Lead Interview: Craig Taylor, Natures Menu

Our lead interview in the Opportunity issue of Norfolk Director business magazine is with Craig Taylor, MD of Natures Menu which is based at Snetterton in Norfolk.

Published in Norfolk Director Magazine, Summer/Autumn 2019

Seizing the moment

“Everything I do boils back to a childhood dream of wanting to succeed and be good at something.”

Good opportunities come out of unfortunate situations

Craig Taylor is Managing Director of Natures Menu which is based at Snetterton in Norfolk. Originally set up by his father as Anglian Meat Products in 1981, the business produces raw dog and cat food made from quality meats and fish, blended vegetables, fruits and healthy carbohydrates.

Craig’s roots are firmly embedded in the county having moved here when he was 11 years old.

“My father, Richard, was a strong influence on me, both in character and as a businessman. He had held a senior role in the poultry industry in Yorkshire before we moved to Larling in 1977 so that he could take up a new position with a poultry business based near Watton.

“I joined Attleborough High School three weeks after the new school year had started and was regarded as a bit of an oddity with my broad Yorkshire accent. I was the youngest in my year as my birthday was in August and that meant that when I left Attleborough in 1981, I was still only 15. I enjoyed school and it gave me a stable education.

“Educational aspirations weren’t as high then as they are today, but it was my intention to go on to do a college education. So, after taking my CSEs, I set about enjoying a long summer holiday before starting at Wymondham College in September.

“Unfortunately, things didn’t go to plan. My results weren’t as good as expected and I was one grade away from being accepted into the college. I was very upset as you can imagine. I wanted to go onto the next level of my education and now I didn’t know what to do.”

However, this disappointing episode in Craig’s life was to prove to be the defining moment that shaped his future.

A few months earlier, his father had taken the plunge, left the poultry business he worked for and started up a company called Anglian Meat Products Ltd trading from a small industrial unit based in Watton.

“I remember sometime around 1979 / 80, sitting in the back of the car and my parents were talking about starting a business and what they were going to call it. Father had the idea of taking the spare bits of poultry and turning it into raw pet food by mincing it up. And, as you did to get a business off the ground, he financed it on very limited capital and by getting a bank loan and extending the mortgage.

“So, it had always been the intention that when I had finished my CSEs, I would fill in my summer holiday working at the new business doing the usual sweeping up and tidying around the place to keep myself busy.”

However, in July 1981, Craig’s family life entered a turbulent period when his parents started the process to part and eventually move on with their lives.

“The upshot was that I went to live with Father in a caravan beside the factory in Watton, which proved very handy as I fell out of the van straight into the factory yard and enjoyed many pub dinners at the Hare and Barrel pub just up the road.

“This lasted for a matter of weeks as both me and my Father struggled to operate the caravan cooker. But in that time, and having not achieved the grades for college, Father offered me a job and took me on at Anglian Meat Products, grinding up the pet food and putting it into bags.”

“Father wanted to teach me the business, but he wanted me to learn
from the bottom up. So, I cracked on and focused on the job.“

 Craig grabbed the opportunity to start work. He was earning £30 a week for a 55-hour week and travelling to and from work on a little moped he had shared with his younger brother.

“One funny story, although it wasn’t funny for me at the time it happened, was when I was 17 and back living at home. Father told me how well I was doing, and he was going to put my pay up to £45 a week. There was a sting in the tail however, when he told me he was going to start deducting £20 a week from my pay for board and lodging so I would learn to appreciate the value of money; in effect meaning I was taking home £5 a week less in my pay packet!”

Becoming a responsible adult

Two big moments for Craig happened when he was 18.

Firstly, he bought his first house in Carbrooke, near Watton for £23,640 having managed to save up £2,000 and get a mortgage.

“Father recommended this as a great investment, but I was ready to fly the nest and the thought of a house with some friends and a beer sounded great. It also now meant that I didn’t need to travel to and from work on my moped in the freezing cold and pouring rain.

“To help with money, I took in a couple of lodgers who were guys that I worked with in the factory. They were the same age as me and our life was a bit like the TV comedy series ‘Men Behaving Badly’. There was no central heating, we only had electric heaters to keep warm. Once a week, we all descended on the local Gateway Supermarket and we’d do our weekly shop. However, I had to hide the food so that everything didn’t get eaten up by Monday by my lodgers.

“We were all teenagers and I remember one time getting the electricity bill through the post and it was a whopping £380! That was a great deal of money and I even got the electricity board out to check that the meter was working correctly. It turned out that my lodgers were turning on the electric heaters when I left for work and were leaving them on all day!”

The second moment came when Craig was appointed a director for Anglian Meat Products by his father.

“At 19 years old, I didn’t exactly know what it meant to be a director, but I signed up for the job. Then, at the same time I employed my first member of staff, Paul Wilcox, as a van driver. As my first appointment it was a good one. He stayed with the company for 26 years, before moving to New Zealand.”

It was also at this time, that Craig’s parents finally parted for good. His brother was at Norwich City College and his sister was still at school and they were living with their mother. They would both go on to eventually join the business, in which they still play a part to this day.

From the mid-80s to the mid-90s, Anglian Meat Products, or AMP as it was now called, grew and developed as a pet food company. Its USP was producing raw based nutritionally balanced meals for dogs using human grade meat and ingredients built around what the dog would want to eat naturally in the wild.

It was also operating a business model that is still in place today, managing its whole supply chain, from sourcing raw materials, processing its products, then packaging and delivering everything directly to its customers via its own fleet of vehicles.

In 1992, AMP opened its first regional delivery depot in Bristol which was quickly followed by depots in Leeds and Cumbernauld. Craig’s brother, Brandon, who was already in the business, moved down to Somerset to run the Bristol office, and their sister Paula joined the business in the accounts section.

At 26, Craig was appointed Managing Director when his father moved to live full-time at what had been his holiday home in Spain. Although thousands of miles away, he retained ownership and distance managed AMP from there.

“In 2010, I finally became mortgage free. I was now married and had two children
Elsa, born in 2000, and Archie, born in 2002, and we were living just outside Wymondham.”

 “The business was growing in turnover year on year and in 2008, AMP achieved sales of 10 million pounds. We had also started exporting to Europe.”

However, in 2011, as family businesses tend to do, the members of the family started pulling in different directions and there was a realisation that if the company was going to develop further, it needed to change.

Moving from first to second generation business

“We had what I think is probably a standard challenge of an owner-managed business, which was Father relinquishing the running of the company and having the confidence to allow his successors to take on
the responsibility.

“There were strict delegation and hierarchical rules. Father saw himself as the owner and I was his MD, and he called the shots.

“I knew the business needed investment and I knew there was an opportunity to drive the business forward, but I couldn’t get the support that I needed from Father, for the bigger picture stuff.

“Looking back, it was a very challenging time and the atmosphere was very negative. However, I can also see now that it wasn’t unreasonable for him to be thinking and asking the question, “why should we?” I was frustrated, wanting to take the business to the next level and Father didn’t need to take the risk.

“The biggest challenge for a family business when it moves from first to the second generation is how you manage the handover.”

Ironically, the trigger for change came from something that was beyond anyone’s control.

“Father was quite a private man and one day he called us out of the blue and said he was coming over to England and would we come and meet with him? We wondered what it was all about, but when we were together, he explained that he was extremely ill and to get better he needed to go into hospital for a bone marrow transplant. Because of this he wanted to sell the company and he had therefore put plans in place and appointed a representative to sell the business on his behalf.

“I was pretty stunned and shocked as this was the first I knew of his decision. I was 45 years old and I was faced with a future where I wouldn’t be working in the only business I had ever known.

“Over the next 12 months the company was marketed, and I then approached the representative and asked whether I could purchase it, if I could get the finance together.

“Having been on the market for a year, we knew what the market rate was for the entity, so I put a package together with Father’s support and bought it in 2012, becoming both the owner and the MD. As well as Father helping me, I was mortgaged to the hilt and had borrowed other money to pull together the several millions pounds I needed.

“I knew I was taking the greatest risk of my life taking on all this debt, but I also knew it was a fantastic once in a lifetime opportunity.”

One of the first decisions taken when Craig purchased the business was to change the company name from Anglian Meat Products to Natures Menu, an already leading brand for the business.

“We also got rid of three million pounds of turnover by discontinuing sales of a commodity range, so that we concentrated solely on Natures Menu products.

“This was a great opportunity to make the changes we needed to enable us to grow and develop as a business. So, I called the 72 employees together and told them our plan. That we were going to continue to do what we had always done, but we were also going to make improvements to all facets of the business; the products, marketing, service, sales and quality. We were also going to start reinvesting the profit we were making back into the business.”

It was a bold move, but a good one. Over the next couple of years, Craig managed to pay off the money he owed his father and then four years later, he cleared his debt to the bank.

“I’m extremely fortunate having worked solely in the pet food industry for over 35 years. I felt I knew the markets and trends and I believed that the team I had would break the standard business rules if we gave them the support and investment they needed.”

“As a young businessperson, everybody I spoke to would make the same standard quote:
‘turnover is vanity, but profit is sanity’.”

 “A business can easily lose focus and the role of an MD and the senior management team is to run the day to day operations tightly with a view to achieving targets and budget plans. I have a clear understanding of the costs and margins in the company and this is extremely important for running a profitable business. My father always told me, it’s about points of pennies and this mentality never left me.

“However, I rely on a good solid finance team which backs this up, as they are on top of all the financials in the business making sure we are performing well in the markets we operate in. From that, we can make decisions about how to remain competitive and whether we can consider adding a premium margin or a service, niche or quality value to a product or range.

“We concentrate on our core marketplace which is natural pet foods and control our selling price from a financial base, not a sales base. Although the sales and finance teams work very closely together, sales don’t control the price, we work together to grow sales at a realistic market value.

“Growing up in this business, I was shown the value of having financial reports produced monthly with strict timetables. We manage the cashflow extremely carefully with a close eye on stocks, debtors and daily outgoings.”

Following on from several awards received for innovation in the natural pet food market, in 2014, Natures Menu won EDP Business of the Year. Both the workforce and turnover were growing, and as part of the reinvestment plan, thoughts turned to creating a bigger and more modern facility.

Investing in new facilities

“We wanted to bring the company all under one roof as we were operating from two facilities in Watton and Hingham in Norfolk. This was going to be a huge project and a major milestone for the company.

“One thing I knew I wanted to do, was to use a small number of local contractors; all who I already knew. We did everything from sourcing the land, drawing up the plans, appointing and putting together the contractors and the site team to build the facility, and working with the project team to deliver the whole scheme.”

A 10-acre site adjacent to the A11 at Snetterton was identified and six acres were set aside for the new £12.6 million state-of-the-art two-storey facility which would house manufacturing, offices and warehousing all under one roof.

The building was finished and opened for business in August 2017, a year after Natures Menu had joined forces with Affinity Petcare and Natures Variety to develop a worldwide group of pet specialists in raw inspired nutrition. The Norfolk workforce now exceeded 200 staff.

“If you don’t have a strong financial grip on your business, you can’t succeed. Our continued growth comes from the fact that we are a strong profitable business. We are very good at making sure our profit has taken account of everything else. A business must make profit to survive and invest.”

“We are a very disciplined, focused, rigidly organised business
as that is the only way to survive.”

“It’s a non-stop grind and there isn’t a moment when you don’t go to sleep and wake up thinking about the business. I didn’t ask for this career. Circumstances and opportunities put me on this path. I am extremely proud of what we’ve achieved and there are many moments along the way that I have really enjoyed, and lots of mistakes which hopefully teach you some valuable life lessons.”

There are also personal lows, and the usual stereotypical path of being a busy business owner and operator eventually resulted in Craig’s own marriage breaking down. He rationalises that this was a casualty of the stresses and worries of owning and running a business; something which inevitably takes its toll on even the strongest of friendships.

In 2018, Natures Menu was awarded ‘Supplier of the Year’ from Pets at Home. And in an aim to enter the dry pet food market and to gain access to southern Europe, the company is now part of a joint venture with Spanish pet food company Affinity Petcare.

“Today, we are the world’s largest producer of raw pet food. We employ 228 employees and our sales are due to achieve around £70 million retail sales this year. We sell to speciality pet stores, pet superstores like Pets at Home and now deliver around 1,100 orders a day around the UK.

“All products are made in Norfolk and then we use our distribution centres and our fleet of green delivery vans, to serve over 2,000 pet stores right across the country. We retail 380 to 400 tonnes of pet food a week. That’s a lot of dogs to feed each week!

“The Natures Menu as a brand continues to grow but we’re still not known to many people so that’s something we intend to work on in the future.

“Norfolk will always be our home though. The people who live here are committed, reliable and trustworthy. As the region has a lot of agriculture and food production, they understand our market and are loyal. Our workforce mostly come from that background and that is a big benefit.

“After nearly 40 years in the same business, I get out of bed in the morning and still see the people at Natures Menu striving to succeed and advance the business, products and service with such a passion.

“My ambition is for Natures Menu to be the best it can be and achieve the top potential I know it is capable of with the great team we have around us.”

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