How I beat the odds... Annabel Karmel

After the death of her daughter, the 'mumpreneur' has taken her baby food brand from her kitchen table to a global stage.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 26 Jan 2020

Homely is not the word you would think of when describing the offices of a global, multi-million pound baby food brand.

The site that hosts the offices of Annabel Karmel Group Holdings Ltd - owned by the best-selling children's food author and television personality Annabel Karmel MBE - sits on a mew of attached dwellings and small offices and counts the TV comedian Matt Lucas as a near neighbour.

‘I’m sorry for the clutter,’ says Karmel, despite there being little clutter. She revealed that they are currently in the process of knocking through into the next building and given the company’s recent growth, it is not surprising.

Over the last three years of trading the food manufacturing arm of the business (Karmel Food Ltds) has increased its revenues by 608%, reaching £7.3 million in 2017, and its chilled and frozen toddler ranges are now on shelves in the UK, Holland, UAE, Hong Kong and Australia among others.

It’s a rather stark contrast to when she started producing home cooked baby food recipes from her family kitchen but it is a rise that has not come without great personal tragedy.

Cooking a food empire

Karmel herself admits - and is proud of the fact -  that she has no formal business education, with a background in music she had a classical career as a harpist before giving birth to her first child Natasha. Tragically Natasha passed away after contracting a viral infection aged three months.’

‘That really just halted my kind of life. I knew then that I wanted to have another child and in some ways it also made me think that I really wanted to do something meaningful - I wanted to leave a legacy to Natasha and make some meaning come from her short life.’

When her second child Nicholas was born - Karmel says he's a very fussy eater - she started producing healthy home cooked recipes and sharing these with the mothers at a playgroup she ran. It was here that she was inspired to record them in a book.

In 1991 after numerous attempts to get a book deal, Annabel Karmel’s Complete Baby & Toddler Meal Planner was published with roaring success, selling 10,000 copies within three months and is still the second best selling hardback baby book of all time. Since then she has gone on to write 42 more, sold over six million copies and become a go-to source for baby feeding advice.

She started manufacturing food after receiving an 'out of the blue’ call from M&S, which wanted help crafting its own in store baby food range.

After working with M&S and then Boots to develop their own brands, Karmel decided to go it alone and hired a consultant to help her find a factory to start manufacturing her own range. Sensing an opportunity she produced a toddler range aimed at 1-3 year olds, an age group  she felt was grossly underrepresented when it came to healthy meals.

By 2006 her products were on sale in Sainsbury’s and are now also stocked in Tesco, Morrisons, the online supermarket Ocado and Iceland; a deal is in place to also see her products on sale in Asda.

A 2006 MBE for services to child nutrition followed as did investment and international expansion.

Saracen's rugbly club chairman Nigel Wray brought a 20% share in the company and in 2015 she signed deals to for her products to appear in Woolworths and Coles, two of Australia’s biggest supermarkets.

Having set up an Australian based manufacturer - to avoid the difficulty of exporting food to the country - this now represents one of Karmel’s largest markets and has been one of the key drivers of the the company’s recent growth.

Karmel as a boss

She says one of her biggest challenges has been getting factory produced recipes to hold the home cooked feel. ‘Quality is important to me. If it's not fine, I'm not willing to put my name to it. There is a lot of toing and froing until we get it right.'

But when it comes to her now 14 staff she prefers a more hands off approach as a boss, trusting her instincts in choosing the right employees.

‘I don’t like to micromanage. I think people don't react very well to you looking over their shoulder all the time and they almost start to become yes people. Having a successful business is about having the right team around you - it's always better to hire people that are much smarter than you.'

However Karmel is still very much involved in the day to day running of the business, balancing this with television work, writing and numerous public appearences.  She spends at least one day a week (usually Tuesdays) cooking new recipes and also personally runs the company on Instagram.

‘I know I'm the CEO of a company, but actually being immersed in it yourself you learn so much more than if someone else is doing it for you.’

Her secret recipe? She credits her endless productivity with working long hours and says she doesn't get tired, something she attributes to her mother Evelyn, who despite being 90, still works full time as an architect.

‘She has been a bit of a role model,’ recounts Karmel, ‘My father lost his business and she was a housewife at the time and she had to support the family. I realised then that you never know what life has in store for you and you've got to be able to rely on yourself.'

Mum's the word

As a leading baby food brand, it comes as no surprise that mother of three Karmel - in her own words the ‘quintessential mumpreneur’ - wants parenthood to be seen as a more positive thing by businesses and is keen to highlight the skills that motherhood brings to the workplace.

‘Mums that are returning to work after having children often lose their confidence but they should realise the organisational skills of being a parent are amazing.

The multitasking and the people skills for example - if you can deal with a fussy toddler you have great people skills - so don't underestimate the skills you learn or have to cope with as a mother. Most of the people that work for me are women and a lot of them are mothers. It's about confidence which is just as important as competence.’

But what is it that makes the Annabel Karmel brand different? In a market worth £733m  to the UK economy (according to Mintel), standing out can be difficult.

'We're an unusual brand, because most brands just have products in the supermarkets. But we're educators, we are the go to brand for advice on what to feed your child,’ says Karmel, highlighting her appearance at cookery shows, online meal plans and ‘hand holding’ role she plays with her clients.

The future

So after building an international baby food empire, you’d think Karmel would be content, but she’s got big ambitions.

Having just started a new phase of investor meetings to fund the next stage of growth, breaking into China is her next target, and she is already on the way to breaking through having signed a deal to become the feeding expert on the Chinese facebook equivalent WeChat.

'When you think there are 700,000 babies born in the UK (annually) and 18 million born in China, that is a huge market and is very underdeveloped at the moment. They like the western way of feeding so it is quite interesting.’

Despite her global appeal, for a mother who claims her products are found in 84% of all UK households with small children, the homely feel of her headquaters seems fitting and in truth she wouldn’t want it any other way.

Image credit: Annabel Karmel



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