Relentless pursuit leads to innovation

Why did a small company put itself through a global accreditation process, which meant complying with 3300 different clauses – even though most of its customers would never have heard of the scheme?

Across 123 countries, the British Retail Consortium Global Standards has certificated suppliers – including Olives et al, the company in question. “We chose to do this about ten years ago because I wanted validation of our food safety and quality,” explains founder and chief executive Giles Henschel. “Customers didn’t require it of us, but we did it to see if there were any deficiencies in our processes, and to see how we could improve our business rather than for any kind of compliance. In that respect, he must have been disappointed. The company came out of the audit with an A rating. Not that laurel-resting was the consequence. “Our mantra is to see how we can do better in terms of process and product, because that is better for the customer and creates the perfect circle,” he says. “And if there is a relentless pursuit of improvement, then my belief is that innovation comes out of it.

Business Magazine - Giles Henschel1

“Not everyone is going to be comfortable with change but our default position is to look to see if change can and then should be made. Our culture is that people work with the company, not for it. When employees (the company calls them oliveers) start saying ‘we’ve got to address this’ rather than ‘there’s a problem’ then you know they are embedded. We look for people who have a professional curiosity, a default position of asking the question why.

“Of course there are parameters within which people must work, and the higher the degree of regulation, the less space they have. It’s important that they actually know where those parameters are, and the procedures which need to be followed, otherwise they’re not in control of what they are doing.”

The company produces desalinated and graded ambient-stable olives as well as marinated olives, plus a range of non heatprocessed dressings and sauces, including dry spice mixes. 

There are thought to be some 3000 varieties of olive in the world, 120 of which produce table olives, which are grown from as far north as Perth in Scotland and as far south as New Zealand.

The company came into being as the result of a motorcycle road trip around the Mediterranean countries and North Africa by Henschel and his wife to be. Suffering post travel depression, they tried to recapture their sojourn by recreating some of the recipes they’d experienced. On October 28th 1993 they sold their first jar of olives. 

Their own retail outlets serve as a continuous customer focus group. “We can produce a new product and within an hour have it in store,” says Henschel. And he provides just as instant an example. “We were thinking of producing a chilli and thyme dressing, but the people making it for us also produced a small batch of chilli and mint. We quickly put some labels on it and put the bottles in one of the shops to see how it would work.”

The key is to meet a need before the customer knows they want it, Henschel maintains. In this regard, the internet can be the proverbial double-edged sword.

“The web can create consumer paralysis because of overload, but on the other hand it has never been easier for an independent producer to reach its target audience,” he muses. 

“We know we have got to be better than any rival at the same price point, whether that is by flavour, aroma, easier packaging. We talk about being leaner, greener, swifter, simpler.’ And what you need is a culture which will make that happen because people are prepared to suggest ideas and are then willing to implement them.”

“A director has to be confident enough to trust gut feel,” he says. “If there is a sense that something might be wrong, then inevitably that turns out to be the case. At least, gut feel should be an indicator. It’s like identifying whether the relationship between the company and its people is working – a walk around the building is a starting point because it will tell you if people are smiling.”

Knowing that the company has a sense of direction will help that to happen, he says. “We all understand we’re going from A to C through a variety of Bs. I won’t call it a journey, because I hate that expression, but it’s important to have a target and milestones.”

And he applies an analogy drawn from his previous career in the military. “If the business arrives at a crossroads it’s a interesting decision whether you go left, right, or straight on. So we’ll set up the equivalent of a campsite to think about it. Now it might be that this particular location is somewhere the competitors have simply ignored or passed by.

Before we know it, we’ve started trading from there and we’ve built a settlement. And we can still decide to go left, right, or straight ahead in the future.” Sometimes though, it might appear that a step forward is actually taking a step back. The company installed a large capacity filling machine, but Henschel could see that with the much smaller volumes required for each product, staff were spending more time stripping it down between runs. “They had become cleaners rather than applying their skill,” he adds. “They lost their physical involvement with the product.” So Olives at al took the machine out. “The working environment became quieter and although the speed of production was less, there was no down time in setting up or energy cost. It means we produced a better product.”

Work experience is offered to by Olives et al to fifteen and sixteen year olds who show a real interest in food. They’re rewarded with more than the occasional trip to the photocopier. 

They’re given a project to actually launch a product, learning about the regulations, putting together a recipe, how to make it, the pricing and marketing, and then they take it into one of the shops to sell it. But then Olives et al isn’t a cottage industry – the company employs some fifty staff.

Henschel says that success for him personally is when he feels the business is moving in the right direction and everyone feels involved. “If we did a net promoter score now compared to six months ago, would it have moved massively forward, because profit should follow from that,” he maintains. “A company should have a KPI about something specific that it wants to improve. 

“Our focus will change through the year but what excites me is identifying and making enhancements. It’s what makes me swing my legs out of bed in the morning.”

“Some companies will grow massively and then run out of steam because they only have a short-term plan,” he believes. “They might not have a goal for the business as such; their goal is a personal exit. And I wouldn’t say drawing up a three-year plan is the same as having longterm vision. Chairman Mao was asked what was the impact of the French Revolution, and he relied that it was too early to tell.

“The biggest barrier for the owner-manager is time, so you need to have people around you who have the skills and approach to take the business forward, people who are better than you at their particular discipline. How else will it happen? In the army, the best commanding officer will get all of the necessary information from experts and then make a sensible decision. 

“Growth will come from unexpected opportunity. Setting strategic goals is important but it can mean you stop looking for what else the company could be doing. We look for areas where there are fewer firms and less noise.

“My advice to any owner-manager is to lighten up! Why be angst-ridden? If you don’t enjoy it, if you can’t rise to the challenge, don’t do it. I always believe that the sun will come up again tomorrow.”

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