The long hard road to building a food business

Monday 25th May, 2015


Julianne Ponan’s first look at health foods company Creative Nature told her it would never succeed. Three years on, she is the firm’s CEO and turnover has doubled, but it’s been a rocky journey…

Julianne Ponan reflects on her initial assessment of Creative Nature: “I said: ‘Look, it’s not sellable, there’s nothing there, you’re never going to get your money back and you’re in losses’”. She had been asked to undertake due diligence on the firm by an investor, who, to her surprise, suggested a management buyout that would place Ponan at its helm, aged just 22.

But upon seeing the accounts, Ponan was reluctant to agree.. The company was making losses of around £56,000 a year and had a scattergun policy as to what products it would sell. “You name it, they had it,” she says.

As a result, the entire management team was disposed of and Ponan brought in her friend Matthew Ford to help her run the business as a team of two. The pair had met stacking shelves at Waitrose and were hoping to turn full circle by selling to a major supermarket. They agreed to narrow the company’s focus to health foods, and more specifically fruit bars.

At the end of 2013 I wanted to give up completely.

“I have allergies myself so wanted to create something that catered for that. All the health bars out there at the time contained nuts or some sort of seed that is in the nut family. I wanted to create something that is truly allergen free,” says Ponan.

Yet for all the slimming down of the business model, it took a laborious 12 months to leap from inception to finished product. “At first we mixed them all in our kitchen so when we went out onto the street to sell them the first batch wasn’t the tastiest.”

Not perturbed by the truly homemade nature of the recipe, Ponan and Ford persevered and eventually had a sellable product to show for their efforts. And it wasn’t long before it gained interest from major stores.

“The first pitch I did was to Holland and Barrett, which was really scary because they were a huge company and we were a two person company at the time.”

Julianne's team with some fruit bars

However, nerves did little to hold Ponan back with the health retailer asking to sell four different bars in 300 stores across the country. Yet the move was to prove a false dawn as Ponan later pulled out of the deal because the margins were too thin.

This led to a crossroads for the business. “At the end of 2013 I wanted to give up completely,” Ponan reflects.

Although she had successfully turned the firm around, it was proving a challenge to scale it up in order to ensure its continued growth.

“We were back into profit and stabilised but we had no cash flow, so I wanted to get investment,” she says. “I pitched to loads of investors thinking it would be really easy to secure investment, especially having been in investment banking. I thought I had all the contacts, but I was wrong.”

Instead, Ponan was faced with a raft of rejections that ranged from firms being overly cautious with their money to outright discrimination.

“Everyone said no. I would ask why and they said I was too young, some said I was a woman, some even laughed at my financial forecasts saying that they were too optimistic.”

I really love your team and I want to launch you. But I want to do it in three weeks.

Creative Nature had arrived at crisis point. Ponan says that the only possible outcome for the business was to get involved with a major firm that would be able to stock large quantities of fruit bars.

“We went to this trade show and spent the last of our marketing budget on it,” she recalls. “I said: ‘It’s all or nothing now. We’ve got to get something and if we don’t we’ll have to shut down or sell the business.’”

Although her colleagues and friends supported her, Ponan was losing faith in Creative Nature’s continued potential.

“A week later we got a call from the Tesco buyer,” Ponan says. “She said: ‘I really love your product, I really love your team and I want to launch you. But I want to do it in three weeks.’”

Most new brands launching with a major retailer are given around 12 weeks to make all the necessary preparations to get the product to store. Ponan’s colleague, Ford, said that there was no way Creative Nature would be able to scale up in three weeks.

The firm's products come in all colours, shapes and sizes

But with the brand having travelled this far, failure wasn’t a consideration. Instead the pair spent three sleepless weeks endlessly labelling products. “We had mums, dads, sisters, boyfriends, literally all extended family were dragged in to help.”

The product made it to market, but not before one final slip-up.

“The transport people said: ‘Where’s your forklift?’ We didn’t have one and they said we weren’t going to make the launch. I was nearly crying.”

Fortunately Ponan and Ford found a forklift at the end of the road near their warehouse and with one final burst of energy the first batch of bars arrived in store. “That was one of the best feelings to have,” says Ponan of the first time she bought her product in Tesco.

Since its launch in 2013 Creative Nature’s turnover has doubled. It now sells products in the UK, Germany, Sweden and the UAE. Ponan has also won a variety of awards for her work in transforming the business, including the Federation of Small Business’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award. 

Yet in spite of the ups and downs of Creative Nature’s journey, she says that the desire to keep going lies deep within her.

“I’ve started a company now and that’s great. Once you’ve got that bug you kind of just carry on.”