Portfolio private equity Chair John Stapleton brings a lifetime of knowledge and experience to his new role. He talks to Rachel Bridge at Drax about food, investments and communication
If you want to know how to run a successful food business, you could do a lot worse than ask John Stapleton. He co-founded the New Covent Garden Soup Company, which revolutionised the chilled aisles of supermarkets by making fresh soup from natural ingredients, and also Little Dish, which makes healthy food for toddlers. He also introduced the concept of fresh soup into the US.
Food was always going to be a logical area for him to go into. John grew up on a beef farm in the west of Ireland and so understood from an early age where real food came from. As a teenager he was a keen athlete, representing Ireland as a long and triple jumper, and became really interested in the link between diet and elite sporting performance.
He gained a degree in Industrial Microbiology and then decided to do a Masters degree in Food Science at Reading University, mainly so that no-one from the industry could ever pull the wool over his eyes. While he was there he was introduced to Andrew Palmer, an entrepreneur who had contacted the university in search of some advice on creating a food business.
It was an inspired partnership and together they founded New Covent Garden Soup Company, using fresh ingredients to create soup that they packaged in milk cartons rather than tins. People warned them that their idea would never work, and even that selling soup which was not sterilised and not in a can might kill someone. However the business went really well and by the time the two of them exited the business in 1997 it had a turnover of £20 million. Little Dish was also a big success and was sold in 2017 in a £17 million deal.
Both businesses were backed by private equity investors, something that John feels significantly contributed to their ultimate success.
John says: “I am a huge fan of private equity for the right people in the right context. Private equity isn’t right for everybody, but if you want to grow an FMCG business quickly you have to invest ahead of the curve to generate awareness for your brand, or you will miss out. Private equity enables you to accelerate your business growth beyond your ability to do it on your own. It has worked well for us.”
The secret to having a successful partnership with a private equity investor is to be totally upfront and open with them, he says. “Businesses change all the time as new opportunities come up, so you need to make sure you are taking your private equity partners on that journey with you. Private equity investors are giving you a bucket load of cash to go off and do something that is quite risky and they have to get a return on their investment so you have to recognise that and work with them.”
John stepped back from his executive role at Little Dish in 2014 when he turned 50. He now invests in and advises several early stage businesses in the UK food and drink sector and is an advisor to Bord Bia, the Irish Food Board. In 2018 he also took on his first private equity Chair role, as the Chair of Primal Pantry, a business backed by NVM which makes healthy snack bars.
He is clearly enjoying the unique challenge of being a PE chair, saying: “I am leveraging my 30 years of experience of building brands in the food and drink space, but there is another element, in that I am not just representing myself, I am representing the private equity shareholders and other shareholders too, so I have got a broader role to play than I have been used to up to now. That’s really exciting and stimulating.”
John says an important part of his role is to establish good lines of communication on all sides, adding: “At the end of the day it is all about managing people and their expectations or ambitions. It is about making sure that you are getting the best out of the team and that you have got alignment with all stakeholders and are delivering against their common objectives.”
Drax sector lead: Mark Sherman
Partner, Consumer and Leisure
Tel: 0203 949 9556