John Stapleton is an entrepreneur, business leader, CEO & Non-Executive Director with over 25 years’ experience in creating and building consumer brands in the FMCG sector.

Best known as co-founder of New Covent Garden Soup Co. and JS_4Sept_029_smore recently Little Dish, which supplies fresh, natural foods for children over one year.

John tells WORKlab about some of the challenges he's faced in his career, the importance of entrepreneurialism in his staff and why it feels so good to have a business which makes a difference.

1. Tell us about your business

In 2005, I co-founded Little Dish with my business partner Hillary. We supply fresh, natural healthy food for toddlers and young children, available on the chilled shelf of most national retailers. Little Dish created and established the chilled toddler food category and is the dominant brand in chilled toddler food (73% market share). The brand is all about making the lives of mothers easier. We’ve combined the benefits of health and convenience with food that tastes great. Toddlers gets a great tasting, nutritious, healthy meal with no added sugar or salt, designed specifically to help growth and development. Mothers can provide food, which is full of goodness that she doesn’t need to cook from scratch every day of the week.

After a gradual start, often the case when competing with very large retail names who dominate the chill cabinet with their own-label products, we are now seeing tremendous traction and are experiencing significant breakthrough in both retail distribution and consumer awareness. Staying close to the consumer and innovating products to meet these needs is key to our current success.

2. What excites you most about the work you do?

The benefits of being able to build a profitable business which can, in some small way, also be a force of good in the world, is very exciting. Little Dish cannot combat the obesity epidemic or the plethora of illnesses associated with poor diets single-handedly, but we can do our bit to give UK children a taste for healthy, quality food and therefore a great start in life.

I’ve been involved in creating and building consumer brands all my professional life, New Covent Garden Soup Co Ltd being my most notable, and first start up. The excitement one gets from fulfilling consumers’ needs and receiving feedback from consumers telling us how much we have impacted their lives is both humbling and uplifting. I still remember to this day the first time I saw someone pick a carton of NCGSC soup off the shelf – I followed them all the way to the check-out just to make sure!

3. How do you make your employees happy?

The key to having happy employees who want to stay with you and contribute to your business is engagement and communication. First you need to decide what your vision and values are and then ensure these are clearly communicated to attract the right type of people for the business. As an entrepreneur, your business is initially an extension of yourself, however, you soon need to attract and delegate to smart people who are better than you are at all the key functions of your business. Establishing autonomy with accountability enables “self-starters” to flourish while you then need to maintain the consistency you need in your business. Clearly communicating team roles and having a defined process for making business decisions and then implementing action drives both efficiency and employee engagement. Reward and recognition rounds off employee fulfilment and happiness – and a lot of that comes from working in a dynamic and engaged environment.

Discover what makes employees happy and what companies are doing about it


4. What qualities do you look for most in employees?

I always look for the entrepreneurial spirit in everyone I employ. If the culture of your organisation is strong enough, it will provide support for such people to flourish. Entrepreneurs need to have thick skin, not be fazed by set-backs and find creative ways around obstacles in their path. I also want people who have the drive to learn and grow. Training and personal development are such important elements of a dynamic and engaged team. This investment in people provides such a quick payback to serving customers’ needs and growing your business that one would be crazy to ignore it.

5. Tell us about a challenge you faced in your business and how you overcame it?

One of the biggest challenges we faced in the early days of Little Dish what finding a suitable manufacturing partner to make our healthy meals. Compared to our approach at NCGSC, where we were the first to market with fresh soup and therefore had to manufacture the product ourselves, at Little Dish we wanted to focus on building the consumer brand and leverage existing manufacturers to make the product. Manufacturers are reluctant to commit resources to a start-up without any established volume, but retailers typically want to commence with a limited number of stores as a test (therefore low volume). At that stage you are pitching just as much to potential manufacturers as you are investors and retailers. We were fortunate to find an established manufacturer who understood the needs of a fledgling brand and were willing to work patiently with us while the tests proved positive and store roll-outs started to materialise.

vito6. Other than your own, which other businesses are exciting you right now?

In the food and drink sector I’ve always liked brands that have managed to combine an appealing marketing position with sound product health credentials. One brand, which seems to be doing everything right at the present is Vita Coco. From an incredibly proactive distribution strategy to excellent consumer–focused brand awareness, combined with a health and wellbeing aspirational message; they are enjoying spectacular growth in 2014.

In the wider context, Samsung has to be admired. They have taken the breakthrough technology of Apple and bettered it in almost every consumer-facing aspect and managed to steal the “coolness” appeal from iPhone. At the same time, in delivering secure and reliable features, they have successfully gained a large section of the business customer market from Blackberry. No mean feat!

7. Please share your best piece of employee management advice

I have recently pulled back to non-executive director role at Little Dish in order to concentrate on my new passion – providing advice to FMCG brands on how to grow their businesses. With 25 years of experience in creating and scaling FMCG branded businesses, it feels like a good opportunity to help similar organisations embark and complete their own growth journey. To facilitate this, I had to develop a thorough succession plan to find a suitable candidate to take my place and then induct, train and mentor this person to take over and, with confidence, manage the business.

The message behind this experience is effective delegation. Without this, you will simply limit the growth potential of your business to your own personal capabilities. In my estimation, one needs to make a considered, and sometimes inspired, appointment; induct, train and develop the candidate against a set of established criteria, delegate thoroughly over a pre-agreed timeline, and stick to it. Finally, build autonomy with accountability, and once you’ve completed all of this, don’t ever interfere.

8. What car are you driving right now?

BMW 5-Series

9. What one business application/piece of software could you not live without?

I live in Munich and since shifting to the non-executive role at Little Dish, I’ve started spending a lot of time working with international clients both at home and in the UK. For me, I just could not do this without Skype. It’s an excellent resource and facilitates me to be in constant contact with the business I advise. When I plan on-site days it’s possible to prepare a lot of material in advance, and also to follow up on action points in a face-to-face context even though I may be in a different country at the time.

10. If you could employ one famous person who would it be and why?

I used to think it would be someone like Warren Buffet as I could learn so much from exposure to such an iconic businessman, investor and influential person. And, while this is still true, I would now pick Dale Murray CBE to work at Little Dish. She has shown remarkable market insight, business acumen and perseverance to set up and grow her mobile top-up business Omega Logic to turnover of £450M within five years. She is an inspiration to working mothers throughout the UK and would be a wonderful role model for Little Dish both for our aspiring entrepreneurial employees and our working mother consumer base, who are constantly striving to achieve a practical work-life balance.