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As 2017 is rolling away and you might be thinking of starting on your own in 2018, I hope this story inspires you to do it on your own:

When Giles Drewett founded natural colours and flavours company Plant-Ex Ingredients, he was a one-man band. Seven years down the line, he’s building a new factory, has a staff of 26 and is set to break the US. He reveals how he built the company in his own image.

If Giles Drewett has a motto, it’s “go with what you know”. Having cultivated an exhaustive knowledge of every aspect of the food colours and flavours industry during 12 years in the business, in 2010 he sowed the seeds of his own natural additives empire in the heart of Avonmouth in Bristol. And thanks to his fertile mix of personal drive and hard-earned experience, Plant-Ex Ingredients has experienced abundant growth.

Expansion means the company now sources raw materials from all over the world. “We bring spices from India, cochineal from South America, beetroot juice from Turkey and Poland, tea tree from Australia. And in the UK, we buy malt vinegar powder,” he says.

With an eye on quality, Drewett is adamant about maintaining a beneficial relationship with his suppliers. “The raw material inside our products is critical. You need to understand how it’s cultivated, how it’s extracted, what affects the stability. So you have to have a close partnership with your suppliers. If you buy right, you can sell anything.”

Starting out

After leaving the University of Portsmouth with a BA (Hons) in business studies, Drewett began sourcing raw materials, including essential oils, often used in the manufacture of food flavouring. “I started to trade those and met with ROHA, an artificial food colour manufacturer from India that wanted to set up a base in Europe, which I agreed to do as a joint venture.” As a minority shareholder, Drewett helped build the combined business to a turnover of £10m but felt that there was no longer-term picture within the family-owned firm that met his ambitions. He cashed in his shares and became sales director at Overseal, then the UK’s largest natural food colour manufacturer.

The new role allowed him to flex his natural skill set. “Sales is one of my stronger personal attributes. My key target, my greatest satisfaction, comes at the end of each month when I look at the sales figures.” But a successful salesman has to have something to sell. “So I made it and sold it. That experience allowed me to learn every facet of the business, from production to technical, and build things up.”

When Overseal was taken over, Drewett took the opportunity to depart and found Plant-Ex. Some initial trading restrictions and legal costs in the early days made for an anxious first year of trading, but his patience paid off: turnover for 2016/17 hit nearly £6m, with a forecast of £7.5m for this financial year. Natural colours represent 40% of the business, which also deals in natural flavours and extracts and food protection systems (ingredients that guard against oxidisation and rancidity).

Quality control

Drewett has managed to preserve the personal touch when dealing with the supply chain, in spite of the scale of growth that Plant-Ex is experiencing.

Meeting his suppliers in person also allows him to compete with the big players on price. “There are four or five organisations that are of a quality good enough to, say, produce paprika. The people that are doing those extractions, out in India and China, they either get a visit from a corporate purchaser with their spreadsheets, or they get to deal with the owner of the company who’s coming in, and have a nice dinner, a couple of beers and a good chat. We tend to get a better raw material price than a lot of the multinationals.”

And this personal approach helps Drewett manage risk. “If something goes wrong, it’s my neck on the chopping block, so in places where the risk of quality issues is assessed as high, I go myself. If our name is on the product, I’d rather know exactly where it’s come from.” And, of course, it’s fun. “Later this year, I’ve got to go to Peru. One of the main suppliers there has a great plantation that you look around in dune buggies, then we’ll go off for a surf in his boat.”

But while Drewett remains quite literally hands on – he recently spent a Saturday morning fixing machinery in the factory, and says there isn’t a job at Plant-Ex he couldn’t do himself – as the company grows, the reality is some of his responsibilities must be delegated. This is made easier by the fact Plant-Ex is a family affair. His wife Anna is the company secretary, while daughter Kitty spends school holidays in the development lab, experimenting with whey protein flavours And his brother, Tom, is operations director for the UK, so when the company expands overseas, Drewett will be leaving its HQ in safe hands.

“Give it another couple of years and I’ll go over to India or the US and set up the next factory, leaving my brother in charge.”

Family affair

Even those not related to Drewett are part of the family. “Staff member number two joined in month 13 – he’s still with the company, working in our development laboratory – and staff member number three is one of our production managers. Number four is our quality-assurance manager. We’re now 26 people, and we tend to have a fairly low turnover of staff. They’re a good group of people.”

The challenge, he says, is extending the family. “The biggest issue we face is building a well-trained team quickly enough to manage the growth. We’re building a new factory down the road, and we’ll run 24/7. Trying to find somebody with the skills and commitment has been difficult. We’ve tended to find we’re better off recruiting younger people and training them.”

Originally, customers were buying off Drewett personally. “After year three, we concentrated on putting the structure and team into place so the organisation would stand up on its own,” he says. “Now I think if I wasn’t here, the company would still grow and develop. And that’s something I was targeting, because otherwise you’re the shepherd for the business until you die and you’ll only find a finite amount of growth.”

Asked if he’d consider selling up and moving on, Drewett looks nonplussed. What would he do but go with what he knows? “In the past I’ve done all sorts of other things. I’ve imported golf trollies and kids’ scooters, and what I learned is, you make some pocket money but you’re not making real money. You’re better off sticking to your knitting. If you know an industry, that’s your life. I’m a firm believer that you stick with your trade.”

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