Man on the bake

By Rod Addy

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Coeliac disease

Man on the bake
Few people have been privileged enough to work on some of the UK's highest profile food brands. But Stiletto Foods md Jeremy Woods has sung the praises of products from Wotsits to Pot Noodle in various sales and marketing roles over the years. How appropriate, then, that before he entered the food industry, he was a singer in a rock band that made a bid for the big time.

"I got into music quite heavily as a teenager,"​ he says. "In the early 1980s we released singles and got played by John Peel."​ But the group didn't enjoy chart success and Woods eventually made the hard decision to pursue a 'proper' career.

He didn't follow in his dad's footsteps, though. "My father was a design engineer who was part of the team that worked on Concorde and flew on the early test flights, so I've gone off on a completely different tangent."

He may not have risen to the dizzy heights of pop star status, but he's enjoying considerable success at the helm of the £15M gluten- and wheat-free Mrs Crimble's brand. Since he started what was "a very small distribution and wholesale business"​ in 2003 with two or three products, the company has swelled to become a manufacturer with almost 40 lines. It's now active in three main product categories: cakes, home bake mixes and sweet and savoury snacks. In the past year, it grew rapidly in retail and export channels and internally and externally the signs are good for 2012.

Less than a year ago Stiletto Foods announced new listings with the Co-op Group and extended its existing contracts with Tesco and Asda. Plus it has recruited a sales director in the form of Symon Aylen, from Fabulous Bakin' Boys, and appointed existing employee Gareth Toms to head up export sales to drive further expansion.

"We now have a dedicated resource for export,"​ says Woods. "We are doing very well in Ireland, where incidents of coeliac disease are higher than they are in many other countries. We started to supply the US market a year or so ago. We're just launching into Canada and we have started supplying Australia among other areas."

Denmark and the Middle East are further targets for growth and Woods has taken Stiletto Foods to trade shows Gulfood 2012 in Dubai and ISM in Cologne in the past month.

Another of his immediate ambitions is to increase UK sales of Mrs Crimble's outside of the 'free-from fixtures' of the supermarkets. In other words, exploring channels such as foodservice and convenience stores more, which will be challenging. "A convenience store doesn't have a 'free-from' fixture, so products have got to stand on their own merits."

Making the mainstream

Fortunately, Woods doesn't believe Mrs Crimble's will have problems breaking out of specialist categories. "Coeliac disease only affects 1% of the UK population. If the people buying our products today only bought them because they were necessary for their diet, I wouldn't have the business I do. That's why we rebranded in September 2011 to reflect the mainstream acceptance of gluten- and wheat-free products."​ That this growth is set against the background of the struggling global economy is all the more impressive. "It's not all doom and gloom. We posted double digit growth in 2011 and have consistently posted year-on-year growth."

Woods's early career has prepared him well for the success he has been able to achieve with Stiletto Foods. The UK economic climate has come full circle since he started out. "I came out of college in the early 1980s into a recession and didn't plan to go into the food industry, but that's where I ended up."

From the beginning, he was involved in sales and marketing roles. "I started in the ingredients division of Dalgety Foods [which was sold to Kerry Group in 1997]. This proved to be very helpful for my understanding of sourcing alternative ingredients."

From there, he shifted to sales and marketing for Golden Wonder. "I was Mr Cheesy Wotsits,"​ he says proudly. He went on to work on Pot Noodle, which was bought by Unilever in 1995. "I joined in 1993–1994, just as we were starting a big push into the youth market. We put trucks into music festivals and I vividly remember selling Pot Noodle to people at two o'clock in the morning at the Reading festival."

He worked briefly for Unilever in Europe and the US after it acquired Bestfoods in 2001, then he launched Stiletto Foods.

It proved to be a shrewd move, as Woods admits he doesn't fit easily into the kind of highly corporate environment that Unilever provided. "Am I happy out of corporate life? Yes. There were times when I found it frustrating. There were a lot of processes to go through, whereas when you start from scratch you just go for it."

Of course, he admits there are two sides to developing a small-to-medium-sized business. "In a bigger organisation you have help and experts all around you. If you have an IT problem, you go to the IT department. In a smaller outfit you have to do everything. I still remember my first attempt at wiring up computers in the office."

However, he says the whole experience is positively challenging and stimulating. "You have exposure to all aspects of business. I find that incredibly rewarding and I have learned so many new skills."

He's come a long way, but he believes so much more can be done at Stiletto Foods that when asked about the future, he says: "I'm committed to driving Mrs Crimble's to becoming a famous brand. I can't see any reason why it wouldn't be in five years' time."

In the meantime, the everyday comings and goings of the business are more than enough to keep things interesting. "I don't know what's going to happen in a day. One minute you get a big order, the next you might have a truck break down and you miss a big delivery.

"To me now it's about coming up with more ideas for the brand. I would say I'm an ideas man. For a small company, the things we come up with are very innovative. Having good ideas and putting them into practice is part of what gives me a buzz."​ More often than not, his inspiration comes just from "batting ideas around with people"​. Sometimes, his two teenage daughters even chip in with suggestions.

He sums up his personality by saying that he is "questioning, challenging, always looking for something different and not prepared to accept the obvious solution"​.

Woods steers clear of constructing too much of a wacky working environment just for the sake of nurturing creativity. But Stiletto Foods does have a simple white board on which staff can write suggestions about any commercial aspect they want to address. In tandem with this democratic approach to business, another principle he adheres to is: keep it simple. "One book that has made a big impression on me is Simplicity, by Edward de Bono. There's a tendency for everybody to over-complicate things."

He seems to have business strategy sorted, but what of his early aspirations to pop stardom? Outside of work, he hasn't given up on his early passion, although he has predictably toned things down a bit. "I'm a front man in a covers band. I won't claim I'm the best singer in the world, but I carry it off with enthusiasm."​ The group mainly plays charity gigs and has raised £125,000 in the past eight years. "We play everything from Buddy Holly and the Rolling Stones to Snow Patrol and The Killers and we're available for weddings and Bar-Mitzvahs."

Related topics: People & Skills, Bakery

Related news

Show more