Frank Frederick is nervous, his creative director Matt warns me three days prior to our interview. In which case, the ice cream entrepreneur is doing a fine job of hiding his nerves in his first interview in a quarter of a century.
“We’re the only family-owned ice cream company in the country, the only English ice cream company in the country,” proclaims the man dubbed ‘the Godfather of cool’. “Richmond is American-owned, Unilever is all over the f**king place – they’re all w**kers anyway.”
Matt rolls his eyes. “You see now why he hasn’t interviewed in 25 years?” I’m beginning to. Indeed, the unreconstructed 40-something-year-old is almost as flamboyant as his Kensington apartment, where visitors are greeted by a wall mirror adorned with a pair of neon ice creams.
“I must show you this,” he says gleefully as we enter the lounge. He pounces on a switch and an electric shutter descends inscribed with an ancient ice cream recipe. It would make a great backdrop to a photo, I observe. “Good idea,” he says. “I’ll fetch the mankini.” He’s only half-joking.
Frederick is not just frank by name, it seems, and he outlines his aspirations in typically forthright style. “Do I don’t want to go to heaven? Do I f**k? I want to go to hell rich!”
But behind the bombast is living proof that a family-run business can still thrive in a world of multinationals. His company Fredericks Dairies, which he co-owns with brother Philip, is the UK’s largest manufacturer of choc ices and holds the licence to produce both Del Monte and Cadbury ice creams – the UK’s number-two chocolate ice cream brand behind Wall’s.
When Frederick and his brother took over the Cadbury licence from Wall’s 10 years ago, turnover was £3m. This year it is set to top £30m, not bad for someone who claims he’s “not a natural money-making businessman”. The secret is to create a business with a real point of difference, says Frederick.
“We can’t just be small versions of Unilever or Richmond, we have to be different, do what we do better,” he explains. “The major multiples don’t have to buy off us, but they have to buy off Wall’s, buy off Richmond. Those two want to dominate the market but we’re not going to let them. We feel Cadbury ice cream can be a serious number two brand and number one in the chocolate area. People say you can’t take on Magnum. F**k off, you can take on anybody.”
To understand Frederick’s anti-establishment bravado you have to go back to his roots. His grandfather walked from the Italian Riviera across France to set up an ice cream business in St Helens in 1896. It remains the family business to this day. When most executives were busy studying retail theory, Frederick was out on the road, doing what he does best, selling ice cream.
“At school I was useless. I stammered worse than Gareth Gates,” he recalls. “I started selling when I was 14 on one of those stop-me-and-buy-one bikes during my summer holidays, then I spent five years on an ice cream van. And there was fighting, it was territorial, and I would get beaten up. Even on Xmas Day I tried to sell ice cream.”
When Frederick’s father retired he took over the family wholesaling business. Then, in the early 80s, he saw an opportunity to supply the multiples with choc ices.
“I bought the first machine for £150,000. At the time my business was only turning over 60 grand a year, but I worked out I could pay it off after five years. I ended up paying it off after three months. All my competitors were working eight hours a day, I was working 24. The factory was working 24 so I bought another machine, a bigger machine. I doubled my turnover every year until in the late 80s I was turning over nine million and netting two.”
A 22% margin is almost inconceivable in today’s ruthless market. Indeed, Frederick admits he’s lucky to make 5% these days from the own-label side of the business.
“The multiples, they beat us up, you know. We don’t make a lot of money out of them. We have to do a lot of the analysis, we have to do a lot of everything. We try and match what Unilever and Richmond do, but sometimes we have to hold our hands up and say, look, we’re a smaller player, get those guys to do your f**king analysis, let us make good stuff for you.”
Which is exactly what the business is trying to do. Having successfully grown the Cadbury and Del Monte brands, Frederick recently realised a lifelong ambition of launching his own ice cream brand. Super-premium Antonio Federici launched in Sainsbury's last month. Pitched against Häagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry’s, it carries the name of his Italian grandfather and uses authentic family gelato recipes. Frederick can barely contain his excitement.
“We’re so confident about the taste of this ice cream. We did a presentation for Sainsbury's at Cipriani. We gave all the spiel about the 100-year-old recipe from the same family, and they’re all nodding away, yes, Frank, it’s a nice provenance and all this stuff, and at the end they tasted it, and said it was the best they’d ever tasted.”
Frederick has hired a troupe of opera singers to tour Sainsbury's car parks promoting the brand. “I want other people to taste it. I know if they taste it, if they can afford it, they’ll buy it because it’s the best there is out there.”
In a world where chemists drive NPD and accountants hold the keys to the piggy bank, Frank Frederick just wants to make ice cream that tastes nice.
“Unilever have got more f**king chemists than Pfizer,” he says. “We use the best ingredients. The accountant kicks me. He says, 'Frank, we could use this cheaper ingredient, we could use that'. I can’t help it. I know I’m sounding like a Bible-bashing preacher here but it’s nice to make it good.”
La dolce vita indeed.
Title: Co-owner, Fredericks Dairies
Hobbies: "My hobby is ladies. Some people like to hunt and shoot and fish. To me it's a sport."
Ice cream CV: Frederick helped Mars develop the first-ever ice cream confectionery brand 20 years ago. He reinvented the iconic Flake 99 for Cadbury and developed the first-ever wobbly lolly for Bassett's Jelly Babies. Last year, Fredericks was voted the most innovative ice cream company in the world.
On being arrested for speeding in the US: "In jail they've got these guys - chains, shaven heads, big ginger moustaches, tattoos all the way up and built like brick shithouses. And I'm there behind bars in my Dolce & Gabbana t-shirt and short little jean pants, blowing kisses at them, thinking if they could get through those bars, I'm dead."