Twenty years ago James Lambert was selling cattle semen. Today he is selling ice cream lots of it. But cattle breeding Lambert's first business venture and fmcg sales are not so different, says the boss of the largest ice cream maker in the country by volume. "At the end of the day you are just selling something. The important thing is to put your life and soul into it.
"Society owes you nothing," he says. "If you want to get somewhere in the world, have a go." Although he admits to having a "privileged upbringing", Lambert is straight from the Norman Tebbit, on-yer-bike school of thought when it comes to making a living.
The trading environment is tough, he says. "But that's what drives innovation and better performance". The growing power of the multiple supermarkets, which are his biggest customers, does not have the top brass at Richmond Foods wailing and gnashing their teeth, he adds. "We have been huge beneficiaries of the supermarkets' growth."
Likewise, the prospect of Safeway being consumed by the the likes of Tesco or Asda does not unduly alarm Lambert, who does good business with all of the potential acquirers. Further industry rationalisation, whether retail or manufacturing, is not the end of the world, he says. "It's capitalism."
Lambert attributes Richmond's phenomenal growth to the can do' culture at the company, and an "abundance of energy". Back in 1987, Richmond had five employees and was turning over £250,000. Last year it chalked up more than £116m, overtaking rival Unilever by volume in the UK, and is well on course to overtake it by value too, if Lambert gets his way.
"Our aim is the same as anyone's in business to be number one [by value]. I have no doubt we can achieve this within two or three years."
The biggest own label ice cream supplier to the multiples, and now a key player in the branded market after scooping up Nestlé's UK ice cream business in 2001, Richmond operates from four sites in Yorkshire, Leeds, Cornwall, and Plymouth employing more than 800 staff.
Growth has come through a series of well-timed acquisitions. The spending spree began with Leeds-based lolly maker Treats in 1998, AB Foods' ice cream division in 2000, Nestlé's UK ice cream business in 2001, and finally Dairygold Co-op's Ice Creamery dispensing business early last year.
You can be lunch, or eat lunch, says Lambert. "When you are a public company, you are always in play, so we had a strong strategy to take out our competitors by putting them out of business or buying them."
The focus in the next two to three years is further leveraging the Nestlé brand and driving organic growth, although further acquisitions have not been ruled out, says Lambert. "Things change all the time, we have to cope with that. One good thing about Richmond is that we are a first generation business, and most can remember how much smaller we used to be, and how much we have achieved. Everyone has a stake in that. This business is full of heroes."
Although the total ice cream market is flat, Richmond has strong positions in the bits that are growing: luxury ice cream and individual portion ice cream to take home. And while rivals Wall's, Mars and Cadbury (Fredericks) have all lost market share in the take home category year-on-year, Richmond's share has leapt from 23.3% in the first quarter of 2002 to 25.6% in the first quarter of 2003 [TNS Superpanel].
Brits will eat more
Premium tubs and individual ice creams in multi-packs, such as Milkybar lollies and Rolo ice creams, are where the money is, says Lambert, and Richmond is pumping all available resources into driving these, while maintaining market leadership in bulk ice cream and lollies.
The supermarkets do pile on the pressure but ice cream has great potential if you can excite shoppers with new flavours and formulations and get your products into more outlets, he continues. Across the pond, the Americans guzzle a whopping 22 litres of ice cream per person, per year. The Brits eat seven litres, so they can still be persuaded to eat more.
In the meantime, suppliers can whinge on about their crumbling margins at the hands of the big four, or get on with it. "As a consumer, I want to pay less for better quality every year," says Lambert. "The supermarkets are a great mechanism for change. They are forcing us all to drive innovation and lower our costs to operate."
He is particularly excited about new technology the company is developing to extend the shelf life of cones by at least 50% by providing a seal of chocolate between the ice cream and the cone the bit which tends to get soggy after a few months. "No supermarket wants a frozen food item with a shelf life of less than six months," he explains.
A four-pack of cones could sit in a manufacturer's warehouse for a couple of months, then in the retailer's warehouse for even longer, before it actually hits the store, where it might languish for another few weeks before a customer buys its, says Lambert.
After that, the product could gather dust in the customer's freezer for weeks so anything that improves shelf life is potential dynamite.
The new Ice Creamery dispensing machines also have a fantastic long-term potential, says Lambert. Making an ice cream is a bit like pulling a pint. "I can see these really taking off in the home in a few years. Kids would love it and they could add their own toppings, as in an ice cream shop," Lambert says.
Lambert's own children are not being groomed to take over his ice cream empire, however. "I don't believe in all that passing it on through the family stuff," he says. "They can do anything they want to in life. The important thing is to have fun. Enjoy what you do, or what's the point?"
James Lambert, chief executive Richmond Foods plc
Typical working day: In the office by 7.30am - but likes to be away by 5.30 or 5.45pm
Favourite Film: One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest
Favourite Book: Captain Corelli's Mandolin
Favourite Music: For Crying out Loud, by Meatloaf
Most admired: Anyone that has a go in the world
Hobbies: Tennis, golf, gardening and country sports
Holiday: Any island in the West Indies