A "small-town girl from middle America", Renée Elliott moved to the UK in the 80s and, aged 30, she opened the doors of her first Planet Organic store in Westbourne Grove, West London. It was to be the UK's first organic supermarket - and the first of eight locations.
After two years of running Planet Organic, Elliott's co-founder tried to remove her from the business she'd built. She spent 14 months in litigation followed by an 11-day battle at the High Court. She reveals how she survived, why she eventually stepped back from the business and how she's still "out there contributing".
I was born and raised in Pascagoula, Mississippi - a cow town in the American deep south. The youngest of four kids, I was always striving to get to the top. When I left to study English at university, my school friends dubbed me "most likely to succeed". I was hugely influenced by my parents: my mom was an incredible cook and made everything from scratch; my dad made us plant, weed and pick our own vegetables. Two books really shaped me. The first was Body and Soul: How to Succeed in Business and Change the World by Anita Roddick. She was a real role model for me – for her campaigning, for being thoughtful, sustainable, intelligent and treading lightly on the earth. The second was a book about the meat industry in the States. I was absolutely horrified and became a vegetarian that day.
Starting Planet Organic
I travelled around Europe as a student. I’d been partying at the Hippodrome in London one night and was on the N15 bus back to Dagenham, where I was staying. "Tall, Dark and Handsome" stepped onto the bus and we got chatting, I ended up moving to the UK – and we’ve been together for 31 years.
I started Planet Organic out of a sense of injustice: I just didn’t believe that supermarkets cared about people’s health. I wanted to bring organic food into the mainstream.
I had no sector experience at all – but I did have determination. I taught myself how to write a business plan then I stacked shelves at a health food store for £3.50 an hour until I became a manager and knew all the suppliers.
We opened the first Planet Organic store in Westbourne Grove, West London, in November 1995 – but I quickly realised that running a store is nothing like running your own business. After a few months, I thought we were going under. It was awful. We weren’t making any money and I could barely afford to pay wages.
Our fortunes shifted with the first BSE scare in March 1996 and then e coli later that year. Organic food took off. I didn’t want to pay for advertising but I did hire a PR agency: we got people’s attention and the business started to grow. By the end of the first year, we turned over £1.2m. By the end of the second year, we’d doubled revenues. We were the Mecca in London for organic food and we didn't really have any competition.
Fall outs and fight backs
After two years of the company flying, my business partner decided I should leave and he should have Planet Organic for himself. I was absolutely blindsided. We were in litigation for 14 months. I had to take out a second mortgage on our home. It was a frightening, exhausting experience – and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. The only way to get through it was to close ranks and only spend time with people who were supportive and positive. I meditated every day, I stopped drinking and I took care of myself; in an emergency, you have to put your own oxygen mask on first. I also read The Art of War by Sun Tzu. Its core message: know the enemy and know yourself.
In January 1999, the case went to the High Court and the trial lasted 11 days. I won – and he had to pick up the £560,000 legal bill. My husband Brian stepped into the business and we ran Planet Organic together for ten years.
When I married Brian, I said "I will never have children". It felt like way too much responsibility. But 17 years later, it was like someone suddenly flipped a switch; I was desperate to be pregnant. So we had three kids. But looking after the children and Planet Organic turned me into a nervous wreck. I was being torn in half. I could either hire a nanny or step away from the business to raise my children – and I chose the latter. That was a tough decision. We moved to Italy for a few years but I really struggled with my identity. I need to be out there contributing. So, in 2017, I co-founded Beluga Bean, a life and business skills academy. Now I’d describe myself as 50 per cent mom and 50 per cent businesswoman. I’m a mom first.
Even though I walked away from Planet Organic in 2009, I kept my stake. I speak to so many female entrepreneurs who say, "I want to be in control of my business." And then they go out, raise money to expand really quickly, and have someone breathing down their neck and telling them what to do. Be very clear about your position and priorities.
Stop focussing on the destination. Enjoy the journey.
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Renée Elliott was a guest speaker at Management Today's Inspiring Women conference. Join us at our next event in Edinburgh on 12th March. Hear from speakers including: Carolyn Currie, CEO, Women's Enterprise Scotland; Mark Logan, former COO, Skyscanner; Linda Grant, chairwoman, Virgin StartUp; and Nikki Henderson, record-breaking round-the-world skipper. Book your tickers here.
Image courtesy of Renée Elliott