== Jo Fairley is co-owner of Judges organic bakery and grocery shop in Hastings and co-founder of Green & Black’s chocolate firm, with hubby Craig Sams ==
In 1991, long before we took over Judges Bakery in Hastings Old Town, my husband Craig Sams and I started a little chocolate brand called Green & Black’s. I say ’little’ because it truly was: our first order from the French factory was for £20,000-worth of chocolate - funded from the sale of my Fulham flat, before I moved in with Craig.
And if you had told me on day one that, one day, our ’baby’ brand, which was by then turning over £25m a year, would be sold to Cadbury’s, a) I wouldn’t have believed you, and b) I probably would have been too paralysed with fear to put one foot in front of the other. Certainly too scared to think of a name, design the packaging and make the first tentative calls to the natural food trade, which we were pretty sure would respond positively to the world’s first organic chocolate...
Today, there’s so much talk about ’exit strategies’. In a recent edition of British Baker, entrepreneur Umer Ashraf, owner of the Glasgow-based iCafé chain of shops, argued that businesses need to have an exit strategy when they start. An entire document on exit strategies from Coutt’s (whom I don’t bank with) also thumped on to my desk recently, entitled The Long Goodbye. Certainly today, most entrepreneurs seeking bank finance will be asked what their ’exit strategy’ is - and it’s expected to be written into a business plan.
Of course, not all of us want to die with our boots (or our aprons) on, and many would like to retire at some point - in which case a plan for how to dispose of the business, or who is going to take over, is wise. But I would also argue that although it encourages long-term planning, an exit strategy could hamper creativity. And in turn, that might affect the long-term outcome for the business. In any case, right now, it’s a tricky time to focus on the business exit, when many routes seem to have been closed off: activity in the buy-out industry has virtually halted, merger and acquisition activity has slowed, and initial public offerings are all but non-existent.
When we started, little brands didn’t get gobbled up by big brands; this was before L’Oréal bought out The Body Shop, or Unilever swallowed Ben & Jerry’s, for example. So a deal like that was never on our radar. So we were free to be as inventive as we wanted. We had an eye on the bottom line, of course, but we never had a ’marketing budget’, for instance. If something felt right, we did it: ultimately, we printed a million recipe leaflets, and distributed them among Green & Black’s fans, celebrity chefs and cookery writers - and it paid huge dividends. We did what we did because we believed in it and felt we could change the world through business.
If we had thought about the ultimate sale of the business, I think we’d have had a different approach - less free, less inspired, more ’grey-suit’. Now, largely thanks to the sale of Green & Black’s, we have a thriving bakery in Hastings. Do I think about an exit strategy? No, because we love what we do. We’re still trying to change the world, one organic pink meringue pig or wholemeal sourdough at a time. And if you’re having fun, why on earth would you want to stop, just to stare at a sunset? Call me naïve, but I believe that if you follow your bliss, the exit will take care of itself.