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Charlie Bigham, Handmade Meal Entrepreneur, On Surviving Two Recessions

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Charlie Bigham still tastes every dish his kitchens prepare, and regularly consults customers
Charlie Bigham still tastes every dish his kitchens prepare, and regularly consults customers

Charlie Bigham is the name behind the home-made convenience food you may have seen in some supermarkets. Here, he tells us why he left behind a career in management consultancy to tackle food and why he won't let expansion affect the quality of his food.

Tell us what you were doing before moving into the food sector

After leaving the financial sector in 1996 I acted as a consultant advising people on building art galleries, theatres and that sort of thing – it coincided with the birth of the National Lottery, so there were some people who needed help on deciding which projects were worth backing.

I soon realised I wanted to set up and grow my own business, my old job was quite theoretical and based on what might or might not happen in five years time – it was interesting but I wanted something a bit more practical.

So, with my sensible hat on, I thought food was probably a good sector to be in. There's lots of specialisms available and you’re able to build your brand and product from being under the radar and without worrying anyone initially.

Why did you pick ready meals as a target market?

I don't like to think of what we do as ready meals actually – I wanted to make great food without any od the crap in it which you can cook quickly. I love cooking from scratch, like a lot of people, but I'm busy, like a lot of people.

Food is a wonderful thing; you eat for pleasure more than because you have to in this country, and it's great to be around two or more people sharing and tasting together.

How did your food business start then?

On the kitchen table at home! We played around with a few recipes and found a few shops in London who agreed to stock it – I literally went and knocked on people's doors to talk to them.

These shops knew far more about food than I did, so when I wanted to expand I spoke to them and they suggested I talk to Waitrose about taking our food on. They liked it and from there I went to Harvey Nichols, Selfridges and London delis.

How did you fund the business in the early days?

For the first year we were able to fund it our of my savings. The first six months our revenue hit £60,000 (Ed - he's expecting to hit £50 million for 2012).

Now we have more than 200 staff in North Acton, two production kitchens – which are basically just scaled up versions of what you see in a big hotel kitchen.

The other thing that's changed is we don’t sell in the high end stores any more – we still sell in Waitrose, who’ve been fantastic since day one, and we’re also in Sainsbury's and Ocado – that changed because we became more endeared with the supermarkets, and the likes of Harvey Nick's don’t really want to stock what you can already get in the supermarket – that's just their thing.

Has the recession affected your business at all? You’ve gone through a few by now…

Yeah, we didn't really notice the first one at all but we’ve certainly noticed this one. In 2007, before Lehman Brothers collapsed, things already felt not quite right – there was this sudden change of mood in the country.

For our business, we'd been on this path of 'posh food', and suddenly there's a perception that no-one wants to buy posh food – so initially they took it off the shelves. That wasn't the reality though, people are still happy to pay more for food if they think they're getting value for money.

Having said that, we did get leaner which was a good thing for the business to do, and we've been fortunate enough to have been in growth every year by, on average, 20%.

What other hurdles have you faced?

Investing in building and equipment when it was time for us to expand – when you reach that crunch point, you know you're having a moment and you decide to stretch to the limit and buy somewhere bigger – that was hard. Each time we expanded it took 18 months, and I've done it three times so far. Cashflow and planning were also difficult.

The thing is though, once you start employing people all these wonderful challenges suddenly appear, and even the bad experiences turn out to be good in the end - you learn so much.

But when people go through tough times with you, you see how life really is – you get to know them personally and see the troubles they're going through in their personal lives… I've got a great team.

Did you ever have any perception problems though? You’ve already told me off for calling them ready meals…

I'm sure that there's a perception in terms of our customers – and hats off to them for supporting me even when I wasn't sure what I was doing.

But there's a perception around ready meals and any sort of convenience food that it has to be cheap, nasty, bad for you – everything we do is designed to not be like that.

We also have to deal with price perceptions – some people still consider £6 for a meal for two to be too expensive, even if they're prepared to spend £3 on coffee and a croissant in the morning.

What are you most proud of?

I'm proud that we've stuck to our principles – we started the business with a strong business sense of what our food should be, and we've had to fight to keep it that way, which was hard due to price pressures.

I'm also tremendously proud of the team of people I have around me – we set out at the beginning to be a good employer above all, and out of the 200 staff we have 150 have worked with us for at least two years, and between 50 and 60 people have been here for five years. Another 10 and 16 have been with us for 10 years. We can only continue to be good by having good people.

Do you have any advice for budding entrepreneurs?

Do it now – there's loads of people who 'um' and 'ah' over whether or not to pursue their business idea – my advice is to not procrastinate. You can start in business with very little money, even no money at all in some sectors, but procrastination is your biggest enemy.

What does the future hold for you and your business?

Our goal is to continue to make our food better – that's what I spend all of my time doing. I eat all of the food and speak to our customers and look into new ranges all of the time.

Our food is sold all over the UK now, but I don't see us exporting as all of our food has to be fresh and transporting it would mean it just wouldn't last. But there’s still fantastic potential to grow in the UK, we're still just a minnow.

Personally, I see myself still here at this company in five years' time, even 10 years maybe. It sounds boring, but it’s true.

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Filed by Charlie Thomas