Michael Beard's a big chap who cuts an imposing figure, but hasn't done any interviews before and confesses to being a bit nervous. Surprising, considering he's the man who clinched a multi-million pound deal to buy the Rayner Food Group.
He's already done a good job with Rayner which recently came 80th in The Sunday Times Profit Track 100. He's just started a £7m expansion programme and has bought four more units to expand the process capability to help the overworked factory.
The business turns over £44m and the plan is to increase turnover and then sell it on in two to three years. "It's so unlike running a family company ­ it's about creating value so that another trade company will see the value and want to pay the price for a well-managed company with a strategy. We tidy them up and turn them into effective businesses. No politics ­ just customer satisfaction," he says.
But this self-styled entrepreneur is candid about the luck that he needed to succeed ­ although he obviously put in a lot of hard graft and took a big risk to lead a management buy-in. Beard, between jobs at the time, remortgaged his house and put up a six-figure sum before teaming up with venture capitalists Kleinwort Capital and NIB 18 months ago."I haven't made a penny yet. I'm just grateful for every day that we're in it."
Beard has a taste for bidding to take the reins and had always wanted to do a management buy-in. He began his career with batter mix manufacturer Morton Foods set up by his dad, joining in the early 1970s after his A levels. The successful Morton business was sold to Clifford Dairies, and Beard became deputy md. He decided to take the company into the breadcrumb industry, picking up M&S as a customer. Unigate then bought the firm, but didn't want the breadcrumb and batter division, so Beard launched his first management buy-out bid, finishing runner up. "Dalgety won, and I was given the task of integrating all the businesses," he recalls.
However Dalgety got into trouble. Again Beard tried to buy his bit of the business ­ and again finished runner-up, this time to Kerry Ingredients. "I was very disappointed as I had a great deal of confidence in the business." He was made redundant but then offered a role helping with integration.

The most difficult thing to do
Meanwhile, Beard put together a third bid, this time for Bluecrest ­ and again lost out. But he learnt some hard lessons in the process. "A management buy-in is the most difficult thing to do. It's rare and you have less than a 1% chance. You start off by being naive about the processes, but the people you're dealing with are very naive about the industry you're in ­ they listen to you."
A short stint at McCormick resulted in redundancy and Beard took this as a sign to go "hell for leather" for his ambition. He found his target in the Rayner Food Group. With an eye on cashflow, he gave up his Mercedes and drove his daughter's Fiesta. "Waiting for a result is an emotional rollercoaster," he recalls. "You have enormous highs and lows." He took possession of Rayner at the end of 2000. But what would he have done if it hadn't worked out? He grimaces. "I wake up in a cold sweat over that one. But getting it was the most fantastic feeling."
He saw Rayner as an opportunity to buy a disparate business with good products in exciting markets. As soon as he took control, he decided to separate the businesses out and sold the Crusha milkshake brand to British Sugar, while still manufacturing the product. Another arm ­ Martlet Natural Foods Group, which makes mainly honeys and preserves ­ wasn't doing very well, so Beard asked Product Chain to do the sales and marketing instead, which has worked well. It has now got listings in the multiples.
Another division ­ Cauldron Foods ­ has the highest profile of all the brands and the vegetarian products are doing well, helped by current health trends around tofu and soya. It is the leading producer of tofu in the UK and the second most popular chilled veggie brand after Quorn. "We've doubled profits each year for the last three years." He now plans more marketing support.

You can't get everyone's buy-in
Beard is a people person, but although he tried to be honest with his new staff about why he was there, not everyone was entirely enthusiastic. He's realistic, though: "Some people had been around for 25 years and couldn't get used to the idea. Some thought it was a bit clinical and I understand that. I know what it's like when your business is sold."
Beard stays in London during the week where he lives above a gym (although he confesses not to go much ­ "it's hard if you've had a tiring day") ­ and only goes back to Oxford where he has a wife and two grown-up daughters at weekends because of the long commute. He's a keen golfer, and also plays in a local veterans' football team, though he admits to living in fear of the day when he will have to hang his boots up and admit to being too old.
The 48-year-old chief executive already has plans to do another deal ­ along with his five-strong management board ­ once his time is up. The Rayner deal cost £40m and although he laughs at the question of how much he hopes to sell it for, he says VCs expect to double their money in a three-year period. "The objective is to make money. I love business and food, and it's been my life so I'd like to get back into it as soon as possible when I finish this deal. If we're successful, next time round should be slightly easier."