Plum Baby: Susie Willis

The founder of Plum Baby on how she started her organic baby food business.

Susie Willis started her organic baby food company, Plum Baby, when she realised that conventional baby food provided little nutritional value for her third baby, Minky, now four.

Now with a turnover of around £3.5m, Willis’ company was one of the first to recognise a niche for premium baby food back in 2004. “Food is one of my greatest passions, and nutritionally, it has moved on in so many different arenas – but not in baby food,” she says.

The idea was to give parents time off cooking so they could bond with their babies, while giving the babies essential nutrition. “Babies need to enjoy their food – all those positives associated with parenthood and bringing up baby need to be pleasurable.”

Having previously run a cookery school, as well as working in marketing and even as a PA to Jeffrey Archer, Willis was no stranger to business. Although settling down meant that hanging out with Archer and his celebrity chums was, for the time being, put on hold; it also meant that she had time to concentrate on her own ambitions.

Willis’ big break came after months of research and development in 2005, when she managed to secure a meeting with a buyer for Sainsbury’s through a brand consultant she knew. Her timing couldn’t have been better: Sainsbury’s were looking to replace their own-brand baby food.

“When I saw the buyer, I was really anticipating that he would laugh me out of court and say ‘Susie, listen – come back in a year when you know what you’re doing, because clearly you’re a bored housewife with some nice recipes, but this is not a brand’.”

But he didn’t. Willis had secured a three-month contract with Sainsbury’s, and within a few months, the brand was stocked in 250 stores. “The consultant was lost for words. He said to me afterwards, ‘Susie, that never happens. Ever.'”

Contracts with the ‘big four’ supermarkets, as well as Waitrose, Booths and Wholefoods Market, followed.

This was nearly jeopardised, though, when two days before they were due to launch their sweet potato and squash recipe, there appeared to be a sudden sweet potato shortage across the British Isles.

“I spent one Boxing Day on the phone to every supplier from Ecuador to East Grinstead trying to source three tonnes of sweet potato – and I ended up nicking it from Heinz,” says Willis.

She may laugh about it now, but Willis knows that success hasn’t come without sacrifice. “There’s a point where there is a pain that comes with the pleasure. It’s hard work, there’s a lot of pressure,” she says.

Two years on, and Willis knows such rapid success is rare. “When people ask how long have we’ve been trading and I tell them, they’re just flabbergasted. I know people who have been in this game a lot longer who are still desperate to get Tesco to pay them attention.”

Despite this, the brand’s growth continues to steam ahead. With new recipes being added, a toddler line due by the end of 2008, and a projected turnover of £6m, Willis has also recently made the decision to appoint a new CEO.

Ex-Unilever man and ‘veteran marketer’ Patrick Cairns will take control of the business so she can manage the brand – concentrating on what she calls ‘the fluffy kitten stuff’.

It feels, then, like she can finally relax, and winning Female Entrepreneur of the Year at the Startups Awards felt like a public recognition of her achievements for the brand. “We were so pleased – absolutely delighted,” she smiles.

“It’s such a good thing for the brand to be seen to be winning awards,” she says. “This is a very good time for Plum indeed.”

 

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