The fussy toddler who inspired a business

Paul Lindley, 46, set up the baby and toddler food brand Ella’s Kitchen in 2006 after two years’ research. It was the first to offer its foods in flexible plastic pouches instead of glass jars.

Today, Lindley’s products are sold in 12 countries around the world, and the company has a £55m turnover.

Born in Sheffield, Lindley grew up in Zambia. After graduating in economics and politics from the University of Bristol he trained and qualified as a chartered accountant at KPMG in London and Los Angeles. Nine years followed at children’s television channel Nickelodeon, which he had joined as financial controller.

He lives in Reading, Berkshire, with his wife Alison, a non-executive director of the company, and their two children: Ella, 13, and Paddy, 10.

Did you think you would get to where you are?

Yes is the honest answer. My idea was to create a sustainable business that would change society. I thought very big from the very beginning. Our first customer was not a corner shop or delicatessen, but Sainsbury’s. We now supply all the major grocery retailers in the UK and have an 18 per cent share of the UK baby-food market.

I gave up my job in 2004 and spent £20,000 of my savings developing the product and the brand over two years. When we got our listing with Sainsbury’s my wife and I re-mortgaged our house and put £200,000 into the business. We did not go to a potential investor who wanted 15 per cent of the company for what I saw as little added value. I came close to agreement with them, but I am glad that I did not.

When you realised that you had made your first million were you tempted to slow down?

The first million pounds turnover came at the end of our first year. I had to carry on because the goal was never to earn a certain amount of money, but to change children’s relationship with food. It is to serve children with one billion portions of Ella’s Kitchen food – that’s one billion tiny tummy touch points, and we think we’ll achieve this in 2017. The first million pounds of profit came after four years.

What is the secret of your success?

I think it comes down to five core values. We are child-like, we think differently, we are good to each other, we want to win and we are business-minded. We have built a team who are passionate about what they do and have a sense of those values day-to-day.

Do you want to carry on till you drop?

I don’t see myself doing the same job for the rest of my life. My family, my health and my social campaigning are really important to me besides work.

What is your basic business philosophy?

Always, always put the consumer first – because without the consumer you have no business – and keep things simple. My basic philosophy in business is to think like a toddler. We can learn so much from them.

For instance, none of us knows how to walk at first. We have to fall over many times before we can take our first steps. In business you’ve got to be tenacious, take the knocks and keep going. Toddlers are very creative, which is another aspect to business. Once they have learned to walk they work out strategies to get what they want, from a smile to a tantrum. They are honest, too, and there should be more openness in business. They question the status quo, which we should all do.

Has it paid to change careers?

It has in terms of enjoyment and fulfilment, a sense of purpose and the impact on my life. My company on paper is worth far more than I could have earned at Nickelodeon, but I have chosen to take about the same salary as before and use the profits to grow the business.

How does a new venture get through the recession?

By offering the consumer something that they want at a price they will pay, in the format they want, and in the place where they want to buy. You work out how you can provide that by understanding and listening to the consumer.

The meals are healthier and more convenient than what used to be on offer, because we use the pouch format. The pouch is more convenient for parents, you don’t need a bowl, and from the child’s point of view they can feed themselves once they have reached a certain age and “own” their food.

When my daughter Ella was a toddler we struggled to get her to eat a wide variety of food. My solution was to use fun, mess and games to de-stress the situation. I absolutely believe that if you can engage all of a child’s senses they will be more willing to try new foods, and that is what other people did not do before us.

Have you made any pension provision?

I do have a number of pension schemes. I think you should save for the future but not exclusively. Don’t ignore today or forget to enjoy the moment, because you don’t know what is around the corner.

Do you allow yourself the odd indulgence?

I love spending my money on experiences. As a family we have done adventure trips to Nepal and Zambia, and are about to visit Costa Rica. My personal indulgences are a Panerai watch, invented for Italian divers during the second world war, and some works of art that cost more than I imagined I’d pay.

What is your involvement with charity?

A percentage of our profits go to the Ella’s Kitchen Foundation. We have built a pre-school at the Kasisi Orphanage in Zambia. I took my family there in 2011 and we worked in the orphanage for a week.

Our local initiative is Ella’s Explorers. We take three- to six-year olds from the less affluent areas of Reading and Slough to farms in Berkshire so they can understand where their food comes from, under our creative and “sensorial” programme.

Outside of work I am the ambassador for The Family and Parenting Institute, established to create a more family-friendly Britain.

Have you taken steps to pass on your wealth?

Most of my wealth is tied up with my business, and we have up-to-date wills, but I don’t believe in leaving absolutely everything to children. They should have the freedom to live their own lives, make their own mistakes and forge their own careers.

What is the most you have ever paid for a bottle of fine wine or champagne?

In my Nickelodeon days I had a meal with the Paramount Pictures movie moguls in Los Angeles and there were $300 bottles of wine on the table. But, to be honest, I could not tell the difference between one of those and a £30 bottle.

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