The Collective co-founder Amelia Harvey was brought up on business. An entrepreneurial father dabbled in everything from heating to security systems to supplying computers to Scottish schools, a young Amelia taken on daily deliveries across Glasgow and handed chocolate bars to appease her.
On school breaks she’d potter round his offices “in my little heels” thrilled at the idea of being exposed to the business. “I just had this innate desire to work,” she says. “I didn’t know when I would get my own business, but I just loved business.”
A self-styled “quasi-entrepreneur”, Harvey didn’t dive right in. First she climbed the ranks of blue chip behemoths Kellogg’s and L’Oréal before a segue into the startup sphere in 2006 with a sales director role at Gü Puds.
“Gü was tiny. It had £2m turnover when I started and grew to £35m so it was really fast growth, and with a really young team. I just loved the journey there and knew when it got sold that I wouldn’t want to take my career into a bigger corporate. I knew - and Mike (Hodgson, Gü MD) knew.”
Bolstered by a decade of experience in the fmcg space, Harvey felt ready to “start something from scratch”. And so it must have felt a little like fate when she and Hodgson, colleagues and friends from Gü, ran into the New Zealand creators of gourmet yoghurt brand The Collective. “I saw the passion fruit yoghurt with the black lids and the label and immediately I’d never seen a yoghurt like that. Then I tried it and Mike and I were blown away. We could totally see how it would disrupt the category. Walking down the aisles everything was quite similar, quite medicinal, there was no emotion - and I still don’t think there is, seven years on. It’s a massive category, highly penetrated with £2bn turnover and so people thought we were mad going into such a competitive market.”
They don’t now. Seven years on, the brand has £32m in retail sales, shifts 500,000 yoghurt pots per month and has 25 staff based out of an achingly cool White City co-working space, where millennials loll on beanbags or hold meetings on picnic benches by a communal TV screen. “What I like about this space is the collaboration between brands. There are two guys starting up a tech business just there, and there’s a fashion business here… it gives the team a buzz.
Name: Amelia Harvey
Family: Son Hudson, six
Potted CV: 18 months at Kellogg’s, four years at L’Oréal and four years at Gü before launching The Collective in the UK seven years ago
Career high: That’s really difficult. I don’t think like that, as a team we keep pushing on.
Steepest learning curve: We fail fast. We’ve launched NPD that hasn’t worked but when we see that and know we haven’t hit the spot we make the decision instantly.
Business ethos: Curiosity. You can learn so much from looking at other sectors.
Business idol: I’ve always respected Luke Johnson (chairman of Risk Capital Partners) who writes an amazing Sunday Times column.
What advice would you give to aspiring foodie entrepreneurs? If you’re pitching your ideas to retailers be in their shoes, think about what’s going on in their world, their challenges and how does your proposition meet those challenges.
“We’re not committed to this space, we can grow. We can hot desk, spill over into here, take an extra room if we need - it’s good for us as we don’t know how many people we’ll expand into. And for me from a leadership point of view I get to tap into other CEOs that I can talk to about things I might not talk to the team about.”
A fact that feels even more pertinent following Hodgson’s sudden death. The 57-year-old was cycling in the Lake District in 2015 when he suffered a cardiac arrest. “My focus was his family. His wife had always worked for us and he was such a big personality” says Harvey, of the weeks after his death.
“Mike and I worked so well together, we saw the world the same way, we both had a sales background. It’s a really hard graft getting a business off the ground and I’ll never forget the years we worked together to build the business.” Did it ever cross her mind not to continue? She pauses, then smiles. “I always had his voice in my ear, he’d have kicked my ass if I’d given up.”
Until last month, Hodgson’s wife Sarah continued to work in the customer care side of the business and the day we meet, his daughter Rosie has just started in marketing. “It’s amazing, I remember her when she was 12.” Then there is an “amazing team” that supported Harvey through his loss, many “still with us from those early days. We’ve got such a special culture because of that.”
Building the team and learning “how you motivate and lead them in a simplistic way” is now one of the areas Harvey focuses much of her time on, the businesses’ core values highlighted on brightly coloured signs on the office walls. Recruiting is now about far more than pay, she agrees. “People ask how we have this buzzy culture but if we shape what we want to stand for then all the rest comes.”
Part of that is carefully managing the brand’s growth from startup to SME to larger business - all while “maintaining those entrepreneurial challenger roots”.
“The area I’m really obsessed with is creating a business that doesn’t have process for process sake, that we can operate slickly without that bogging us down, allowing us to continue to grow. There’ s a guy on the team we’ve just termed ‘head of slick’ and he’s got my absolute backing - he can literally challenge the team on anything to say ‘why are we doing this?’”
Like what? “Well, you can quite easily get tied up in knots around an innovation pipeline. We need a process with measures in place on creating innovation but we don’t need them to be any longer than necessary. We don’t want to be sitting there with a great idea that’ll take six months to research - that’s what happens at bigger businesses, which are only comfortable making decisions that go through process and sign-off and there are so many people involved it takes so long.” The arrival of The Collective’s new kefir drinks range in April, for instance, took less than a year to bring to market (though it had already launched in New Zealand) and marked its first move into the health arena by tapping into the fermented foods trend.
“Kefir is obviously quite a medicinal, health product. However the way we’ve come at it is to create both a very high-potency cultured product but one that people want to enjoy as a drink, whether from a health perspective or not. I think there are very few brands able to deliver something quite medicinal but in an emotional way - you want to see that in your fridge,” she says, pointing to the sky blue Instagram-friendly design of its Coconut ‘n’ Honey variant.
The launch meant finding a new supplier, one of six the brand now works with, as part of an outsourcing model that “has its pros and cons” but crucially allows Harvey and her team to focus on innovation - “what drives our growth” - rather than “factory efficiencies and capital and the most efficient way of running our operations”.
There’s plenty of consolidation elsewhere anyhow. In May, a restructure saw the Australasian and UK arms of the business merge. “There’s thousands of miles between us so I’m not zipping back and forth, we might see each other every few months, but there’s lots of Skype and integrated innovation plans.”
And the potential for further exports? “I definitely see an opportunity within European markets but at the moment the UK is very, very important for us. Could we? Yes, and hopefully we will, but I’m not seeing a big rollout across Europe.
“We’ve got so many growth opportunities and innovation ideas both here and in Australasia already.” There’s even a hint from Harvey that she and the team would consider developing a non-dairy alternative.
There has rarely been a better time for foodie entrepreneurs in the UK, she believes - “quasi” or not. “Within the UK there’s a relatively low entry to market price. You can start a business if you’ve got a great product idea. There’s lots of support groups and networks. Kids leaving school now are really entrepreneurial in their thinking and they’d probably rather run their own business than go and be a banker.”
Including, it turns out, Harvey’s son Hudson, who at six years old is enjoying the same kind of exposure to business that set Harvey on her own career path. “He’s so exposed to me looking at sales every day, talking about turnover, pricing and product that he’s entrepreneurial in his thinking already.” Clearly, it runs in the family.
Join Amelia among Top New Talent alumni
When The Grocer’s Top New Talent awards launched in 2013 Amelia Harvey - then two years into her journey with The Collective - was among our inaugural list of winners. Joined by peers at the likes of Tesco, Eat 17 and Mars UK, Harvey was selected from hundreds of nominations for rising stars across the UK food and drink industry, be it thriving supermarket buyers, marketing aficionados or entrepreneurs, like Harvey herself.
“I can’t believe it was five years ago,” she laughs. “TNT is a really good way to meet people because there’s such a diverse background among the winners. I met the guys behind Eat 17 there (Chris O’Connor and James Brundle) and afterwards went to see them to talk about the product. It was a great networking opportunity across retail and supply.
“It’s an excellent initiative and when I read and see what some people have done with their careers it’s amazing.”
As well as Harvey the ‘class of 2013’ includes Harris Aslam, then a Nisa manager, who went on to become MD of thriving Scottish chain Eros Retail, winner of Independent Retail Chain of the Year at this year’s Grocer Gold awards, and Kieran Shanahan, appointed as Walmart’s VP of operations only a year after walking away with a TNT trophy.
Think you could follow in the footsteps of these illustrious alumni? Then fill in the simple entry form here. Entry is free and open to anyone working in the grocery space, aged 35 and under at the time of entry. All winners will be invited to a special awards ceremony held in London on 12 November.