From humble beginnings to an operation with 500 staff, Graze is an amazing British business story. CEO Anthony Fletcher talks about the small decisions being made each day that help drive efficiencies and improvements.
This interview features on “It’s The Small Things”, a Be the Business podcast series providing the inspiration small and medium-sized companies (SMEs) need to take a step-by-step approach to business improvement. Hear Anthony’s interview, and others, by subscribing on your favoured podcast platform.
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Graze is known for an innovative product range. What gives you the confidence to try new things, especially when the business is going pretty well already?
I think complacency is a dangerous thing. The world of business moves very quickly and if you take your eye off the wheel even for a second, you can get in all sorts of difficulties. We almost embrace making mistakes – we see it as part of the process of change and improvement. The more important thing is how you do respond when things go wrong? You don’t want to punish people for making mistakes because then they’ll stop moving forward and so will the business.
It’s also a question of recruiting for resilience. If you make mistakes and the project you’ve worked on for six months goes down in a ball of flames, it can knock you quite hard emotionally. You need to make sure people can bounce back and get going again. Perhaps even stronger than before. Curiosity helps too. If you’re interested in entering new countries, new markets or areas of uncertainty, that gives you the drive to take the first step. Graze is about and healthy snacking and trying to fuel people in a positive way through their day. But we’re also curious about how food companies are run, how technology might be affecting that.
How much do you rely on data to help you decide what to do next?
It’s wonderful to be a data-led organisation but it can slow you down. You can get analysis paralysis, where people feel that they can’t make a decision without a piece of analysis being done. It comes down to judgement at the end of the day and good decision-making. You can get lost in data. Now we believe in: what is the least you can do to learn the most?
There might have been a time when our theory on data was, let’s go and explore and find things out. Now we’re more interested in which bits of data can help which processes. The more you can define that for people, the easier their lives are. We believe in the democratisation of data, where you make all the bits of data available to all people, so it helps them to do their jobs. You have to make it really easy too, so you explain that it’s this data point, it’s this graph, you look at this data and it’ll help you make a decision.
We believe in this idea: what is the least you can do to learn the most?
You recently went into the US market. What were the challenges of international expansion?
I’ve been involved in a number of international launches and most have struggled. It’s a difficult thing to do: what do the consumers really want, who are your competitors, how does the local retail landscape work, how do you raise brand awareness? Graze has an additional challenge: snacks don’t have a high average order value. We’re selling things for a couple of pounds which means the shipping cost is critical for us. When we launched in the US, this was especially true. America is a huge country and moving snacks around is expensive.
One of the particular challenges we had was getting the US mail service to work. Again, rather than launching and then trying to sort of this problem, we tried to sort it out first. We put tens of thousands of cardboard bunny rabbits into the mail in the US and tracked them as they moved around the country. The entire supply team were driving up and down the east coast in a hire car with sacks of bunny rabbits in the back! That helped us create a bespoke system on how we were going to put our snack boxes into the US postal service. Much better than doing an expensive study on the best way to ship a product around the US.
You’re able to take product from design to launch in 24 hours. How does this happen and what’s the power of being able to do something like that?
In the UK, it probably takes about two years to bring a food product to market and 50 per cent don’t last a year on the shelf. It’s not a good statistic. So to be successful with food innovation, it’s really important to get feedback from the consumer quickly. We have a prototype studio upstairs that can make – at speed – any product we can dream up. As soon as you’ve got a prototype, you can get feedback and take it from there.
It’s extraordinary the kind of feedback you get. We forward the most interesting customer emails around the business, even the negative ones. Sometimes it’s good to read about angry customers – it does give you a knock, but if the company’s going to move with the consumers, we need to be hearing these things. So for example, our consumers felt very strongly that we shouldn’t be using palm oil – and they let us know. So we then worked very hard to get RSPO (The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) accreditation.
Sometimes it’s good to read about angry customers – it does give you a knock, but if the company’s going to move with the consumers, we need to be hearing these things.
Another piece of feedback came from a mother complaining about how her child can’t open one of our pieces of packaging. When you look at it, it’s not as well designed as you’d hoped. What a wonderful insight! You wouldn’t have commissioned a piece of market research that would have picked that up. As your organisation gets bigger, the danger is you spend a lot of time looking inward and less time talking to consumers. We’re determined that won’t happen.
Have a look at some of our other podcast interviews:
How do you get employee buy-in to change in Graze? How do you encourage people to challenge or be challenged?
The manner in which you open discussions is really important – you need to ask permission to have the discussion first. People may have spent many years working on things that have in fact worked well. So you need to start by asking them if they are open to having a conversation about the business, whether they think it should change. When you ask that, most people find it hard to say no. Once you’ve got them to agree to that, you can talk about how the business should change. What doesn’t work is confronting someone with your views.
People need to be willing to challenge each other, even the experts, even the leaders. As long as people can justify their views, hopefully the meritocracy of reason prevails – whoever has the best argument will win the day. That’s the way we want things to work and that’s down to a culture of openness to challenge. It is a little bit Marmite – some people don’t like it. Some people have had a successful career and think that accrues to them a certain status. They don’t tend to enjoy working at Graze, whereas people who like to challenge themselves do and they enjoy it. They feel set free here.
I sit down with new starters and talk about how we’re an ambitious company and that’s going to put certain demands on you. It’s exciting but it’s also demanding. I talk a little bit about how you can deal with that. How you’re going to have to be resilient. But also how we look to foster an environment where we’re very helpful. We’re a team together, we don’t blame one person when someone’s pioneering ideas come to nothing. We try to learn from them and look forward.
As a CEO how are you cultivating your own network and what value do you think it brings?
I don’t believe in networking for the sake of networking, and it’s not a skill everyone has. But it is useful. I used to like working things out for myself but if you can be part of a great community and contribute to it, it can be a great way of fixing problems. For example, we had a class action lawsuit in America. I could have spent hours selecting law firms and taking advice, but I just emailed three CEOs who were British but had dealings in America, and within a couple of hours they’d all emailed me back and they’d all had similar lawsuits. They welcomed me to the club!
But you’ve got to be generous, you’ve got to help people in return. I used to hoard Graze’s learnings, but now I give them all away because they’re useful to other people and I hope that they’ll reciprocate. Some people do and some people don’t.
My approach is quite structured. I send emails to people I’d like to learn from, asking them if I can go and see them. Some people want to see you, some people don’t. As Graze has become more well-known, my hit rate has got higher. Then I’ll get on the train and go and meet them. I talk about what I think they might be interested in and I ask them about their company. Whether it’s expanding to America, use of data, marketing – that sort of thing.
Our mission at Be the Business mission is to help UK businesses become more productive. What can leaders do to help make their company that bit more competitive?
Leadership is very difficult. I don’t think any of us can believe we know it all. There’s always a lot you can learn. My advice is be generous, be vulnerable – I think another barrier to understanding is when people put on an overly confident front or over-spinning themselves. It’s certainly something I see a lot in America, especially if a company has a large valuation. They feel the need to project a certain image, but all of that is a barrier to understanding.