During Recycling Week (23-29th September), Piers Buck co-founder and CEO of baby food provider Little Freddie said the business had recycled its 500,000th pouch
Some parents may complain about the quality of the food that they can buy to feed their babies.
They might even then go on to make their own puree, yet few go as far as starting a business to sell other parents better food for their little ones.
But that's what happened after one couple's frustrations with the baby food industry led to the creation of an international multi-million pound business.
Fed up with the lack of quality ingredients, taste and quality sourcing credentials, Piers Buck and wife Taslim Ho created their own baby food brand in 2014 backed by their savings.
Piers left his role of CEO for investment bank Sinocap to start the baby food brand, Little Freddie – a venture he named after his son who was six months old at the time.
He also has a daughter, Amelia, who was aged 5 when the couple created the start-up.
The gamble paid off and Little Freddie is now one of the UK’s leading sustainable baby food brands boasting a £52.5 million turnover and employing 320 people worldwide.
The early days…
The business was officially launched in Hong Kong, where the couple live, but it was done with ambitions to launch in the UK too.
‘It made more sense to start here [in Hong Kong]. Then we launched in China in 2016 and in the UK half way through 2018', says Piers.
He explains that the Little Freddie brand has done well in both markets as the couple have expertise in Asia and Europe.
‘What is so interesting about Little Freddie is I am English and my wife is Chinese. We provide a perfect bridge between East and West', says Piers.
‘I think that all our products being EU organic and target the Chinese market and high-end Chinese mums favour high quality western products – that’s what they want and our brand appeals to them. With strong British credentials.’
Piers Buck pictured here with son Freddie, who is also the business' chief tasting officer, started his own baby food business back in 2014 along with his wife Taslim Ho
In the UK, the product is stocked in several retailers including Sainsbury’s, M&S, Boots, Amazon, Ocado, Daylesford and Eversfield.
Customers can also purchase pouches, finger foods and smoothies directly through the Little Freddie website itself.
Piers says the business was kick-started with £1.5million of the couple’s own money.
It was financially challenging with the couple not drawing a salary from the business in the beginning.
Maize is cheap and that’s what the majority of competitors’ food consist of. But we have a high quality base - Piers Buck, CEO, Little Freddie
They've also since secured investment for their business from China’s biggest private equity firm Hillhouse Capital which, through a joint venture with American private equity firm VMG Partners, is investing in consumer brands.
The money will be used to boost the company’s infrastructure and develop more products, which Piers says requires a lot of capital.
Piers says: ‘We raised our $1million seed capital round through Hill House Capital, which is very well regarded. We’ve done three further rounds and they contributed as well. In total, we raised $35million for the business.’
Passionate about food from an early life in France
Piers' relationship with good food started at an early age.
He says: ‘I grew up in five European countries and lived predominantly in France. I got exposure to good food and high end meals from a young age. That gave me a true passion and love of food.’
Besides the quality, one of his other issues with the brands at the time was that they didn’t offer a good alternative once babies were weaned.
Piers says: ‘If you’re taking a child off breast milk what you replace it with should have the same calories. They don’t have a lot of protein because protein is expensive. We have 80 calories per pouch which is similar to breast milk with 20 per cent protein.
He has the same issue with snacks offered to babies. He says: ‘Maize is cheap and that’s what the majority of competitors’ food consist of. But we have a high quality base.’
The founders of Little Freddie like to source their ingredients directly from the farms that provide the produce and will often visit them to ensure their quality
While there's plenty of competition, Piers doesn’t appear concerned and is glad that more providers of baby food have upped their game.
One of the companies that led the way on this - and is considered a benchmark - is Ella's Kitchen, launched in 2016 by British entrepreneur and former Nickelodeon TV executive, Paul Lindley. It was bought by US company Hain Celestial Group in 2013.
Piers says: ‘In last 12-18 months all the large UK retailers have their own range. Ella’s is the market leader and they are about 60-70 per cent of the price of Ella’s.
‘And if you take Sainsbury’s and Tesco they are 100 per cent organic products. There is not a lot of difference between an own label product and an Ella’s.'
He points to one major differentiator to his brand, which he admits pushes the price up and that’s personally sourcing the quality ingredients of his baby food.
He says: ‘I personally visit our farmers. I have been doing this for five years now and I visit hundreds of farms.
‘In Northern Germany there’s a cherry farm where we get our cherries and Somerset where I get yoghurt from. We know who we source from. We buy things from people and that’s real point of difference.’
'For us environmentally friendly packaging is a must'
Sustainability is also at the core of the business and during Recycling Week this year (23-29th September), Little Freddie recycled its 500,000th pouch.
The company’s recycling scheme, in partnership with plastic packaging recycler Enval, encourages parents to post the pouches back to Little Freddie at the company’s expense.
The other thing that has served us well, and I credit my wife with this, is our ambition. If your goal is to be the number one premium baby food brand you do more because just staying afloat is not enough. - Piers Buck, CEO, Little Freddie
Piers says: ‘The empty Little Freddie pouches can be posted via a free prepaid recycling bag. Ground-breaking technology then breaks down the components of the pouches into materials that can be re-used, leaving nothing to go to landfill.
Piers considers the recycling scheme a success adding: ‘What we felt was – and as you probably know - it can be confusing what to put in the recycling bin and by providing the bag would allow people to conveniently returned and one in four bags is returned to us.’
A family-owned business with the kids as critics
A few years since launch, the company is still owned and managed with the family in mind, with Amelia (8) and Freddie (6) roped in to give their critique on new products.
While a fussy foodie, Freddie is affectionately known as the ‘chief tasting officer’, while Amelia is willing to try more of the company’s range.
While many would see working with their partner as a challenge given the amount of time spent together and the differences of opinion, Piers maintains working with his wife and co-founder is something he treasures.
A family affair! Piers credits his business' ambitions to his wife who wants to ensure the company is the number one food brand. He's pictured here playing with his son Freddie and daughter Amelia
He says: ‘The reason it works for us is we’re not on top of each other all the time. I have even more respect for sole founders. Having your wife who knows and trusts you really helps, if I was on my own not sure I could do it. I really enjoy it. We work long hours.’
Some of those long hours have also been dedicated to the challenges that come with Brexit. However, Piers believes the company is equipped to deal with the UK's EU exit, now been extended to 31 January, 2020, because 70 per cent of the product is made in Britain.
Piers says: ‘We don’t think that exporting to Hong Kong will be impacted. We feel pretty comfortable that the steps taken will continue as usual.'
When it comes to running your own business, Piers says it’s important to have 100 per cent faith in yourself.
He says entrepreneurs shouldn’t be dissuaded by ‘failing’ pointing out that he knocked on many doors before financier Hillhouse said ‘yes’.
He adds: ‘The other thing that has served us well, and I credit my wife with this, is our ambition. If your goal is to be the number one premium baby food brand you do more because just staying afloat is not enough.
‘We have raised a lot of money and want to invest that cash. We’re not sitting on it. We are investing ahead of the curve as we have that ambition.’