Tom Allchurch is CE0 at premium food brand Charlie Bigham’s. He talks to us about doing the right thing for your consumers every day, and what to do about troublesome cod.
This piece was first published December 2015
Why did you join Bigham’s? What appealed to you about the business?
The commitment of everyone to producing the highest quality food, and, of course, meeting Charlie (Bigham, founder) and getting to know his values.
What have been the challenges and changes to the business since you’ve been there? Can you articulate the kind of culture you’re creating?
All we have to do is continuously improve our quality and become truly Lean. In terms of the culture we are building I think it’s a mixture of passion for food and a passion for performance: every day we must get a little better.
What do you miss about your previous “corporate” life – Amazon, Unilever and so on? And what do you miss about launching and running your own start up?
Nothing! Amazon wasn’t corporate, but amazingly entrepreneurial, I joined when it had £40m turnover in the UK (less than Bigham’s now). Working with Charlie is the same as running my own business: We have a bunch of passionate people building, with a strong sense of ownership, something that they believe in and can be proud of.
Are there things you learned in those early “big business” years that you brought with you to your start up, and now to Bigham’s?
Unilever and Amazon are great businesses and I was fortunate to work for them, but they were babies too once. They had to learn, grow, improve, and work really hard to become as good as they became. I think the advantage of having worked there is that you understand the destination, you understand the level you are trying to get to, and you know that it is possible, and that you can do it.
Who has mentored you, or inspired you in your working life?
Inspired me? Jeff Bezos the founder of Amazon is the most intelligent person I ever worked with. Incredibly entrepreneurial and with extraordinary vision. Mentored me? Allan Leighton, the former CEO of Asda, who has been our non executive director. Allan has the ability to create maximum effect from minimum time spent on anything, and is fantastically impactful.
What personal and professional values are fundamental to the way you work/do business? How do you go about instilling those in your team?
Always do the right thing for consumers and for the people you work with. You instil it by living it every day…
What do you look for when you’re recruiting at Bigham’s?
Ability, and intensity of passion for what we are doing, for delicious food and for getting better every day. Unless you’re passionate you’re not going to come up the improvements that we need. Unless you really care and you’re really determined then you’re not going to figure out a way of making the food better or how to create an amazing new product or service.
It’s inconceivable that you can create a really entrepreneurial company without passion. By and large people are joining us from less entrepreneurial environments. You have to cope with the “mess” of entrepreneurialism – with that speed of change and the need to grow and make things better at the same time – and you’re just not going to cope with it unless you’re passionate.
What are the biggest challenges facing your sector of the food industry right now? What are you doing at Bigham’s to equip the team and business to deal with and overcome these – and to continue growing and innovating?
Challenges for businesses are always the same: Improve the quality of what you do, and do it more Leanly. We must teach and coach our people every day in how to improve quality and achieve Lean. In order to grow we need to keep understanding consumers and create the things that they want and that solve their problems better and faster than anyone else.
The way to do that is to talk to your consumers and see them in their lives, using your products and trying to understand what works really well and what doesn’t work as well as it should. Often it’s obvious what the problems are, then it’s a case of discovering if there is there a way of solving them.
Our single biggest food challenge is getting the cod in our fish pie just right. Our cod is really luscious, which is how the consumer likes it – but it can break down very easily.
So the point is, how do you make the cod luscious and not break down – as you would do if you were making it at home? And that’s largely about handling it very carefully.
On everyone’s first day at Bigham’s they have to make a fish pie in the development kitchen, then they have to try to make it exactly the same in the production kitchen. Then we say to them, they need to aim to make the same pie in both. We want people to realise that the aim is to minimise the difference between them. Basically, we want to produce food that is as good as your own home cooking when you’re on top form.
Can you describe a difficult time in your career and what you learned from it?
At the end of my time in Unilever I was itching to do something more entrepreneurial and struggled trying to make that happen in Unilever, frightened to leave. In the end I made a list of companies I really wanted to join and cold called all of them asking for a job. Amazon was top of the list, and after 17 interviews I was in. What I learned was that if you’re not happy, take your life in your own hands, and go find what you really want to do.
And what have been the most rewarding periods in your career?
I worked in South Africa as Unilever’s marketing director, after the end of apartheid and the first democratic elections. We had a wonderful young inexperienced team, we did a great job, and over 70 per cent of the graduate trainees we recruited were black or Asian, helping to start the multiracial transformation of the company
If you were to do something totally different, away from food, away from FMCG, what would it be?
Something in education or health. Education is crying out for the revolution in quality, cost and personalisation that information technology can bring (we need an Amazon of education!). And health and obesity/weight management is arguably the single biggest problem that our country faces – this is bound to become a major focus and contributions to the solution will come from lots of places: education, media, wearable tech, and the food industry.
Charlie Bigham’s creates freshly prepared complete dishes that are sold through retailers including Ocado, Booths, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s. The business was founded in 1996 by Charlie Bigham.