The Nichols CEO has overseen booming sales for the Vimto brand, keeping it ahead of sugar reduction legislation, while also pioneering work on gender equality. It’s little wonder she’s received an OBE
The day the envelope arrived through the door, Marnie Millard was away on business. And when her husband called to tell her about it, the CEO of soft drinks giant Nichols assumed it was a penalty notice for driving in a bus lane. “I keep going through the bus lane somehow as I leave the Hilton in Cardiff, so I thought I had another fine,” remembers Millard.
Luckily it was a far more welcome surprise than that. In fact it was letter from the prime minister on behalf of the Queen. “It asked whether I would accept an OBE for services to business in the north west and international trade,” she beams. “I was speechless, which is quite unusual for me. It’s phenomenal for a girl brought up in Peterborough who didn’t go to university.”
Name: Marnie Millard
Family: A son, Alex, and a daughter, Katie, plus two grandchildren.
Potted CV: Worked at Macaw for 11 years, becoming sales & marketing director. Set up a development consultancy, then ran a Refresco factory for five years before joining Nichols.
Career highlight: Sitting down with three ladies in the Dammam factory feeling so proud we are at the forefront of a massive change in the region.
Steepest learning curve: The factory. I brought in a commercial director and became the ops director. I really had to learn everything.
What is your business ethos? It is critical to connect and communicate with honesty and transparency to build long-term, sustainable relationships.
Best advice you’ve been given? Say yes more than you say no as you never know where it will lead you. Also, give back to the community. I am very proud of Vimto’s relationship with Warrington Youth Club, Salford Academy, and the work I do for Manchester Metropolitan University.
What would be your death row meal? My husband’s pasta bake. It’s still the kids’ favourite.
The OBE might have been unexpected for Millard, but the honour is undoubtedly well deserved. The charismatic businesswoman has been in the soft drinks industry for 23 years, having taken on myriad roles, including the first-ever sales executive for Macaw Soft Drinks, and commercial director at juice manufacturer Refresco.
Millard was then headhunted by Nichols in 2012 to become managing director of its flagship brand Vimto, and after only eight months was formally appointed CEO of the entire group. It’s easy to see why. Her passion for the Merseyside-based company is almost overwhelming, as is her pride that Vimto is celebrating its 110th anniversary in what has been a stellar year for the brand. Sales are at their highest level ever for the soft drink this year, growing 12.5%, according to Nielsen, to £85.5m, an achievement partly attributed to the brand’s quirky but highly popular ‘I See Vimto in You’ marketing campaign launched during this summer’s Love Island.
“We’re 110 years old but one of the fastest-growing brands in the UK. We’re outperforming the market twice over, and that’s across all three categories - ready-to-drink, fizzy and squash.”
While its largest volume area is still fizzy drinks, Millard says the brand’s fastest-growing area is its core squash. “When I became CEO five years ago, we saw consumer tastes were changing. We decided if we were going to be fit for the future then a clear part of our development had to be the promotion of no sugar. Our squash sales are now 50/50 between the no sugar and the original variants.”
No sugar a ‘driving force’
This forward thinking put Vimto ahead of the curve for the sugar levy that came into force in April. The tax applies to soft drinks containing more than 5g of added sugar per 100ml. “We were already below the sugar levy before it was announced. All of our new product developments have been around no added sugar, as has our advertising for the past six or so years. Sales of our no added sugar range are up 25% this year, so it’s really a driving force within the Vimto portfolio.”
Millard says the big focus next year will be on the brand’s flavoured water, Vim20, which launched nearly two years ago. The push will hopefully drive further sales in the south east, which Millard says is the “most challenging area”, particularly compared with the north west where Nichols is based - which is 23% of its market share.
“There’s so much choice available in the south east, it’s highly competitive in that densely populated area. But I think Vim20 takes us into a sector of the soft drinks fixture that will introduce the taste of Vimto to new people looking for healthy hydration.”
Converting people from Vimto-flavoured products to the deep purple drink itself is also the strategy behind the vast variety of licensed products it produces, from bonbons and candy floss to ice lollies and lip balm. It even partnered with Krispy Kreme this year to create two limited edition doughnuts for Halloween.
“We’re 110 years old but one of the fastest-growing brands in the UK. We’re outperforming the market twice over”
“We’re really careful in choosing the right partner to license the brand,” says Millard. “When I say it’s a gift, I don’t mean to be arrogant, but we want people who really care about the Vimto brand. It must deliver on taste because it might be the introduction for a new customer. There is no doubt that the power of the brand and the taste delivery work really well in different applications.”
While the brand is evolving, Millard says the 26 base flavours remain the same as when the Vimto taste was founded in 1908. The ‘secret recipe’ is known by only four people, and Millard isn’t one of them, “so nobody can kidnap me”, she laughs.
This base formulation remains unchanged for the brand’s international markets as well, which makes up 20% of Nichols revenue. That includes Saudi Arabia, where Vimto has become the “drink of Ramadan” with around 35 million cordials sold this year alone. Millard flew back from the Middle East to receive her OBE last month. “I had just returned the week before from visiting the Aujan Coca-Cola Beverages Company, who we’ve been partners with for 92 years,” says Millard. “The factory where the cordial is produced in Dammam had just employed 60 women, which is absolutely phenomenal in terms of the cultural change that’s taking place in the region.”
Female leadership frustration
The gender gap, both at home and abroad, has been a source of frustration for Millard throughout her career. “I’ve been in the industry 23 years now and the lack of female leaders is still disappointing. It’s noticeable at senior events. When Booker acquired Makro [in 2012], I was invited by Charles Wilson to attend a dinner of the top 100 suppliers who had worked with his team to make the integration a success. I said to our CFO Tim Croston beforehand, ‘I bet I’ll be on the top table’. He asked if that’s because we were an important supplier. I said, ‘No, it’s because I’ll be one of the few ladies’. I was right. There were probably about 200 people there and only 20 were women - a really poor representation.”
Since becoming CEO at Nichols - which also produces drinks for brands Feel Good Drinks, Levi Roots and Sunkist - Millard has worked hard to address any imbalances at the company. “You’ve got to start with middle management,” she says. “If you haven’t got gender balance in your talent pool at that point then you have a big challenge in taking female talent through the ranks. I take time with female leaders. Mentoring is really important and I encourage them to network. We have six men and five women on the leadership team now, and one male and one female independent non-executive director on the board.”
Being unafraid to speak out and lead from the front on gender in this way is little surprise. It’s an attitude that has spanned Millard’s two decades in the soft drinks industry. And one of the many reasons that envelope landed on her doormat.