Farmhouse Fare: Helen Colley
Helen Colley took a no-nonsense approach to make her hot pudding business a success. She tells us how
Being an entrepreneur comes naturally to Helen Colley, having been surrounded by it all her life. In many ways, it would've been slightly strange if the founder of Farmhouse Fare had decided not to become her own boss.
“I've only just realised I am an entrepreneur!” she admits. “I don't think entrepreneurs actually know they are one until someone points it out.
“I think an entrepreneur is bloody minded and a free spirit, and I think I have those qualities. From the age of 10, I was making things and trying to sell them to shops.
“It never occurred to me not to be my own boss – I was brought up on a farm where my parents were self-employed. I always thought I would do my own thing.”
Raised on Shuttleworth Farm near Clitheroe, Lancashire, Helen set up her own catering company on a borrowed £250 when aged just 18. Over the next 20 years, the business became on of the largest outside caterers in Lancashire, specialising in large, marqueed events.
Farmhouse Fare, a supplier of hot puddings, only came about after Helen felt the need to diversify away from outside catering.
Coffee mornings at the farm generated huge interest for the sticky toffee puddings on sale, so Helen decided to exploit this by selling the puddings during winter when there was no marquee work, so that she could keep a regular cash-flow and keep the full-time staff employed.
However, the demand was such that in 2001, during the outbreak of foot and mouth that decimated outside events in the area, Helen decided to make a full-time business based on the puddings.
“I had been working in hospitality for 18 years and it was very hard work. I thought this might be easier and I wanted to change direction,” she explains.
“I got some containers and a mixer and made puddings that I managed to sell to butchers and delis. From there, I approached some supermarkets and I then got the call from Sainsbury's.”
Local Booths Supermarkets were the first to stock the puddings, with Sainsbury's, Morrisons, Asda, Selfridges and Tesco subsequently signing up. Helen, who admits to having no boardroom dealings before, insists it's been fairly easy to convince the supermarkets about the products.
“I am basically the sales and marketing team and I'm a very persistent caller!” she explains. “I don't do PowerPoint presentations, I go and see them, explain what we do and they taste the products.
“Because I believe in what I do so much, it makes selling quite easy.
“We have exclusive ranges for each of the supermarkets – each customer is different. The buyers tell me what they want and I know their aspirations.”
Helen funded the business through the sale of the catering company, along with a grant from the Rural Enterprise Agency and a loan from her bank, who she describes as “superb”. She also approached Business Link for advice.
Despite this, she reveals that she did very little formal business planning – as seemingly befits her character, she simply went about starting the business with the minimum of fuss.
“I just went for it as I knew what I was doing,” she says. “There's always a good time for a good product – but I was the one willing to put my money and my life behind it.”
Although she has just taken her first proper wage in 21 years, Helen says there was no question of giving away part of the business to gain investment and hasten profitability.
“I want to grow it myself, I'm very bloody minded about that,” she insists. “I've got it this far, I want it to continue. You've got to believe in yourself entirely, if you don't then no-one will. The enthusiasm then comes through – I'm an infectious person and people buy into the concept of the business.
“You need to keep reasonable margins to grow the company and you must invest in yourself – I invest everything I get back into the business.”
That investment has included £1.5 million on the premises and equipment needed to meet the increased production demands. After initially operating from a converted barn at the farm, Helen moved the business a couple of miles down the road to a purpose-built 20,000 square foot site.
“We outgrew the farm building and as we didn't have planning permission to expand the premises, we had to move, which was quite sad,” she says. “But when you're in a rural area, everyone wants you to grow to employ more people – so you are bound to move at some point.”
Despite the outlay on equipment, Helen is keen to stress the handcrafted nature of the puddings, which come in 14 different flavours. She claims to get ideas from various sources, from friends through to a meals where two flavours marry together, giving her inspiration for a new range.
“The puddings are fantastic, we are passionate about them,” she enthuses. “People make them, not machinery, the puddings are handcrafted and made in an artisan style.
“We use natural ingredients and produced the puddings in a batch size that has never increased. I'm uncompromising on quality, I believe on using the best ingredients and making it by hand. My belief has gone right through the business.”
Farmhouse Fare has 68 employees, with production staff supplemented by around a dozen accountants, receptionists and technical workers. Despite undertaking a recruitment drive as the company has grown, Helen insists that she runs a “lean ship.”
“I believe everyone should do a job – I don't carry passengers,” she says. “Everyone has to feel needed and counted on, and to believe in what I believe in. I want people to work with me, not for me.
“Without them, I couldn't produce anything – they are hugely important to the company. We do an awful lot of staff training in-house.
“I'm hopeless with computers, so I've got someone who's very good with them, same with accounts. I know my weaknesses and I'll admit freely to them. If I need to know it, I'll learn it – if it's something I don't need to know I've got others in to do it.
“You can't be everything all of the time, you have to admit to that and get the help where needed.”
Helen admits that the business has a massive effect on her personal life – she is married with three children. However, she feels that the sacrifices she makes are more than worthwhile.
“I chose to have this path in life, like most entrepreneurs,” she explains. “I don't regret it, my family understand what I'm doing – my children think that every mummy makes puddings for a living!
“I'm very fortunate because I love what I do. I have bad days of course, but I am very lucky.”
Helen plans to strengthen the Farmhouse Fare brand over the next few years, making the company's name synonymous with luxury, premium puddings in the public's mind.
“It's my dream to make it into a recognised brand, to think of Farmhouse Fare when you think of something decadent and wonderful,” she says. “What's happened to me over the past three years as been meteoric. My story shows that anyone can do it – if I can do it, anyone can.”