Ducks in a row

16 February, 2007
What does the future hold for Farmhouse Fare, following its purchase by Daniels Chilled Foods? Anne Bruce meets founder Helen Colley
Page 16 
nd fun. But unlike the thousands of other businesses, which make that claim, you actually believe her - around about the time that she gets onto the subject of ducks.
The head of the multi-award winning company may have been pretty busy last year, selling her company, expanding her factory and keeping up a hectic diary of networking engagements. But she still set aside time to organise a charity duck race, on the May Day Bank holiday in her rural Lancashire village, near Clitheroe, raising £9,500 for the upkeep of the local church.Around 40 companies and 200 villagers from near and far sponsored rubber ducks in all shapes and sizes in the race, which Colley dutifully labelled and catalogued. The ducks were then floated down the village stream on May Day drawing an audience of 3,000 people. And Farmhouse Fare's finance director Tim Bullough, put on his wading boots, and beat out any ducks which got stuck.Colley insists that everything Farmhouse Fare has achieved - including listings at the major supermarkets, an £8m turnover and a reputation for the highest-quality puddings, is down to a similar blend of quirkiness, hard work and common sense. She comments: "I get away with being different. When I first went to see supermarket buyers, I didn't know the jargon. A lot of people get caught up in jargon. I don't do PowerPoint presentations; I go and see them, explain what we do and what fantastic products we have and they taste them. I always prepare to make sure everything is immaculate. All the supermarket buyers work so hard, so to approach a supermarket with a dream will not work, you have got to do all the preparation before you go in."Colley's clever marketing strategy has also propelled the company to buyers' attentions over the last few years. She has put herself and the fledgling company up for any number of awards - and won. Last year these included the 2006 National Business Awards, the Institute of Directors' young director of the year and, back in the early days, the 2005 Bakery Supplier of the Year (sponsored by Sainsbury's) at the 2005 Baking Industry Awards, organised by British Baker.Colley says she sees herself as a "brand ambassador" for Farmhouse Fare. She comments: "Getting the brand out there helps, it makes you more recognisable. I am quite happy to be the brand ambassador for Farmhouse Fare - it's what I believe in. It's a very special company. When I talk about it is when I come alive. When I started the business, I used to network constantly and people would wonder why I spent so much time doing it. Now, I've come full circle and they say, 'My goodness, you're right'."Thanks to its creaking trophy cabinets, Farmhouse Fare's success story is often held up as an example of how to do business. It all started during the 2001 outbreak of foot and mouth disease, which hit Colley's existing outside catering business. So she decided to make a full-time business based on her super-luxury puddings.First, she approached Booths Supermarkets and gained a listing, with Sainsbury's, Morrisons, Asda, Selfridges and Tesco subsequently signing up.After initially operating from the barn at the farm where she grew up, she moved the business a couple of miles down the road to new premises which were gradually expanded from 8,000 sq ft to 20,000sq ft site."The factory grew out of a kitchen," says Colley. "When you understand what you are making you know the flow and where things need to go; it's common sense."The company's turnover is running at £8m and last year's pre-tax profit was £900,000. An extension to the production site, with offices and a test kitchen, was added late last year, boosting the premises to 33,000sq ft. But as the £1.8m extension was in the throes of completion, Farmhouse Fare was sold to Daniels Chilled Foods, the company behind the New Covent Garden Soup brand, for £10m.Colley explains: "Daniels approached me out of the blue. What they believe in, I also believe in and I realised that we needed support from a larger company to continue to grow. Daniels are brand builders; they understand the premium market, they have knowledge of the chilled market and they have dedicated NPD facilities. They can give me support. Everything about it is a plus point. To belong to a larger organisation is very beneficial."The company plans to double turnover in the next three years. But it will stay a lean operation. Colley says: "We don't have lots of management hierarchy. The board is me, finance director Tim and general manager Allison. It's great, we can make decisions quickly. For example, when I decided to do some organic products I said, 'Here's what I want to do'. It took just two months, to obtain organic certification." The own-label and branded sides of the business - the latter accounts for around 60% of sales at the moment - will both grow equally. The extended production site now has more than enough space to cope with the next five years' growth. Colley says: "We spent £1.8m getting this site to how we want it - just on the building. I put a lot of money behind it because I believed in it so much. We have spent the last four years of growing out of space and, this time, we have done it all."Expansion into the export market is also on the cards. Colley says: "We want to grow the brand. It has a heritage and provenance. If the opportunity came, we would go around the world - wherever the brand fits."So as Farmhouse Fare enters the next stage of its development, what would Colley's advice be for other bakers planning to start up a bakery business? "You must know the market, make a fantastic product, believe in it and be passionate about what you do," she says. "If possible, make your product niche and, if you are going to make it, make it the best out there. Plan ahead, talk to people and learn to listen to them. You also have to have good people around you. Plus, get your margins and costings right, because if you don't, you are never going to grow."This is a particularly important point for Colley, who is determined never to undersell her puddings. "You might be flattered by the interest that buyers have in you when you go out with a new product," she says, "but you can end up compromising yourself on a downward spiral. You can't survive like that; you need to concentrate on margins continuously."Colley says she enjoys giving fellow businesspeople the benefit of her experience at Farmhouse Fare. "I asked for a lot of help at the beginning and I found people are really helpful. I love meeting people, so I enjoy my work."But she admits that the growth of the business has had a massive impact on her personal life. Although married with three children, she still finds time to be president of the East Lancashire Chamber of Commerce and a director on the Northwest Fine Foods Board.To Colley, however, the sacrifices are worthwhile. "I don't think of it as a balance. All I do is my best, and it can be difficult. Friday night to Sunday night is time for family and friends, but during the week it's work. I try to get home at a reasonable time at night. My husband helps me at work and at home. He's been brilliant. It takes a bigger man than most to stand back and let your wife get on with it."On the business side, she says she has learned when to ask for help. "You can't be everything all of the time, you have to admit to that. I'm hopeless with computers, so I've got someone who's very good with them and the same is true of accounts. I know my weaknesses and I'll admit freely to them. If I need to know it, I'll learn it, but if it's something I don't need to know, I get others to do it.""I have been called a control freak in the past," she adds. "Now I let people do things themselves, That's the hardest thing I've had to learn." n



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