“Most of us have the fact that we are going to die at the back of our minds. But, when you have it at the front of mind, it helps you to focus on what’s important,” confides Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones, leukaemia survivor and the man behind The Black Farmer brand.
“Every day I look in the mirror, there’s a reminder that you’re on borrowed time, and that you’ve got to make sure you focus your energies into things that matter.”
While these words resonate, Emmanuel-Jones quickly gives the impression that he has always been someone who has used his time and energy wisely.
Having recovered from his serious illness and marked by alopecia from the ordeal, the TV producer, turned PR guru, turned farmer, turned brand owner, is as effusive as ever and ready to take his gluten-free range of meat, cheese and egg products to the next level.
Emmanuel-Jones was born in Jamaica, and grew up in a rough part of Birmingham with eight siblings. At the age of 11, he was tasked with looking after his father’s allotment, and it was at this point he vowed to one day own a farm of his own.
After leaving school with no qualifications and a failed stint in the army, success didn’t come quickly, and Emmanuel-Jones spent his early working life in catering. However, “desperate to climb the social ladder”, he befriended anyone connected with TV, and in 1987, managed to secure a position as a runner at the BBC.
Before long, Emmanuel-Jones worked his way up to producer-director of the BBC Food & Drink programme. But always looking for the next step, he moved into public relations in 1994, by setting up agency Commsplus, where he went on to develop the profile of brands such as Kettle Chips, Lloyd Grossman and Cobra Beer.
In the same year, Emmanuel-Jones fulfilled his dream of owning a farm. A decade later (and inspired by being known as ‘the black farmer’ by one of his neighbours) he struck out and created a brand of his own.
‘An edgy brand’ (Back to top)
“I liked the idea of an edgy brand, so The Black Farmer name was ideal. No one is quite sure if it is politically-correct or not”, he says. “It gives people that double-take moment, just like when Richard Branson launched Virgin.”
Emmanuel-Jones confesses he made “bags of mistakes” in the early days most notably setting up a Black Farmer clothing range (“because I was into clothes, I thought other men would be but they weren’t”), but it is evident that he always had a clear vision for the brand.
“It’s important to know what your brand can do, and what it can’t. The Black Farmer brand is quite masculine, so we couldn’t do cakes, for example, because it just wouldn’t work. It’s about proteins and meats.”
One of his more outrageous attempts to raise the brand’s profile was to list the details of retail-buyers on The Black Farmer website, and encourage consumers to contact them, demanding they stock the products which include sausages, meatballs and burgers, as well as organic, free-range and corn fed chicken.
“Did it piss them off? Of course it did. But it was the only way to get their attention at the time,” he grins. “Retailers get hundreds of suppliers knocking on their door every day, and when it comes down to it, all they really care about is the consumer. Therefore, my idea was to get consumer on my side as it’s the only people they listen to.”
To their credit, retailers did sit up and take notice. On the back of TV advertising for the first time this year, Emmanuel-Jones expects sales to reach £10M in 2016, and believes the company will “easily” achieve £20M in three to five years.
Central to the continued growth of the brand is diversification. Touted for launch as far back as 2008, he is determined to get sub-brand The Black Farmer’s Wife off the ground “when the right opportunity arises” and follow it up with a The Black Farmer’s Daughter range.
“My wife Michaela is vegetarian, so they wouldn’t be meat products but they would have to sit within the ‘truth’ of the brand,” explains Emmanuel-Jones. “I’m also keen on developing The Son of the Black Farmer. Collectively, the products would be a great representation of modern Britain, with my wife being white English, and my children mixed-race.”
Another growth area targeted is exports, and Emmanuel-Jones says both the brand name and the ‘silhouette’ logo design were both conceived with the overseas market in mind.
“We learned a great deal at our PR agency when we launched a range of Lloyd Grossman sauces abroad. People would ask, who is Lloyd Grossman? In contrast, our brand has a generic name and so can travel.”
While clearly adept at entrepreneurship and the art of brand building, it may surprise some that Emmanuel-Jones doesn’t actually manufacture his own products. Pork and beef items are produced by Cranswick, and chicken products are made by Traditional Norfolk Poultry. Meanwhile, Alvis Bros produces the cheese and the eggs are from St Ewe Free Range Eggs.
Despite never wanting to manufacture himself, Emmanuel-Jones has admiration for those that do.
“I take my hat off to manufacturers, as they have so many balls to juggle. On top of that, they have the supermarkets ready to penalise them if some act of god means they are unable to deliver a particular product in time.”
However, he suggests companies that are really good at manufacturing, are very often not good at marketing. This could become more significant if, as he predicts, the changing retail landscape is to herald a renaissance in brands.
According to Emmanuel-Jones, the rise of grocery shopping through the likes of Amazon Fresh will mean own-label will suffer, as “consumers are not going to have the same feeling about buying an own-label product from the same online retailer that they buy their vacuum-cleaner from, so it’s really going to be brands that are the ones responsible for communicating to consumers”.
Consequently, he predicts that manufacturers will have to acquire people with brand expertise, which could result in a “clash of cultures”.
Another potential clash Emmanuel-Jones has long been keen to avoid is the involvement of private equity investors.
“I have a profound dislike of private equity in the early days of a business. Programmes like Dragon’s Den make people believe investors will be the key to their fortune, but they’re not.
“My belief is that if you’re serious about setting up a business, don’t overburden yourself. Pain early on is inevitable, but it’s much better to go through the pain without having to carry the expectations of those investors.”
It is a testament to why Emmanuel-Jones considers himself to be true entrepreneur.
“I’m the classic guy who would have run a wagon train from the east coast of America to the west coast. It would have been a hell of a journey, but I’ve got the temperament for it.
“But once at the west coast, my style of operating just wouldn’t have been appropriate. So, that wagon train would need to be managed by other people.”
And that’s how he sees The Black Farmer. “There will come a point when this business will be too big to run the way I run it, and I will sell it on. That will be my ultimate success.”
Job Title: Founder, The Black Farmer
Domestics: Married, with three children.
Previous roles: After working in catering for a number of years, Emmanuel-Jones joined the BBC in 1987, where he worked his way up to producer on the Food and Drink show. In 1994, he set up PR agency Commsplus with wife Michaela. Emmanuel-Jones bought a Devon farm in 1994, and a decade later he started The Black Farmer.
Away from work: Emmanuel-Jones was selected as a prospective Conservative candidate for Chippenham, Wiltshire, in 2006, but wasn’t chosen to contest the seat. He is an active charity campaigner, and supports Leuka, The British Dyslexia Association and Chicks, which provides respite breaks for disadvantaged children in the UK. “If, like me, you have come from a background of poverty, you owe a responsibility towards people who are in very similar situations.”