Once the former TNT winner dreamed of becoming a banker. Now he sells some of the most futuristic ‘food’ on the market. How did Huel CEO James McMaster make the leap?
As a child, James McMaster wanted to be a banker. His dad worked in the City and James would grab his copy of the Evening Standard each day and flick straight to the business pages. “I thought it all sounded very glamorous.” A less than enthralling internship at university put paid to a career on the trading floor, but upon graduation McMaster did find himself fully ensconced in the corporate world jst as he’d hoped, as a management consultant at LEK. Parts of the job were “awesome” and other areas (finance and transport) “drier” - but then came a project working on a consumer product business looking to acquire a challenger brand and “it was like a lightbulb going off”.
He quickly realised that “tweaking little things and trying to grow a mature brand is not that exciting for me but taking something small and making it something people want to talk about and be a part of, that’s fun”. And so “there might have been some fate” involved when he found himself grabbing a beer with Gü founder James Averdieck in 2007, looking for advice on creating his own challenger brand. “I wasn’t even looking for a job,” says McMaster. “I just thought his story was interesting.” Nevertheless, when Averdieck called and asked him to join the brand he said yes.
Family: Wife, Polly. Daughter, Lainey (two). Son, Finn (three months)
Potted CV: Strategy Consultant at LEK, three years at Gü, five years at Ella’s Kitchen, two years at Up&Go and then Huel
Career high: Having the trust of founders to help run their businesses at a young age
Steepest learning curve: Moving from sales & marketing to operations at Gü. I was in at the deep end and kicking my legs hard.
Business ethos: I love people to have as much responsibility and creativity as they can handle. At Huel, we think big and just get on and do stuff.
Best piece of advice: I think leaders should be approachable, listen and a wrong decision is better than no decision at all.
Business idol: Jim Averdieck (Gü), Paul Lindley (Ella’s Kitchen), Julian Hearn (Huel) and my wife Polly (The Fold) have influenced me the most.
Hobbies: I’m very good at making baby milk and tidying up toys at the moment.
And finally, what was it like to win TNT in 2013? I was always a big fan of the concept and thought there was super-impressive people who had less experience but lots of potential. It always felt like it would be so motivating for others to be inspired by those people so I was so pleased The Grocer did it and I was chuffed to be part of the first list.
“Most people at LEK would leave to go into private equity or banking or work on strategy for a large corporate. They thought I was really odd moving into a little startup with 10 people and £5m turnover.” Did it feel risky? “For me it didn’t. It felt natural, I felt excited by it and I’ve always loved brands and that’s the way my mind works.”
It was the perfect time to join, he believes. “There was a small number of people, which meant we did a lot of things, we weren’t so functionally rigid. I started doing mainly sales and marketing, launching products in France and Belgium. Then a year later James asked me if I minded running operations for a bit because someone was leaving. I had no idea what I was doing but just worked hard and got into it. Then suddenly I was running technical and customer care and all these new things I had never done before.”
It was a baptism of fire that propelled many of the early Gü team into enviable careers in fmcg, its alumni including former Metcalfe’s Skinny MD Matt Rees, The Collective founders Amelia Harvey and Mike Hodgson, and Meghan Farren, now chief marketing officer at KFC. “These people were intrigued by this brand, and it pulled us in. It was just so innovative, there was nobody doing a premium dessert brand in supermarkets.”
In a little over three years it also cemented McMaster’s passion for building challenger brands, a role that couldn’t be much further from the rigidity and pinstripe suits of the banking world. “It has come up a few times as a thought process of ‘should I go somewhere and work in a large corporate?’. But it’s never felt right. I got my training in challenger brands so in a way that’s all I know. For me it comes naturally now.”
And so he left Gü in 2010 to join Ella’s Kitchen only four years after launch, where he was promoted to co-MD three years later, followed by a spell as CEO at Life Health Foods UK, launching Australian brand Up&Go into the UK market. Then a year ago he was appointed CEO at ‘complete food’ brand Huel.
McMaster says “loads of things” lay behind the decision to join the brand, whose range of powdered food and bars generated £14m turnover last year (a figure that founder Julian Hearn believes will double or even treble this year) and which now has about 40 people in its Aylesbury HQ as well as four other offices in London, Birmingham, Berlin and LA. “Effectively you can live off Huel. That ticks so many boxes for people and for me, because as a consumer I’ve always been into my nutrition and Huel is a whole new way of looking at that. Plus there are benefits for food waste, sustainability, nutrition, convenience and affordability. It just felt like it had a genuine ability to be a global business that makes a positive dent in the world.”
Though McMaster only tried the brand after he began discussing the role, he now uses it for breakfast and lunch Monday to Friday. And he insists its demographic isn’t only made up of Silicon Valley types swigging bullet coffee and powdered food at their desks. “Some people might buy it as it’s super healthy and nutritious and they really care about what they eat. Some might buy it as it’s really convenient, they want to have it at their desk at work and don’t want to go outside and think about what they’re going to eat or buy ingredients. Some people buy it because it’s really affordable (it works out at about £1.30 per meal) and others because it has minimal impact on animals and the environment.
“For us, Huel is food. And food is one of the biggest categories of consumer products in the world. If you look at the size of, say, the energy drinks market, around $50bn, it’s a tiny part of what we consume. And in most cases, there is no nutritional value.”
A US launch 12 months ago has already generated $10m in sales, “which is phenomena.”. But perhaps most excitingly for McMaster, he has joined the business, which launched in 2014, at a stage when it is still convincingly a challenger. “At our head office you can just hear what’s going on and absorb stuff. People sit roughly in teams but there’s so much you hear and see that if you work in operations you learn about sales, and if you’re working in finance you might be sitting next to the person designing the website. You just learn stuff.”
But after all this time fighting to build up other people’s brands, doesn’t McMaster ever fancy fighting for his own? After all, it was this idea that led him to that fateful beer with Averdieck in the first place.. There’s a pause. Quite a long one. “It’s not on my horizon whatsoever, no. Huel is just a complete rocket ship and takes up my entire time and I love it and we’re doing a really fantastic job.
“Also it’s really hard to create a brand, get it off the ground, get people moving. Being talked about is a really tough thing to do and I’ve lived through that with my wife’s brand The Fold and lived through that now with Huel, as it’s only a few years old. Those first five to 10 years are really tough and a lot of brands start and most don’t work, sadly. You’ve got to be completely obsessed with it and I just don’t have the headspace at the moment.”
Even for the man that has made a career out of taking on challenger brands, then, it’s still one challenge at a time.