COMING UP FAST: Steaming ahead with a vision for organic growth - Her all-natural food outlets have changed consumer tastes and influenced mainstream supermarkets, says Peter Stanford. Can Renee Elliott now turn Planet Organic into a major brand?

COMING UP FAST: Steaming ahead with a vision for organic growth - Her all-natural food outlets have changed consumer tastes and influenced mainstream supermarkets, says Peter Stanford. Can Renee Elliott now turn Planet Organic into a major brand? - The fl

by PETER STANFORD
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The flip-chart in the meeting room at Planet Organic's west London head office asks in big bold letters: 'Why work here?' Around that are the responses from what must have been a management training session They range from the standard - 'money', 'fun', 'pay for travel' - to the more idealistic 'because I care about the earth'. This is, after all, a growing chain of organic supermarkets.

But up there too is 'to support Renee', evidence of the degree to which the 36-year-old chief executive of Planet Organic, Renee Elliott, and the company that she founded have become indistinguishable.

Planet Organic, now in its fifth year of trading with a turnover of more than pounds 5 million and well-advanced plans to expand beyond its two London stores, is for Elliott a crusade as well as a business. 'Our core ideology is to promote healthy living and sustainable agriculture and to change the face of British retailing. It's ambitious, but we are undeniably getting there. Look at what the big supermarkets are doing now on organics.'

With the Tescos and Asdas hot on her heels, Elliott knows she has to develop her product if she isn't to be swallowed up. The expansion plan is part of the strategy. Her husband, an expert in commercial property, has joined the team and is seeking out new sites with what Elliott calls 'the right demographics'. That means she can't promise a store in Birkenhead in the near future, but the big provincial cities should see Planet Organic's distinctive blue logo up in lights on the high street.

Other ideas include an own-label range and the expansion of its publishing sideline. Planet Organic has already published three books. What Elliott hopes will keep her company ahead of the field is its continuing commitment to a core ideology. 'I've just been reading a chapter in a management book called Built to Last. It is entitled 'The Genius of the And', which sums up very well what we are hoping to do. If you have that added element in what you're doing - the And which goes with profitability - and you stick to it through thick and thin, then you have a better chance of surviving.'

Though she is physically very different - tall, elegant, blonde - it's hard when listening to the passion in Elliott's voice not to think of Anita Roddick 20 years ago, building by sheer force of personality a Body Shop chain rooted as much in concern for the environment as commercial imperatives.

Roddick had a rocky ride on the way and Elliott's rise to be an icon of the natural food movement has been anything but smooth. Her pioneering venture almost shut up shop within three months of opening in November 1995. The BSE scare of the following spring, however, brought customers rushing in and rescued Elliott from ruin. Then in 1999 she parted company with her original business partner and backers, a complex legal process that meant an 18-month delay in expansion plans. But having negotiated the obstacles, she is now steaming ahead once more, wiser, battle-hardened but no less visionary in her intent.

With the committed support of three new private investors - Peter Kindersley, founder of the publishers Dorling Kindersley and owner of the largest organic farm in the country; Alan Smith, chairman of Mothercare; and David Krantz, the man who was behind Blazer and Racing Green - Planet Organic has a substantial body of retailing knowledge behind it. It is no surprise then that it boxes well above its weight in terms of impact, attracting admiring references from the WHO and the leading marketing consultancy Interbrand Newell & Sorrell, which predicts that by 2025 it will join Gap and Amazon among the world's top brand names. This endorsement is all the more impressive because it emerged not from some industry boffins but from focus groups with the general public.

The idea for Britain's first one-stop organic supermarket occurred to Elliott on a trip back to her native America with her English husband, Brian. She was searching for something to do, having thrown in an unsatisfying career as a wine writer in London. 'I knew what I was looking for,' she says. 'Something that I could do every day, that I'd be happy doing and that was about more than making money.'

She had been toying with the idea of a healthfood shop and her elder sister told her to visit Bread & Circus, a chain of eight organic supermarkets around her home town of Boston. 'I couldn't believe it. I walked up and down the aisles. I got to the end and I said to Brian: 'This is it, this is what I'm going to do.' I just saw all that food around me and felt really happy.' Planet Organic was born.

The name emerged over a drunken dinner with another sister, Lauren. 'I was explaining the concept - think about what you eat, take responsibility for how it's produced - and she burst out with 'In One End'. When I explained why that was no good - it sounds like it should be followed with 'Out the Other' - she wouldn't let it go. Her next suggestion was Planet Organic.'

If her trip to the States gave Elliott the concept, she realised that before she sank her life savings into a British copy she needed to address some gaps on her own CV. She persuaded the owner of an up-market healthfood store, Wild Oats, to take her on as the manager, even though she knew next to nothing about the products, about dealing with staff or about running a shop. 'I just said to him: 'Hey, how hard can it be? I've got common sense and an incredibly strong work ethic.'' He was won over and she served a two-year apprenticeship before Planet Organic opened its doors.

That moment, she recalls, was simultaneously terrifying and exhilarating.

'We'd risked everything, but it just seemed like the right time. I'd just turned 30 and I felt that it was time to stop figuring out who I was and start getting on with it. And if it didn't work, we were young enough to start again. If you're not prepared to take that risk of failing, then you'll never do it.'

Elliott now admits that she made basic mistakes at the start. She hadn't realised how different running a business was from running a shop. It wasn't until three months later, for instance, that she hired a PR company - a decision she lists alongside the BSE scare as among the saviours of Planet Organic. And then there were her efforts to do without an accountant and rely on her own bookkeeping skills. She had no idea at all of how much money she did or - as it turned out - didn't have.

Once Planet Organic had turned that corner, however, its turnover grew dramatically - from pounds 1.4 million in the first year to pounds 2.8 million in 1997/8 and pounds 3.6 million in 1998/9. But for Elliott the sense of achievement is measured in other terms. 'The fear of BSE brought people here, but fear alone doesn't bring about change. It encourages people to learn about what they eat. We assisted in that and that learning is what brings real change.'

As food scare has followed food scare, the big supermarkets are developing organic product lines with gusto. Elliott has had most of them round her shops. Some make an appointment, others are more circumspect. 'I was sitting with a friend in the coffee shop next door one day and a coach pulled up outside Planet Organic. 'We're even on the tourist trail now,' I said as a joke, but then people got off and went in through the doors. When I followed and asked them who they were, they rather reluctantly admitted that they were from Sainsbury's.'

Elliott believes that Planet Organic has played its part in bringing organic products into the mainstream. It contributed to a process whereby consumers realised that price wasn't everything, and if they wanted quality and safety they would have to pay for it. The future expansion of her company can only deepen this realisation.

From working above the shop, Elliott has now set up a head office with centralised accounting and marketing functions. It will, she hopes, make expansion easier. Part of that process, she realises, will be for her to delegate more. 'It's going to be what I imagine it is like having a child. From the moment they are born, it is all a series of letting go, but I hope that I now have enough self-knowledge of what I'm good at and not so good at to let it happen.'

Already some things have changed. She used to give all the staff one-to-one inductions, but with numbers into three figures it is now impractical.

She only does groups. 'I know I'm going to have to be flexible, but I think it is also important to maintain that personal connection, that people realise they work for you and not just a company.' On the evidence of the flip-chart over her shoulder as she speaks, it would seem there is no danger of that.

HOW TO EXPAND

- Think carefully about potential new sectors that your brand can cover: you may want to market your product in a completely new area, or you may be able to add new strands to your existing business.

- Learn to delegate - the larger your organisation, the less likely it is that you can do everything.

- Scout well in advance for suitable new locations. Consider rent, likely demand and the local workforce.

- Hire professionals to handle the areas you're not so confident in - such as accounting and PR.

- Decide what your main role will be as head of the expanded company, and stick to it.

- Don't be afraid to lose business partners or backers who you feel are holding you back.

- Centralise your operations so they can easily cope with the extra strain.

- Don't rush into anything. Expanding a business too fast brings its own problems - instead take things at a pace you find manageable.

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