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#31 – Industry and Impact Leaders: Staying Mission-Focused with the #1 Baby Food Company in the UK    

with Mark Cuddigan, CEO of Ella’s Kitchen

Mark Cuddigan - Ella's Kitchen

Mark Cuddigan is the CEO of the number one baby food company in the UK, Ella’s Kitchen. After reading an article about Microsoft employees creating solutions for refugees, he became inspired to make change. He had a full professional life before joining the Ella’s Kitchen team, but the company transformed his life as it opened up his perception of how business can best run for itself, its employees, and the world all at the same time. 

Ella’s Kitchen is not only the number one baby food company in the UK (and growing). The company has become a leader in social business and an advocate of B Corp certification. As the head of sustainability for the Hain Celestial Group, Mark’s practices around learning, leading, and working for society’s benefit extend far beyond his role as Ella’s Kitchen CEO.

In our episode, Mark talks about the epiphany that brought him into the world of socially-conscious business and explains why he strongly encourages others to join the community. He shares perspective on the unlimited potential (and responsibility) business has to create solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems and the importance of creating a supportive work environment for employees to set the foundation to expand your mission.

Image result for mark cuddigan

Photo by: The Telegraph

A few takeaways from our conversation:

  • How to lay the foundation within your company to ensure success outside.
  • Business has the capacity to create the solutions the world needs and to do it when we need it: now.
  • “We are the first generation of leaders that won’t be able to look back and say we didn’t know. So the question is what are we going to do about it?”

Show Transcription:

00:07 (Cory) — Hey y’all. It’s Cory here with the Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation Podcast hosted by Grow Ensemble, a digital marketing training and consulting company that helps better businesses and better business people expand their impact through expanding their presence online. On today’s episode, I’m speaking with Mark Cuddigan, the CEO of Ella’s Kitchen, the number one baby food company in the UK. In our chat, Mark introduces us to his origin story with better for the world business and shares with us how Ella’s Kitchen has become a leader both in the space of baby and toddler nutrition, as well as the B Corporation certification movement. We learn from how Mark and Ella’s Kitchen has fostered an environment that produces purpose and a highly profitable thriving company. In our next episode. We talk about the lost identity of refugees, the very present climate emergency, and what Mark feels the role of business leaders to be in addressing these critical global issues.

01:07 But before you dive in, if you are uncertain as to whether your impact-driven business’s digital marketing strategy will grow both your business and your impact, I recommend you head over to Growensemble.com/assessment to checkouts are little free of self-assessment tool that we’ve assembled for social business leaders like yourself to see how your current digital marketing efforts are stacking up. Want to help you build out a little bit of a to-do list to help construct a strategy that will get you long-term results and help expand your business’s impact to the levels that you hope. Again, that is grow ensemble.com/assessment. Alright, let’s get onto the show

01:51 (Mark) — So my name is Mark Cuddigan. I am the CEO of Ella’s Kitchen. We are a baby food company, the number one baby food company in the UK. I am also the head of sustainability for the Hain Celestial Group who are a NAZDAQ listed company with business units all over the world.

02:10 (Cory) — And so how are those roles crossing? Is that quite demanding? 

02:13 (Mark) — Yes, it is pretty demanding. I mean I’ve always believed in one of my great passions is sort of B-Corp community and people using business as a force for good. When I normally say that my wife kind of switches off. So I hope your listeners haven’t already sort of switched off. So for me to take on more responsibility and to get involved with all sort of the mothership, I suppose that the bigger corporation Hain Celestial was a no brainer on something that I’m just like really passionate and excited to get involved in.

02:45 (Cory) — So where did that originate for you? I guess this belief that business was or had the potential to be a force for good?

2: 52 (Mark) — That’s a really good question. So I mean I’ve been involved sort of running my own company, sold companies that I’d been involved in, basically sold stuff to supermarkets for the last 25 years and it was only–actually the reason why I joined Ella’s Kitchen because Ella’s Kitchen has always been a mission-based companies. So how I describe that as a company that’s not just set up to make money. And the thing that changed my life is a story I read. It must be about eight and a half years. So just before I joined Ella’s Kitchen, and it relates to the UNHCR. So the story that changed my life is something that I’ve read about in a UK newspaper, about nine years ago and it relates to the UNHCR, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

03:35 And it just kind of, I’ll tell you the story, but it really, I don’t know, it’s like a sort of, some sort of epiphany. I just read it and I thought, wow, this is what business could do, and this is actually what business should be doing. So the UNHCRs, they look after refugees. And if you can imagine one of the first problems, particularly war-torn countries that refugees face is obviously food, safety, and security. Closely after that, believe it or not, is a loss of identity. So, imagine Cory, you know, I drop you somewhere on the planet, you know, someone Africa, wherever it may be. And I take away all your identity and you come up to me and say, you know, “My name is Cory.” And I say, “Is it? Is it really? Is that really your name?” And not loss of identity’s a really, really powerful thing.

04:19 And in 1999 six hundred– true story, 650,000 people left Bosnia, left the war of Bosnia over long weekend going over rocky terrain. They were faced with the problems that refugees are always faced with, with food, safety, security, and also the loss of identity. But coupled with that, you’ve got 650,000 people going over rocky terrain in a camp of over a million. You have families getting displaced from each other. So imagine if you’ve got children, I’ve got two girls, you go over into this camp, you lose your kids. How long before you see them again? Six months. A year? Ever? You may never see them again. And there’s this true story of three French Microsoft technicians is having lunch in Paris and one tells the other two and says, “Have you seen was front page of La Monde?” And they’re like, yeah, yeah, we have. And he said, so the UN, they need a program, right?

05:08 It gives the UN the ability to give people an instant passport, an ID, and then the ability to track people so they can match families up together. And the other two are like, yeah. And he’s like, well, we’re pretty good at this, aren’t we? This is what we do. So he went through his boss, who went through his boss who went all the way to the Microsoft board and the Microsoft board was like fine. Crack on, have a go. And they sent 40 French technicians, to the Balkans. Within three months it solved the problem. And they came up with this. It’s basically like a glorified briefcase. You open it up, it gives you the ability to give instant identification, and then it gives the UN the ability to match families up together. And I read this and I thought, you know, there’s no government that could have achieved what Microsoft achieved.

05:51 And actually, you know, one of my big bugbears is we’re waiting for government. Everybody’s waiting for government to make a declaration about carbon. We’re waiting for government to pass laws. It’s like we shouldn’t wait for the government. We know what’s the right thing to do and what’s the wrong thing to do. If we wait for government, it will be too late. So there’s no government in the world that could have achieved what Microsoft achieved them. Why should they be able to? And there’s probably not another company on the planet that could have achieved what they achieved so quickly. And if you think about the technical brilliance, the creativity that we have within our companies, all in individual areas. So Ella’s Kitchen—we’re brilliant when it comes to children’s nutrition and we spend money on things and doing studies, no one else is going to do. If you think about brilliance that we have inside our companies, if we can turn it to society’s benefit.

06:40 Yeah. It doesn’t have to be all of our time, you know, all of the time. But if we could just turn it to society’s benefit in some small way, the commercial benefits the organizations obvious. Right? What if you’re one of those technicians, what would you now to think about Microsoft? What would you think about the work that you’ve done the year end? You’re going to think this is one of the best things I’ve ever been involved in. Or I certainly would. Even if you work in the office, the Microsoft office in Paris, I’m sure you’d be really, really proud being part of something really, really important. So the commercial benefits, even if you’re an interested in money, which I’m not, but even if you are, it’s so blindingly obvious that doing good, not in a CSR way but in a proper way is a benefit to everybody. And for me that’s kind of part of the ethos and part of why I love the B Corp community is it has that at its heart. So there’s a long winded answer to your story, so it’s your question. Sorry.

07:37 (Cory) — No, that’s great. I mean it seems to be an important point of noticing very honestly what are the crucial roles and strengths as well as weaknesses of both government and institution. And you know, these independent more private organizations. And so, you know, you, you take that story in, you know, you’re clearly impacted by it. How does that then tangibly show up in your professional life next? Is that what led you to Ella’s Kitchen?

08:03 It’s what led me to Ella’s Kitchen. So I had a conversation with Paul Lindley who set up a Ella’s Kitchen. He was Ella’s dad, and Ella’s his eldest daughter. And he set up Ella’s Kitchen very much with you know, values at his heart but also this mission, which our mission is to improve children’s lives through developing healthy relationships with food, basically around food and nutrition for kids. And I was really, really taken with him and what he was trying to achieve and thought, wow, this is going to be different. And honestly, it’s changed my life. It is the best place I’ve ever worked. It will be the best place I’ve ever worked when you know, when and if I eventually, when I leave Ella’s Kitchen, it’s been absolutely incredible. I’m so proud of, you know, the work we do both around our mission and driving the B Corp community is yes, it’s honestly, it’s been amazing.

08:57 (Cory) — And so I picked that up in an interview he had with the independent where you said that explicitly the Ella’s Kitchen had roughly changed your mind about business, how it can and should be done. Can you say more about how that’s showing up for you in the Ella’s Kitchen team?

09:14 (Mark) — In terms of what we’re doing? Well, I mean, we do so much around our mission. I hope my boss isn’t going to listen to this, but, you know, we do load and loads of the things that don’t pay commercially. I sit in loads of meetings where, you know, the simple question will be, is this right? Is this right for our mission? Should we be launching this product? Should we be launching this campaign? Is it the right thing to do? And often we’ll say no. Often we’ll say yes. But having that test in a company is pretty cool. When it comes to B Corp, you know, I spend, again, I hope my boss isn’t listening, but I spend a lot of my time in other companies’ boardrooms, going to see other companies, trying to make them become more purposeful.

09:54 Or I guess see the light with regards to the B Corp community or tell them about the B Corp community and tell them why they should be joining. You know, I passionately believe—I had someone talk the other day—it was during the talk. We are the first generation of leaders that won’t be able to look back and say we didn’t know. So the question is what are we going to do about it? And for me, you know, the BIA, so the assessment from B-Corp is a brilliant tool. You know, we now use the assessment. I think we’re one of the only companies to do this, but hopefully loads of other B-Corps will do it. But we use the assessment on all of our supplies. And our creative agency, called Havas in London, who are probably one of the biggest creative agencies in the world.

10:40 They’re part of Vivendi who wanted the front’s biggest companies. They certified as a B Corp in December because of us, and I went to that sort of official unveiling to there about whole team in London in King’s Cross and truly I said to them, “This is one of the proudest moments of my life and I didn’t even work for you.” You know? And it’s realizing the impact. You know, we’re a small company, we’re a small team, but we punch above our weight. And when I talk to other companies, it’s not good enough now just say you’re a great company. It’s not acceptable. I don’t think a CEO can get away with saying, I run a great company now. Whilst thought it’d be great what you want. Do you want to metal? Do you want a pat on the back?

 11:21 No. Your responsibility if you’re running a great company is to inspire other companies to follow your lead. We’re in a whole world of trouble literally with global warming. We’re not going to get out of it by people being selfish or looking after themselves. We need to help other companies and we need to inspire other companies. And that’s kind of what I’m trying to do with Hain Celestial, out parent company and realize, you know, I’m going to talk to them. We’ve got eight and a half thousand people that work for us worldwide, but I reckon there are about 10 million in our supply chain. So if we can lead our supply chain on this journey to become B Corp certified, I know that in big ways and little ways, but every single person who works for one of those B-Corps, their lives would have been impacted. We also know that the impact those companies have on the environment and the planet, would be reduced and that’s a pretty cool thing.

 12:16 (Cory) — And so you, you joined Ella’s Kitchen in 2011 and it sounds like you transitioned to CEO a taking over for Paul a couple of years after. With y’all becoming a B corporation in 2016 and now then influencing other companies to do the same. And that seems to be quite a point for y’all to have gone to, you know, going from the transition to you as CEO. How did those steps lead itself to then in this kind of, it seems really large, I guess snowball of not only your company certifying but you know those in your supply chain and as well in any other partners you’re working with.

 12:57 (Mark) — Yeah, it is. I suppose. I’ve not really thought about it like that. It’s been quite a journey, you know, and we’re really proud. We’re only the second company to have satisfied whilst being part of a PLC after Ben and Jerry’s at Unilever. But that has been a journey, but we’ve been of phenomenally successful. We’ve doubled in sales since we were born. Our profit is his tripled and that’s all about the team. And it’s all about having an engaged and happy and fulfilled team. That’s what produces results. That’s what creates a great company. There’s a lovely quote from Simon Sinek, isn’t it: customers will never love a company until the employees love the company first. So it all starts with your employees and creating the atmosphere where they can thrive and be the best they can be, will result in a great company. I know that sounds a bit simplistic, but that’s fundamentally what I believe. You got to have a great idea, you know, that connects with consumers in some way. But yeah, for me it’s all about the team.

14:00 (Cory) — And so how are you creating that atmosphere at Ella’s Kitchen? Do you feel like it’s, in part, there’s some great instruction and guidance from the B Corp certification. Is that perhaps some guideposts or is there other kind of figuring out that y’all have had to do to foster that kind of environment?

14:18 (Mark) — I think to be honest, when we initially joined the vehicle community is because it felt like home. It felt the B Corp values–it just felt like, wow, well why aren’t we already part of this community. So, but sort of going back, when Paul set the company up, he set it up with values. You know, we’ve got five values at Ella’s Kitchen and we live and breathe them in our every day. Now, you know, lots of companies, we do have them on the wall, but lots of companies put that their values on the wall, but then they never live and breathe them. And you see all these scams that are happening, you know: Enron, Arthur Andersen, you know, they shared the same values. They shared the value of integrity. Well were they, do you maybe think they weren’t, you know, they have values…Volkswagen you know, you look at the emission scandal. If they’d been properly living and breathing their values, they would have looked at the decisions they were making and gone, oh hang on a second, should we be doing this?

15:14 And because we live and breathe the values because we have KPIs set against the values because we talk about them the whole time they come to define, well I believe they come to define how we behave internally with each other. But also importantly they come to define how we behave with our partners. And I mean suppliers, customers, everything. And I think people want to coalesce around values because then if you do it properly, it creates this sort of family atmosphere where everybody’s looking out for each other and I the whole political then you get in lots of companies, we don’t have that at Ella’s Kitchen. The whole hierarchy. We don’t have that at Ella’s Kitchen. You know, the absolute belief in autonomy and creating leaders at every level of Ella’s Kitchen- that is something that we fundamentally believe in.

16:05 You know, everybody wants to make decisions. I saw a guy who’s become a friend of mine, David Marquet, he’s written a brilliant book, he was in the U.S. navy, called Turn the Ship Around! his brilliant, brilliant book. And I saw him talk recently. He said, you know, driving engagement and happiness and work is a two-step process. Step one, let your people make decisions. Step two, you don’t. And I love the simplicity of unit. Fundamentally everyone wants to make decisions. So there are lots of things that sort of went into the magic mix to create this sort of special culture. But I think yeah, the values are the heart of creating that culture. Yes, we’ve got the mission. Yes, we, you know, we’ve got C-Corp and everything else but the values are very much the sort of the heartbeat of the organization.

16:49 (Cory) — And so what was it like for you mentioned that Paul had established these values previously with Ella’s Kitchen. What was it like for you to step into the company and learn and adopt these, and understand these yourself.

17:04 (Mark) — I think it was relatively easy to get the values and I didn’t look at them that way. You know what I mean? They all–I just looked at them all and thought–so I’ll go through our five values. So they are: We’re childlike. We think differently. We are good to each other. We want to win. And we are business minded. So I looked at all of those and we defined them out— it’s this, it’s not this. And I thought, wow, yeah, this works, you know? And some of them brought a smile to my face and you know, being very much a sort of commercial person, the wanting to win and the business minded, I was like, yeah, those work as well. So all of them just, I don’t know, they just–I could relate to all of them. So that made it quite easy because I’m not then trying to–so we’re going to be very much employ people based on our values. So if they didn’t work for you, that’s fine. Then don’t join the company. So for me, you know, looking at the values, I was like, yeah, these again, they feel kind of like home.

18:03 (Cory) —And it has me curious, you know, with Ella’s Kitchen being the largest UK baby food company now, what do you feel like separates y’all from other, I guess, social businesses who have not yet achieved the level of success that y’all have. You know, folks who are interested in providing a greater sense of purpose for themselves and their staff. What do you think separates y’all?

18:29 (Mark) —I’m not really sure I understand the question. I mean, what separates, what’s stopping them being successful, you mean?

18:35 (Cory) — Sure. Stopping them or perhaps you know, what opportunities do you feel like y’all at Ella’s Kitchen has seized that they might be able to themselves?

18:44 (Mark) — A lot of the things we’ve done. We’ve never concentrated or we never really thought about our competitors and that I don’t want that to come out as arrogant. We’ve just always focused on ourselves. We focused on doing the right thing. And you know, that doesn’t mean we always do the right thing because businesses are full of people and I make more mistakes than anyone else. We make mistakes, but then we’ll look at them and go, did we do the right thing there? Okay, maybe we didn’t do the right thing. I can, let’s correct it. So I think that sort of relentless focus on our philosophy, we have this sort of kids-first philosophy. So everything we do is from a child’s point of view. So our job titles, our columns, everything. Everything we do is from a child’s point of view of the packaging, the design, everything.

19:27 So we have specific things that are very much defined- well you’d define as Ella’s Kitchen I suppose, and you’ve got the values and you’ve got the mission. So all those sorts of things. But actually we just focus on doing a great job and we don’t get distracted by what our capacitors are doing. I don’t wish any of our competitors ill, you know, I want them to thrive and succeed. And this idea that you get in certain businesses of, oh we’ve got to go after that brand, that we’ve got to go after that brand. We’ve never had those that as an ethos at Ella’s Kitchen. It’s just focused on the team. So I would say, you know, if I go into another company, my focus will be on creating a great atmosphere, creating a great culture, and making a safe space for people to enjoy their work.

20:14 You know, this idea of, Cheryl Sandberg talked about this, so I think it’s becoming kind of a thing that everyone talks about, but this idea that you’re a different person at home that to the one your work is crazy. You should be able to be yourself. And if yourself is a little bit crazy, brilliant, bring it to work. If you’re going to live within the values, amazing. You know, we’re all different. So this idea of you have to conform to a certain stereotype or certain person is just–that’s not going to make you happy. It really isn’t gonna make you happy.

20:48 (Cory) — And so now looking forward for you and Ella’s Kitchen, it seems like you all have quite the investment in the greater community surrounding y’all, your supply chain and partners, and what are things that are on the agenda for perhaps the rest of 2019 and looking forward?

21:04 (Mark) — So, we released our first sustainability report this year, so about six months ago, which we’re really, really proud of. So we’ve now got to hold ourselves to account and be transparent and honest about the things that have gone well and the things that have not gone so well. So we are pushing very much from the, sort of the sustainability of, we call it Our Dream in terms of, you know, we’re always looking to increase sales, whether that’s new products, new subcategories in the baby aisle. We launched new freezer range, which is really, really exciting with Tesco in the UK. And then why not. Yeah, you’re right. We want to inspire and persuade and cajole a supply chain to, start satisfying as B-Corps because we feel that’s the way that we’re going to get out of this mess, that we’re in, and you know, into an extinction rebellion.

21:53 I don’t know if you’ve heard of the Extinction Rebellion event last week and it’s really quite sobering. The UK government announced the climate emergency, so parliament has announced that we’re in a climate emergency, but nobody’s asking why. Why are we in a climate emergency and what are we going to do about it? And I was, oh, very well saying we’re in a climate emergency. I believe we’re in a climate emergency primarily because of business, some of which have done it on purpose and some of which didn’t. But the way out of this is going to be business. So yeah. So what’s up in the next year? I hope we will sell more. Hopefully we’ll make more profit. We’ll do more good with regards to our mission. We’ve got loads of exciting things we can do on a mission. We’re going to continue to lead the way with our dream and sustainability and also with our suppliers. And then for me personally, I’ll be all millennial and make it all about me. Even though I’m not a millennial. I’d love to be one but, I’m a few years off from being a millennial. I would like to do more good in the wider community with my role as head of sustainability.

22:57 (Cory) —And what does that look like for you?

22:59 (Mark) — Hmm, well I’m only a couple of weeks in so maybe I can come and tell you. I’ll give you some breaking news in a couple of months time when I have a new plan that’s been signed off by the executive leadership team in New York. But I have big plans.

23:18 (Cory) — Alright, well we’ll stay tuned. So before we sign off, Mark, I appreciate you taking the time. Is there anywhere else or anywhere specific that that folks should keep up with you and Ella’s Kitchen?

23:28 (Mark) — I’m not very good–I don’t tweet, so you know, actually I don’t even know how to get into my Twitter account. So definitely not Twitter. For me personally, I’m on LinkedIn quite a lot, so not really talking about Ella’s Kitchen, more talking about business and B-Corp, and all that sort of thing. And for Ella’s Kitchen, you know our websites and you know social media channels. So we’re big into sort of things like Facebook and Instagram.

But yeah, maybe I’ll come back with what I’ve got some more news.

23:56 (Cory) — We’ll look forward to it. We’ll look forward to it. Alright mark. Well we’ll link up to everything in the show notes so people can keep up with you and Ella’s Kitchen. Thanks again for taking the time.

24:05 (Mark) — Brilliant. Thank you very much.

24:07 (Cory) — Hey y’all that’s a wrap. I really hope you enjoyed this episode of the Grow Ensemble Podcast and as a reminder, if you are a fan of the podcast, please let us know. Hitting subscribe and leaving a review in iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts greatly influences other folks finding our show. As well don’t forget we have full show notes over at growensemble.com where I’d also advise you sign up for our newsletter. There you will be able to keep up with new releases, giveaways that we launch, and any events we host. Thanks again for listening in.