My top tip? Employ the best, says Charlie Bigham

Food entrepreneur Charlie Bigham talks to Irene Graham, CEO of the ScaleUp Institute, at the Evening Standard SME XPO                                               Picture: ANNABEL MOELLER

Charlie Bigham, the entrepreneur behind the hugely successful eponymous food brand seen in all the best supermarkets, takes no time in passing on his No 1 tip to would-be small business owners. “Employ brilliant people – even if you can’t afford them,” he says without hesitation.

“When I look back, I think ‘wouldn’t it have been great if we’d have had some great people a year earlier, two years earlier and we would have moved forward much faster’,” he says. “I definitely recommend employing people better than you can afford.”

Bigham, who has been running his own company for the best part of 30 years – the business posted sales of almost £133m in the year to August 2023 with profits rising almost 22 per cent to £5.6m – is speaking at the Evening Standard’s SME XPO where hundreds of entrepreneurs are gathered to soak up advice from the experts about how to set up and run their own business.

“Those of us who have their own businesses are very lucky,” he tells them. “It’s much easier to believe in something that is your idea and you’re doing from the start. It’s a bit harder to do that if you are working for someone else. I’m delighted to say I have got lots of people I work with who also believe in what I believe in and believe in what we are doing. You’ve got to project huge confidence in what you are doing.”

In the early days of a business, Bigham suggests keeping your ambitions realistic. “The first five years are just about survival,” he says. “Your first job is to get a healthy, profitable, stable business but when you have done that, then you can start to give back. We stopped using plastic in packaging 15 or so years ago. We didn’t tell anyone about it, we just thought it was the right thing to do. And now we have become a B corp which has validated a lot of the good stuff we were already doing. B corps means very little to consumers but I think you should do it if you can because it’s the right thing to do and, for us, it is self-funding because it helps us attract good people and hold on to good people.

“As we are now a bigger business it costs us about £50,000 a year to be a B corp business but we’ve got all of that back every year by not having to use recruitment consultants. There are a lot of talented people who, when thinking who they might like to work for, look at the B corp businesses in the sector they want to work in. Basically, you’re balancing people, profit and planet. It’s a badge of honour and really helps us attract the brightest young people who want to work in our sector. It also helps us to communicate internally so that everyone understands better what we do.”

Looking ahead, Bigham’s main aim is to improve the quality of his food, even if that pushes his pricing structure to the limit. He says the cost of ingredients, staff and energy have all increased in recent months but he won’t cut corners to reduce costs. “Consumers will need to get used to this new world. I think some people are hoping it’s going to flip back to the old world. It’s not, because these are structural changes.”

As he comes to the end of his talk, Bigham has one final piece of advice. “I don’t believe in regrets, I don’t think they are very useful,” he says. “What’s happened has happened. If you’ve made a mistake, learn from it, move on and forget about it. We all learn huge amounts from our mistakes. I love working in the business. I’m proud of what we do. I think we’re just in the foothills of potential. So, there’s plenty to keep me busy and engaged.”