elliott With a huge smile and lots of small town girl made good incredulity, Planet Organic's founder Renée Elliott sets herself up as just "another pushy American". And Prince Charles' recent visit to the Westbourne Grove store in London was certainly no chance appearance. Elliott literally doorstepped him with the invitation at an industry event when she picked up the award for organic retailer of the year in 1998. But Elliott isn't your archetypal yank. She is on the whole quietly spoken and when she's not slickly dishing the message, can lapse into a distant demeanour. Last time we met, Elliott was in a middle of a protracted dispute with former business partner Jonathan Dwek resulting in a case in the High Court in January last year. Dwek tried to have her removed from the company. The outcome was referred to as a "corporate divorce" with Dwek and his backers obliged to sell Elliott their shares. At our previous meeting Elliott displayed a steely professionalism. She is still the consummate professional, rarely off message, but the hue of tension beneath the good natured friendliness has gone. As Elliott carefully makes her selection from the menu at the organic restaurant she picked for our second meeting, she has the air of one recovered from a recent battle. "I don't get out for lunch much," she confesses. She is too busy doing what she set out to do in the the first place ­ run a respected and flourishing organic supermarket. And one set to multiply into a chain of up to 40 stores over the next few years. Another four should open this year. Elliott is reticent to talk about the upset that becalmed Planet for a year and a half. While there were differences in outlook from the beginning, she is bemused as to what triggered Dwek to turn from partner into adversary, although she says she "has a few ideas". The experience has affected her personally as well as professionally. "Yes, I felt betrayed," she says. "But now I feel I learned a lot. I feel I grew up. I'm a little more cautious which isn't a bad thing because I'm naturally very trusting and I'm very open." But Elliott the manager can, she confesses, run out of sympathy and has no time for whingers or those who play the victim. There is a steely edge to this woman, and one that can only have been sharpened in recent months. "It was very challenging," she says of the dispute. "When you're faced with a situation like that you pull on reserves you don't know you have. Until life throws something difficult at you you have no idea how you will respond and you have two choices. You either run or you stand and fight. "I'm never one who would say I can't believe this happened to me, isn't life terrible'. It happened. That's life." And life goes on. Following the court case, Elliott had just six months to raise sufficient capital to acquire Dwek's shares. Failure would have meant losing the company she had lovingly built up over five years. She now has funding from, among others, Peter Kindersley, chairman of publisher Dorling Kindersley, and David Krantz, chief executive of Space NK. Both men have joined the board, along with Steven Davis, formerly retail operations director at Heal's. She was lucky, she says. She had people falling over themselves wanting to invest in what has been deemed by some a potential global brand. She chose those who brought more than "business experience" to the party. Despite her passion for the business, Elliott never set out to be in retail. "If you'd told me when I was a young girl I would be a shopkeeper, I would have laughed my head off. Even when I started, my husband would introduce me to people as a shopkeeper, and I thought it was hysterical." Although a foodie to her bones, Elliott, an English graduate from the University of Massachusetts, didn't make up her mind what she wanted to do until she was 28. She had spent the previous five years working in the UK wine trade, first as a writer and then as a rep, but it didn't inspire. "I was very optimistic and very naive. I thought I want to be happy, I want to love what I do'. I started this quest to find something I loved. I knew that I couldn't see that happening in conventional business, it's too one dimensional and strait-laced." It was on a visit back to the US that Elliott stumbled across her dream. "I walked into this organic supermarket and died," she says, with the characteristic drawl she slips into for emphasis. "I thought This it it'." In 1991 in the UK, there was nothing similar. So Planet the idea was born. "It was the vehicle for the thing I love which is food," she says. An unfailing optimist, Elliott is not averse to riding an idea to see how far it will take her. She moved to the UK in the first place after meeting her husband Brian on a London night bus during a student vacation. Back in the UK Elliott convinced the owner of London health food store Wild Oats to give her a trial as assistant store manager to learn the business. She had no experience but pulled it off. It was through the store she met Dwek. Four years since Planet opened, Elliott is just as passionate about the business ­ she worked seven day weeks for the bulk of 1999 ­ if less naive. In April Brian, a property fund manager, came on board. It was a case of all or nothing for the Elliotts from then on. They would sink or swim as a partnership. Maintaining separate offices to avoid domestic/professional overkill, Elliott is much more relaxed with the new management arrangements. "Brian joining the company was such a relief. After the split I didn't really feel I could trust anyone else." But with a flotation possibly only two years away ­ there is an understanding in the new financing arrangements that it will happen in the not too distant future ­ Planet will not be the Elliotts' private kingdom for ever. Elliott acknowledges that but promises some things will remain integral to the business. "There are certain things I don't want taken away from me at Planet in terms of the culture, the standard and the integrity of the business." But once Planet moves beyond its monolithic Westbourne Grove empire, how will it maintain those elements? "Part of that is establishing the culture very strongly in the team here now," Elliott explains. "It will be a team from this store that goes into the next." Elliott values her staff ­ she has seen off several headhunters from other store groups ­ and puts a lot of time into team building. "It's also about product standard, and the way we treat suppliers and staff. And that will be part of every store that opens," she promises. Elliott is a merciless worker drawing for energy on bags of sleep, funny movies, the gym and meditation. Even so, when Planet was taking shape she says she was "sick of telling people at dinner parties". "They would say God don't borrow money from the banks, they'll kill you and if they don't, the supermarkets will swallow you up'. I just wanted to snap back Well, hey, I'll give up right now'." She didn't. And even if the media decides to have a go at the organic sector now it's helped build it up, Elliott has no doubts there will be room for the specialists selling good, healthy food to people who understand what it is they're buying. But even with a chain of 40 stores under her belt, Elliot says she will not sit back and think "I've done it, I've achieved the dream." "The dream is always moving on. It is a different kind of dream from five years ago when it was way out there. I imagine something else might catch my attention. But the big dream is not going to change. It just comes closer and closer. I love this too much to move on." n {{PROFILE }}