I mean, I think, for instance, we spent a meeting just writing down on a piece of paper, how we wanted to behave as a team. And we all agreed on it, and it was things such as the alignment in the room. And some of them I think many people would would recognise, but we just spent the time to sit down and agree it. And then in every meeting, we’d pull out the piece of paper and just put it on the middle of the table as a reminder. I mean, it’s so simple. But it was just the sort of thing you never felt there was the time or the importance to do.
Gary Crotaz 32:19
It’s interesting at the moment, there are so many businesses, so many people, particularly coming out of the pandemic, who are so overwhelmed and also fatigued from the last two years. And there’s a lot of things that will probably help around stepping back, seeing the big picture, making some big choices about how they focus their time. But everyone feels like they’re just running so fast, they can’t possibly get off the hamster wheel. And so you had a moment there where you were still running really fast, and the business was not slowing down. But you found ways to change some behaviours.
Anthony Fletcher 32:54
Correct. And, you know, what I then felt was, over the years which followed, we did sort the business out and it was a fundamentally different team. And you got to experiment with lots of ways of doing that in a very different way.
Gary Crotaz 33:12
And what feedback did you get back from the team in working in this new way?
Anthony Fletcher 33:16
Yeah, I mean, the people who were there from The Unlock Moment onwards, there weren’t a lot. So I think, one of the things I’ve said is that quite a few people, when confronted with the role, or maybe as they were exposed to the nature of the challenge, just sort of freaked out and were like, Well, you know, I’d rather go and work in something which is growing at 100% a year, than something which has stopped and there’s all these question marks. I mean, they thought, you know, many of them when I’ve spoken to them years later, similarly it was a game-changing moment for them, and they thought we’d make great progress. I mean, the interesting thing is many, you know, I personally feel that that sort of sharing in an executive team I always found incredibly useful. You know, what I found with many new executives though, is that being confronted with the big choices or being confronted with the genuine jeopardy, even in a larger business, they found very hard to deal with, and how do they balance that, knowing that, with how they then interact with their team, for instance.
Gary Crotaz 34:22
So you had to bring, to pull together a new team, a lot of new faces around that table and create a new sense of alignment and camaraderie around that table, working together for the next phase of growth of the business. And what support did you have as a CEO to transition your leadership over that period of time?
Anthony Fletcher 34:43
I mean, I had a coach who I found very useful. This coach, again, had been a CEO of multiple businesses, which I think is helpful. We had a chairman who again had been a CEO of multiple businesses, didn’t want to be the CEO but I think, again, had seen a lot of analogous situations. And, you know, I felt had a lot of empathy for the situation. So these were the things I found very helpful.
Gary Crotaz 35:13
So you had a close team of people around you that you could have open and honest conversations with about challenges, and… Did they bring solutions or not necessarily solutions?
Anthony Fletcher 35:24
When it worked, you know, and, you know, I’m sure lots of people listening have seen it work and not work. When it worked it was fantastic, you know, a diversity of people, their different areas of expertise, working things out and kind of taking the business to the next level, and we did have a lot to work out, a lot of wins from that point to where we ended up. But also, it doesn’t always work and people disagree or people get emotional, the quality of strategic discussion isn’t always sparkling.
Gary Crotaz 35:56
Was that hard for you, when you’ve been there almost from the beginning?
Anthony Fletcher 35:59
Yes, and one of the criticisms which was levelled at me certainly in later years was maybe because I’d been there so long, you know, I’d write off certain ideas, you know, maybe back in the mists of time they’d been tried or, you know, had certain views which were still unhelpful. So, you know, I think, despite trying very hard, I’d still hear that.
Gary Crotaz 36:23
So you took the business, with the team, through to the sale to Unilever. And then you stayed on for a time after that. What was the point when you thought, This is time now for me to move on?
Anthony Fletcher 36:35
Yeah. I really enjoyed the Unilever transition. And, you know, we went from being a business that was managing its cash flow and not have a lot of money in the bank, and an awful lot of people who always seem to want it, to not even having to do a cashflow forecast – was quite a highlight! Yeah. And you know, here was a business that, if you could find them, was full of experts who could answer your questions. I think the problem was, I’d just done it for 11 years, and I just couldn’t get as enthused about some of the things that used to enthuse me.
Gary Crotaz 37:10
So it was time. You moved on from Graze at that time, and you thought, you know, I’m done, I’ve spent all these years in innocent and then in Graze, I’m going to retire to my, you know, comfortable home by the beach, and and spend the rest of my days in, in peaceful harmony. And I’m certainly not going to obviously start up another high growth food startup…..?!
Anthony Fletcher 37:35
You got to remember Gary, that, you know, neither of these businesses I actually started so you know, that that was always hanging over me!
Gary Crotaz 37:44
So actually, so you had a desire then to found your own?
Anthony Fletcher 37:48
Yes. And this is the advantage when you found a business is, you can choose exactly what you want to do. I chose exactly what I want to do. You know, of course, I was aware of the market and trends and these sorts of things. But I picked something I was very interested in. Which was, you know, I was originally a scientist, and I genuinely believe science has most of the answers. And I wanted to see whether science could do something radical around sugar and fat reduction.
Gary Crotaz 38:17
And so where did it start? Where did Believe in Science and Urban Legend start?
Anthony Fletcher 38:22
So it started with a meeting with the chief nutritionist of Public Health England. And she basically said, you know, the problem is all the junk food has too much sugar and fat in it. And it’s great that Graze has come along and become the market-leading snack, that, you know, with a healthy, natural, you know, all the rest of it, but it isn’t moving the needle at all, everyone’s just eating more and more sugar and fat every year. And I was like, Yes, that’s the problem. And you know, natural food is too expensive. And natural food is only eaten by a certain proportion of the population. And always will be, and you’re never going to make the sort of margins which you can make on some of the more processed products. So that got me thinking about this idea of the bigger impact is taking the junk out of the junk food. And junk food is not going away. And we’re all part of our society. So the question really became, well, scientifically, just how much junk can you take out of junk food? And yeah, that was sort of the origins of the business.
Gary Crotaz 39:20
And the drive, the mission for you was a science one, was a public health one, or was a commercial one?
Anthony Fletcher 39:28
I think it was, you know, it’s a bit of all of them. You know, I was in love with the science and intrigued about what was going on in alternative meats. And you know, the extent to which clever scientists could work this out. And I took some of the money I’d made from Graze and literally bet it on a load of scientists, much to the dismay of my wife, but I kind of really enjoyed it. But I also do genuinely believe this is the problem and I love the food industry. I find it endlessly interesting and I’ve always worked in it and I kind of think no one’s really figured out how it can change course in any country in the world. So it’s a nice, big problem. And I’m interested in it and I want to be part of it. I don’t know, it’s got to be a commercial success, it’s got to make sense, you know, as well.
Gary Crotaz 40:17
So how does one make a healthy doughnut?
Anthony Fletcher 40:19
How? Well I think the question is how much of the sugar, fat and calories can you take out of a doughnut? And the bottom line is, it’s got a lot of all of these things in and for very good reasons. It’s not just taste, it’s, they have over 20 functional roles in the product. And everyone said it was impossible, which is very common with anyone starting a business, that you couldn’t, maybe you could take 10% of the sugar out, or 20%, you’re never gonna get 70% out and never mind the fat and the sugar at the same time. But the fun was, I went to a load of scientists who didn’t work for the food industry, and was like, Okay, let’s talk about this as a polymer science problem. Let’s talk about this as a rheology problem, how would you solve it? And that was part of the fun.
Gary Crotaz 41:10
I love seeing your energy and enthusiasm, particularly when you said, People thought we couldn’t do it.
Anthony Fletcher 41:15
It is a character, I hate being told that something is impossible, if I think it isn’t. And I think a few times in my career I have done things which you know, the market bet against, or the average person? And I’d say, this is another example that I’m like, Well, unless someone can tell me exactly why it can’t be done then I don’t believe you, you know, and some of the people saying it could never be done, I wasn’t convinced had really thought about this enough or spent enough money or really committed to it fully.
Gary Crotaz 41:48
And how many iterations did you need to go through before you got to a product that you could actually give to a customer.
Anthony Fletcher 41:56
I mean, this is all very, it’s all very hackneyed, but hundreds and hundreds, and, you know, lots of tests, and, you know, started in the kitchen, and then it moved to the utility room, and then the shed and then the basement, you know, as in the machines multiplied, you know, endless cupboards were taken over, I managed to get some people to lend me a lab at one stage, which was helpful, because this wasn’t just a kitchen table exercise anymore.
Gary Crotaz 42:21
Was there ever a moment in that journey where you thought, you know, maybe it can’t be done?
Anthony Fletcher 42:27
Yeah, my wife went to me one evening, she was like, just out of interest. I think she was looking at our joint bank account, you know, kind of, she was like, how sure have you, you know, this can be done. And I was like, oh, maybe 50:50 at this stage? And she just kind of nodded, you know, hmmm, a higher number than that.
Gary Crotaz 42:49
Was that what you really thought?
Anthony Fletcher 42:51
Yeah, it was, I mean, it was so bad when I when I started and I think the the advantage of having had this conversation with Public Health England was I was determined it had to get to this completely unnatural place. Else I think you’d have ended up with another product which was slightly lower in sugar and fat than the things on the market, you have to have a reason to, to try and go so radically beyond what has mainly been achieved within that sector.
Gary Crotaz 43:19
And do you remember your Willy Wonka moment where you first tasted the product and you thought, This is it, or I know now that it can work?
Anthony Fletcher 43:27
Yeah, there was there was a breakthrough moment. And that’s sort of what’s in our patent, you know, there’s a hundred optimisations, and there was one thing where it was like, Oh, good golly, that works! And yeah, I gave it to my wife. And she was like, Oh, that’s better. I think she was like, Yeah, moving in the right direction!
Gary Crotaz 43:46
And how long had you been doing it for that time when you got that breakthrough?
Anthony Fletcher 43:49
I mean, it was probably a year. I guess, I mean, this was definitely one of those things where I’d quite happily sit up late at night, feverishly reading scientific articles or you know, trouble sitting in the kitchen trying to puzzle things out so it’d been going on for a while by that stage.
Gary Crotaz 44:12
And does it feel different holding a doughnut that you originated compared with holding a Graze box that you’ve worked on but somebody else founded or an Innocent smoothie bottle that somebody else has created?
Anthony Fletcher 44:25
A consistent problem I have is a deep dissatisfaction with every product I’ve ever put my name to. So I sit there looking at the doughnut and you know, the core team know this, and all I can see is what’s holding it back from being a better product. I’ve never had that rosy…
Gary Crotaz 44:44
Do you think it’ll ever come?
Anthony Fletcher 44:45
No, I think it’s an unhealthy trait which can be healthy and unhealthy depending on how it manifests itself.
Gary Crotaz 44:54
So where is the business today and what’s your vision for it?
Anthony Fletcher 44:57
So we’ve been selling the product since last summer, you know, we’ve opened some pop up stores. And what will become clear I think in the next year is we definitely created something scientifically remarkable and interesting to the industry. But have we made something which consumers are going to go crazy for? And I think we will find, you know, we will find out whether consumers do want a viscoelastic doughnut that is expanded by a beam of steam that is, you know, then cleverly disguised as a indulgent squidgy doughnut.
Gary Crotaz 45:36
But you’re close to … maybe the word ‘viscoelastic’ might not end up in your final tagline! Have you employed anybody that’s knocked on your door and asked for a job?
Anthony Fletcher 45:45
As part of this? If people want to knock on my door, I’m very happy to see them. But I have many problems…
Gary Crotaz 45:52
…that do need smart young people to serve them!
Anthony Fletcher 45:55
Yeah, the exact pitch I made, several people have knocked on my door, is I was happy to do anything, was the key thing, which is different to knocking on a door and asking for a certain exec role with an exec salary. And you know, is… one is definitely… says something different about the individual than the than the other.
Gary Crotaz 46:13
Amazing. So I always like to ask a question of real experts in a particular field. And, and one here is, you know, there are so many people who are going to be sitting at their kitchen table with an idea for some new food product or a healthy food product. And maybe they’ve been testing things and they’re munching on something they think is pretty tasty. What’s your advice to somebody like that as to something they can do to figure out whether this is a hobby, or whether they should actually progress it as a business idea?
Anthony Fletcher 46:43
Yeah, so I think the first thing is, you know, are you onto something? And it probably needs to be a really remarkable product to break through. And then you’ve got to have a remarkably good way of explaining it, which is, people often describe it as the brand or the branding, or, you know, these sorts of words. And I think trying to work out whether you’ve got these two things is a good place to start.
Gary Crotaz 47:10
And how do you do that?
Anthony Fletcher 47:13
You know, I think you show it to people who aren’t families and friends who give terribly biassed advice, and see if you get a remarkable reaction. And what I’ve seen at both Graze and Innocent, but also many of my peers, is when they give the product to consumers, they engender a strong response. And then really all you’re doing when you grow that business is trying to get as many people to have that strong response as possible. And you know, people will adopt your, adopt your product. But most of the time, food products only get a bit of a ‘meh’ response. Oh yeah, it’s all right. Yeah, it’s nice, it’s really nice, you know, might buy it. So I think you’ve got to see that shock, or that transformational moment, which is going to be memorable, which is going to have the word of mouth, which is going to drive the habit change. Because it’s very difficult without that, you’ve got to be a global CPG company to put an average product in the market and drive it through the system.
Gary Crotaz 48:08
A lot of people, they, they themselves have a wow factor for their product. So they, they’re passionate about their product. They give it to people that they don’t know. And those people go, you know, it’s okay, to which what you’re saying is, they should at that point realise that it’s not got the wow factor for people that are not family and friends. How do you let go of something that you’re passionate about but you realise is not going to get the market reaction?
Anthony Fletcher 48:32
Yeah, I think this is the dilemma. Because most people get the okay response. The difference I think is the people who listen to the feedback and are so driven that they then go and work out how to get okay to wow, and that normally involves driving over some obstacles, some pretty significant obstacles of, which manifest themselves. So that’s always the response if you’ve, if you’ve produced a winner the first time … wow, yeah, hats off. But you know, this is the problem, it’s never really clear until you go a bit further down the road and then a bit further down the road and all of that takes time and money and energy and you know, the odds are against you so you know, I don’t know, I keep on going until the business fails, has always been my approach but that comes with a cost.
Gary Crotaz 49:23
So for you when you think about you, in your best self in a few years time, would you like to be doing in your perfect life?
Anthony Fletcher 49:34
I mean, the reason I started this business is because I genuinely at the bottom of my heart don’t think sugar and fat is quite as necessary as everyone says, and starting with bakery and doughnuts, you know, I’ve learned to a certain extent that that is true. And nothing makes me happier at the moment continuing to learn around this area and where it could go, and maybe we will look back in 10 or 20 years and think we were mad as the human race for consuming so much of this stuff, which causes so many issues for us. So, you know, I think that’s the thing I am sure… you know, there’s so many uncertainties but what I’m sure of is I find this problem fascinating. And I deeply believe that, you know, science has the answer, whether Believe in Science will be the company who succeeds in doing it, I don’t know. But yeah, that’s, that’s certainly what propels me every day.
Gary Crotaz 50:27
Fantastic. Where can people find out more about what you’re doing and where can they get hold of your healthy doughnuts?
Anthony Fletcher 50:32
Yes, so we’ve got a shop in Clapham and we’ve got a shop in Brighton which we’d love to see you in and if you go to our website and you’re happy to buy a very large minimum order quantity to carry a taxi, you can get it anywhere in London. But you know, nod nod, wink wink, hopefully you’ll be able to see it in a lot more convenient and closer locations soon.
Gary Crotaz 50:50
Fantastic. Thank you so much. The Unlock Moment is that flash of remarkable clarity when you suddenly know the right path ahead. For healthy food entrepreneur and CEO Anthony Fletcher, it was recognising that he was holding on to all the reins and relationships and needed to let go, empower and align the individuals around the table, enabling the teams to deliver collectively at the highest level. It unlocked incredible performance and demonstrates how leadership is ultimately about mastering the art of letting go. Anthony is on a mission to remove the junk from junk food and I’m sure he’s onto a winner with the Urban Legend healthy doughnut. Anthony, thank you so much for joining me today on The Unlock Moment.
Anthony Fletcher 51:28
Thank you very much, Gary.