interview with innocent
co-founder of Innocent, Adam Balon, took some time out to talk to us about a variety of topics including family, social responsibility and tackling the obesity issue in the UK.
During his welcome speech, at the recent Innocent AGM, Adam mentioned his father and how much he had supported him when launching the company with co-founders Jon Wright and Richard Reed. We thought that it would be great to find out more about that relationship and get an insight into what makes Adam ‘tick’!
Tell me a little bit about yourself, about your life? Where did you go to school, and what did you study? What helped prepare you to become the businessman that you are today?
Early days, I was brought up in Ealing - went to a private school paid for by my grandfather. I really liked football and was pretty good academically. After school, I ended up at St John's at Cambridge University where I studied Economics. It's also where I met Richard and Jon, the other co-founders of Innocent. That's where the Innocent story kicks off.
I spent a 7 months at McKinsey (consultancy) as my first job and I really enjoyed it. It was great and I learnt a huge amount. Very straight and serious business but I did learn a huge amount; there were some very bright people there. It was hard work but I spent a number of months working in South Africa, in their Johannesburg office, just after the final of apartheid and Nelson Mandela's release. It was a fantastic time to be there.
I did two years out in South Africa, which was the maximum time the organisation wanted me to stay out there. I wanted to learn a bit more about marketing and smaller businesses and that's when I joined Virgin in the Virgin Drinks business. I was the Marketing Manager. There were 25 people when I started, so obviously a small business but with a huge name behind it.
That was fantastic, totally different atmosphere to my previous role - much more light-hearted, relaxed but still learnt a lot. Actually, learnt a lot about the things not to do. You learn as much from the things that don't work than you do from those that do.
After two years at Virgin Drinks, I thought ‘what is my next step?’ and then started having conversations about Innocent. That was 1998.
You mention that you liked the fact that Virgin Drinks was a small business. Do you prefer working for a small business and taking it to growth or have you ever been part of a large business where you are literally just a number?
I have always enjoyed seeing the outcomes of what I do, seeing the impact my decisions have. Some of the clients that we worked with, at my time during the consultancy days, were huge. I guess I felt working on the ‘coal face’, so to speak, in smaller organisations was where I gravitated towards.
Your grandfather funded your education? So you almost have two tiers of support from your father and your grandfather, do you mind us asking how that worked?
My dad might know the details better than me. My parents weren't in a position to send all four children to private education. My grandfather, who came to the UK from Poland after the war (my entire family is Polish) had made enough money to put some aside for our schooling. As I say, my dad would know better.
My grandparents and parents always spent time together. Mums parents lived in the house next door to us, Dads parents lived only a mile away. It was a very close knit family, and remains that way.
How important has the support of your family been? Has it driven the huge success that you have had?
Yes, I think so. My family has always been there, offering support, and they back me whatever I do. They have never been the sort of parents who have said ‘you must do this, you must do that’. For example, I think they hoped that I would choose to go to Oxford or Cambridge (if I had the opportunity) but they equally let me explore lots of different options when that opportunity did come along.
Parents, generally, want the best for their kids - that unconditional love, and allowing me to make my own decisions has been a great foundation upon which to build my life. That's one of the best things you can hope for from a childhood.
So your parents effectively gave you guidance, but didn’t tell you what to do then?
Precisely, they could have quite easily said, when I started doing things for Innocent ‘what are you doing?’ I had a place at Harvard but they never once said ‘this is what you should do’. There was never any ‘why are you doing this random thing with your mates’, not at all; it was always a feeling of being completely supported. Hugely important.
We at dadzclub, feel that parents, particularly dads, almost have a duty as role models. Do you have any role models in family or indeed business?
Absolutely, parents are the starting points. Dad worked very hard and wanted to provide for the family, but also gave enough time to be around, came back for dinner every evening, spent lots of time together as a family at the weekends, that sort of thing. That has built a sense of family in me, and although I have no children yet (I plan to), I would hope to emulate what my parents have done. There aren't any better role models in that regard.
What about in business?
You can't have worked in the UK, especially having worked at Virgin, and not have this huge respect for Richard Branson. I love his ability to not take ‘no’ for an answer and his vision to see opportunities and go for it! He has also managed to inspire a huge amount of respect and love from the people that work for him.
When I worked at Virgin, employees weren’t necessarily hugely paid, people loved working there because they believed in him and wanted to work for him, and what he stood for.
That’s incredibly impressive.
We set up dadzclub as a portal for dads to share information, review and consume products - but we also have a huge element of social responsibility with our ‘review-cycle’ scheme that you know about. I wanted to ask you a bit about the innocent Foundation and – what is your take on the importance of social responsibility and sustainability for both you, and Innocent as an organisation?
When we started the business, the whole thing was about getting the business going and having something that we could be proud of. As time went on, we started seeing the impact we could have on the world. It wasn't just about selling juice; there was a huge amount of waste involved. The effort that was going into making the plastics for bottles was having an appreciable impact. We realized that we had to start thinking about this.
We couldn't be proud of the business unless we did start thinking about that. That got us thinking about the sorts of positive impact that we could have and at the same time we started making some profits, which we felt we should be able to share with other people that were less fortunate than ourselves.
Organically, as the business grew, we felt that we should be donating some of this money to charity and that we should be running the business in a sustainable and responsible manner. The two things came together which we formalised, after about four or five years of the business running, into the Innocent Foundation.
The first decision was to agree a number, as in what we were going to put into the Foundation. We agreed that 10% was a nice round number that would make a clear statement in terms of our commitment to charitable giving. Other people are doing 0.5%, maybe 1% but no one was giving anything like 10%. In the scheme of things, if you can run a business on 100% of profits then you can run it on 90%
But it’s not necessarily about what money you give - it is about what effect it has.
There are so many deserving causes in the world; we had to be very clear about what we wanted to do. We focus on areas where we resource fruit, and to support farmers in creating sustainable lifestyles.
So some of the projects involve taking people in the very lowest level of poverty into a position where they can improve their quality of life and sustain themselves - that is the ethos behind the Foundation.
We support a huge variety of things, including women's self-help groups in India, a real range of initiatives, but essentially a lot surround supporting people live off the land and creating sustainable lifestyles.
One of the most important things that parents (we believe) think about is the health of their children. Innocent Drinks is part of this ‘good food revolution’ – with the increasing rates of obesity in the UK, how do we handle this very difficult nut to crack?
It really is a difficult thing to crack. Continued education is the key and schools play a huge role. Children are being taught about what to eat, what not to eat and the impact of eating unhealthy things. They are being taught about the importance of turning lights off to save energy, things that I was never taught at school. In fact, children are often forcing their parents into better practices and eating behaviours.
This will ensure that the next generation grows up with the right values from the beginning.
There is also an interesting question around taxation and a number of countries, such as Scandinavia, are looking at putting a ‘tax’ on less healthy foods. The reality is, that a lot of the cheapest food is the most processed. Natural food tends to cost a bit more and maybe there is a way of balancing this equation.
I know that is controversial, as it may hit people with less money more, but at the same time it's a way of having a much more positive effect on the country. If people eat more healthily, there is far less obesity and potentially less impact on the health service.
We just have to keep pushing on this, and the fact that children are being taught better eating habits in school, will have a hugely positive effect on this issue.
dadzclub work with a number of brands to bring their products and services to the market through a trusted network of dads who test, review and consume products together. Mums sites like Mumsnet have a lot of publicity around this and they do have a lot of consumer power. Does Innocent have a view on the role of dads in both the community and as consumers?
Dads are absolutely critical, and you are right they don't get the same amount of focus and attention as mums have done. That doesn't mean they are any less critical and I think what you're doing is absolutely great!
The more there are online communities of like-minded people, be it dads, people from a certain area etc. the better. The opportunities to talk about things and swapping stories, ideas, expertise and advise makes for a more cohesive society overall.
People often say that ‘we don’t know our neigbours’ but ironically people are moving online. The more positive forums there are for that sort of interaction the better and the fact that dadzclub forms one of those, that’s great.
Finally, we asked our twitter followers to post one or two questions for you, so here they are:
What's next for Innocent Drinks and how do you keep things fresh and new?
We have launched our juices this year, and they have done incredibly well. We will be pushing out the existing range, and more varieties and flavours of those juices. The other thing, is continuing to roll out to other European markets. We want to be ‘Europe's favourite little juice company’ and that means we have to be present in all the major European areas. We are not, for instance, that present in southern areas of Europe such as Spain, Italy etc. and we aim to change that.
How do we keep things fresh? Two things - hiring people who have a sense of energy and initiative and just want to keep moving things forward. This characterises pretty much everyone that works for innocent and those are the people we love working here.
Secondly, having a direction where we keep on coming up with new things and innovations. As an example, our range of little bottles of smoothie which we started the business with, are probably now only 15% of the business. Everything else has been innovation and brand-new things that we have come up with during the life of the business. We have just got to keep doing that, try to find what it is that we can give consumers, what needs the consumer has that aren’t being presently met. It’s as simple as that…although it's quite difficult to do!
And finally we have another question, from the lady that founded the company called cuddledry, one of our followers on Twitter. If you had to create a drink to sum up your personality what would be in it and why?
Wow! Wow! OK! I have never been asked that question I must admit!
I'm impatient; I want to get stuff done quickly. I love being around people, I have a lot of friends and want to spend lots of time with them. I have quite a lot of energy. What fruits would that be?
I suppose something 'zingy', a bit of 'oomph', a bit of kick - stuff like passion fruit maybe…that's a bit trite isn't it? Mango and passion fruit is probably my favourite of our recipes so that probably, sort of, sums me up!
I wonder how much your favourite Innocent drink reflects your personality?
We should run that on the Innocent website. That might be quite interesting.
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