Having stepped down in March from the helm of Ella’s Kitchen, after 12 years, founder Paul Lindley could easily “play golf for the rest of my life,” he admits. But there’s nothing he likes more than a challenge, and it’s a big one: the entrepreneur has signed up to tackle childhood obesity in London for the next two years as chair of the Mayor’s new taskforce.
Even for an entrepreneur who has made his fortune out of improving infant nutrition, it’s an onerous task: the aim is to halve childhood obesity in the UK’s capital by 2030. Speaking at the Calorie Reduction Summit last week, Lindley detailed how nearly 40% of 11-year-olds across the capital are overweight or obese. And despite the government running its 5 a day campaign for 15 years, only half of children in London are getting enough fruit & veg.
So why London? What makes him think he can be successful? And how much of his time will it take?
With London’s devolved powers, Lindley believes the capital is the best place to start our national battle against the bulge. “Only 12% of 15-year-olds in London take the NHS recommended daily activity, relative to 22% of the whole country, so they’re almost half as active,” he says. “If we get London right, we’re likely to get the rest of the country right.”
Can the government’s updated national Childhood Obesity Plan, with its suggested bans on sweet treats at checkouts, a watershed for junk food ads, and calories on restaurant menus, help?
He’s “slightly sceptical” because “it’s the same government which gave us chapter one [the Responsibility Deal], which was disappointing”. On the other hand, the government’s plan has come a long way since then but the way in which it is “dangling carrots and shaking sticks” to implement change still needs work.
“People should be free to make their own choices but with more information and consistency,” believes Lindley. “We should be able to trust food labels and portion sizes. Government can help with both regulation and consistency and can set the environment for us to be able to make individual, informed decisions.
“The plan has some needle-shifting policies, but the government should say that they will implement policies rather than they might. We need actions that will change the behaviour of both consumers and manufacturers, using carrots such as grants and subsidies or sticks such as regulations, tax and levies. And people need to believe the government will use them.”
“Government can help with both regulation and consistency and can set the environment for us to be able to make individual, informed decisions”
He cites as an example the sugar levy, which changed behaviour by demanding manufacturers reformulate their products, pushing up prices for consumers.
When Lindley was offered the position on the taskforce, an unpaid role that will take up half his time, he insisted on meeting mayor Sadiq Khan to “look him in the eye and understand that this task was important to him personally and that it’s part of a wider plan”. And it really is, according to Lindley, with the mayor also introducing a London Health Board and London Food Board, whose recent Draft Food Strategy includes the bold proposal to ban ‘junk food’ ads across the entire Transport for London network.
They’ll also need to address poverty in London. “The taskforce will reduce childhood obesity in London but it will also reduce the inequalities behind the healthiest and least healthy communities.” Note the use of ‘will’ not ‘might’.
For Lindley there are clear parallels between this new chapter in his career and his motives when founding Ella’s Kitchen in 2004. “I originally set up Ella’s Kitchen to improve children’s lives by developing healthier relationships with food. This new role is an extension of that, applying entrepreneurial thinking to the same problem but from a different angle.”
Name: Paul Lindley
Family: Married to Alison with two children, Ella and Paddy.
Potted CV: Accountant with KPMG before nine years at Nickelodeon becoming deputy MD, founded Ella’s Kitchen in 2004 and Paddy’s Bathroom in 2015.
Business ethos: Business is all about people and understanding people’s ‘why’. Why does an investor invest, why does an employee stay, why does a consumer buy?
Career peak: Not yet at the peak, I’m only 51.
Best piece of advice: As given to me by Sir Ken Morrison: keep your feet on the ground, be humble and thankful but keep your head in the clouds, dream, imagine and then do what others say is not possible.
How do you relax? Cycling or laughing with family and friends.
Favourite meal or cuisine: A Middle Eastern meze of chicken, seafood, fresh vegetables and salads.
To give it his full attention Lindley has now completely handed over the reins of Ella’s Kitchen to CEO Mark Cuddigan. He had continued to chair the firm after selling it five years ago to Hain Celestial for £70m.
“It’s emotional but it’s exactly the right time. I’m proud of the campaigns and products we’ve created, and also that we reached one billion ‘tiny tummy touchpoints’ [portions served] in March. Mark and the management team have a vision of how they are going to take the business forward over the next 10 years.
“Every business has to look at how it can minimise impact and maximise the good, instead of trying to achieve short-term profit. Ella’s has done this, and I’m sure it will continue to do so, but it shouldn’t shy away from its responsibility to the environment and people.”
For instance, on the plastics side, Ella’s has committed to make all packaging recyclable by 2024. “In industry, there is an urgency to use technology and develop styles and formats to reduce packaging. As an entrepreneur, I’m more minded to say we should try things and if we fail then we’ll learn and adapt.”
That same social ethos also ran through Lindley’s kids toiletries brand, Paddy’s Bathroom, which launched in 2015 with a mission to donate water to Rwanda for every product sold. However, it didn’t enjoy the same success as Ella’s, and folded earlier this year.
“I’ve learnt more from Paddy’s than perhaps I learnt from Ella’s. We started off as organic at Paddy’s, and ultimately the consumer wasn’t prepared to pay for that. We reformulated and refocused the branding in 2017 on natural and gentle. They understood the issues around natural and synthetic more than between natural and organic.” But it was too little too late.
Still, Lindley is proud of the social impact Paddy’s Bathroom had through its Drop Buy Drop programme. “There are 70,000 children in Africa that now have safe, clean water, which was at the heart of the Paddy’s brand. What perhaps I misjudged and have learnt from is that as well as being able to give sustainable development to children, you also need sustainable economics in your business and we never got to the point where the volume of sales could create that sustainability.”
Lindley still sees social enterprise as a great way to do business, though. “There’s some fantastic innovation and ways of looking at the social enterprise business model, especially in food and drink.” One of these is Toast Ale, a craft beer producer that uses surplus bread, and donates its profits to environmental charities. Lindley sits on the board.
Lindley’s main focus for now though is on the obesity taskforce, with its first formal meeting this month piecing together recommended actions and policies. “Maybe we don’t know the exact path we’re going to go down yet, but I fundamentally believe it’s better to set high aspirations. What I’ve been able to do taking this opportunity is to stand back from Ella’s, to close Paddy’s, and over these next two years to change the obesogenic environment in London.”