Me & My Team

Tilda’s climb to the top

By Jean-Philippe Laborde

- Last updated on GMT

Jean-Philippe (third from left) with a handful of Tilda farmers
Jean-Philippe (third from left) with a handful of Tilda farmers

Related tags Business Leadership Innovation Climate change Sustainability

Managing director Jean-Philippe Laborde of the well-known rice brand talks about Tilda’s strategy since he took the helm five years ago, from innovation and keeping costs down, to teamwork and trailing new rice cultivation techniques.

In the 70s, communities from all over were settling in Britain. Responding to the uptick in demand for authentic ingredients from their homelands, as a result, Tilda was founded.

Having rolled out its Basmati rice in 1970, Tilda tapped into the growing popularity of curry among Brits during the 80s. Towards the end of decade, it relocated to Rainham, just outside of London, where it built a rice mill and packaging facility, which remains the company’s HQ today.

The 90s brought with it expansion, as Tilda successfully launched in the Middle East and North America. The business now operates within 50+ countries worldwide.

By the 2000s, the company expanded its production facilities in the UK and launched its well-known microwavable rice packs and kids range.

Then, following an acquisition by Hain Celestial in 2014, the Tilda brand was, just five years later, acquired again, this time by Ebro Foods.

At the time, I was living in India as Ebro’s managing director. I came to the UK after eight years there, to lead the new business and help integrate it into Ebro umbrella.  

I’ve been in the food sector for more than 20 years, mainly in France with pasta company Panzani. Before that I was in a different industry, working in international logistics and shipping.

My current role is managing director of Tilda – and it’s been somewhat of a rollercoaster, having taken on the role just before the pandemic.

It was challenging but also quite interesting – and what we’ve achieved in the last 12 months has been great.

Taking the rice market by storm

Today, we are the number one rice brand in the rice category by volume. We are the market leader in dry rice and have 27% market share in terms of value sales, and we are one of the key players in the ‘ready to heat’ category.

In the space of one year, we managed to achieve £7.2m worth of added value and that is not just driven by inflation, but volume growth.

But it’s all been part of a long-term strategy on continuous growth; we’re now seeing the result of all that hard work.

We expect to confirm very soon the title of market leader by value and volume.

We’re not just dry rice

I believe our success comes down to our innovation pipeline. Rice is well known as a dish for dinner, but maybe less so for lunch – and we decided to push in that area. At the same time, we’ve capitalised on convenience =and quality. Rice is so versatile, you can take almost any food and combine it with rice.

I think what has been key is how we have shown consumers that the base of your meal (i.e. rice) matters.

We’ve also been innovating in different categories, with our rice milk, kids rice pudding and our ‘tasty sides’ launches. This is the first time Tilda has moved out of the rice segment – and it’s very exciting.

The idea is that we have new, ready to heat products which can complement rice, such as our Thai green curry and Mexican fajita sides.

This wasn’t something we dived into without due consideration – we asked the consumer, ‘do we have the right to be entering new categories?’. They said yes, and I believe this is a result of our longstanding quality, they know that what we’ll do, we’ll do it well.

Being consistent and fair

We’ve also worked hard during the pandemic and cost-of-living crisis to keep innovating whilst still being affordable. We didn’t want to take a shortcut on quality, so the focus has been looking at how we can maintain that whilst not upping the cost or reducing pack size.

And we have managed to keep our ready to heat 250g rice at the same price without taking shortcuts, alongside our Tilda Basmati plain rice too.

Tilda expanded its Kids range last year with the roll-out of its rice pudding SKUs

It’s been about looking at where we can increase costs fairly. We haven’t risen our prices all over the place, just in the areas where we have been forced to do so, for example complex recipes. But that’s only been recent, if you looked at our prices during Covid times they remained the same across all products then and for several years prior.

So we have kept prices where we could; and where we have adjusted, we’ve done it in a fair manner so it’s still affordable.

Giving your team a voice

Covid was a defining moment for us all. I strongly believe in trusting your team – and this was never more evident that during the pandemic.

At a time where some employees were remote and others working the shop floor, we had to figure out a way to continue engaging and make sure everyone felt fairly treated. You have to be emphatic and you have to be flexible.

We have a very passionate team which helped, and this wasn’t just apparent during lockdowns but also throughout our journey to achieving B Corp status.

I like to encourage autonomy and to ensure everyone feels comfortable to speak up – and speak freely. It’s important as a leader to explain how people can contribute too.

Even as managing director, I won’t know all the answers. You have to be open with what’s happening – sometimes good things happen, but you also have challenges that you need to face. You must work together and define your goals collaboratively, because if you have a diverse set of views, you can problem-solve more easily and make better decisions.

The last four years have been tough certainly, shifting from one major crisis to another; and the reality is we wouldn’t be where we are today without the team. This is not just one part of the business either – it’s everyone.

Being transparent about impact

For Tilda one of its defining focuses is its work in quality and sustainable sourcing.

I do believe that despite the drive for health since Covid and the impact of the cost-of-living crisis, sustainability remains a top priority for consumers.

It’s well known that they consider food manufacturers as the first port of call for addressing climate change in our sector.

Climate change is not a concept we can ‘leave for later’, we need to act now. And to do that, you need to embrace all the different parts of your business as a whole. For Tilda that includes three pillars.

The first is how you source rice – and that’s critical for us because 100% of our rice is imported. Without rice we have no business, so we need to make sure it’s done properly.

Sustainable sourcing is top of mind for Tilda, with all its rice imported to make products including its tasty side range which it debuted last year

We also have manufacturing activity in the UK and we need this to be ‘green’. This is the second pillar; looking at how we convert the way we use energy, the way we manage waste, and implementing a continuous improvement plan. Achieving B Corp has really helped with the latter, making us look at data in a different way and revisiting how we do things in general.

The third is how we interact with the local community. Our business is not just driven for the return of the shareholders, it’s also about having a positive impact on our team and our planet, as well as our shareholders.

Climate change can’t be fixed by ticking boxes. Sustainability is a complex topic and we’re continuously learning about it; how we can have real impact on the environment and farmers’ livelihoods too.

One of the areas we have been exploring is alternate wet drying. This is basically where you place a particular type of plastic tube in the middle of the rice field to evaluate the level of water you have in your soil.

Rice is a sub aquatic plant, so you need to keep it flooded for it to grow. But when you flood the field it generates greenhouse gases, in particular methane which is extremely potent. When using this alternate wet drying technique, you can establish the levels you need and end up reducing your usage considerably. For us, we’ve reduced by the water consumption by up to 20% and the emissions by 50%.

As part of this, we also integrated a new form of pest management, using what is called a ‘flower bundle’ within the cultivation process. This attracts spiders which are natural predators, so farmers can reduce their use of plant protection products.

We’ve seen very positive outcomes from these new techniques, with 925 of our rice farmers in India using alternate wet drying.

This is something we highlighted in our recent impact report. I believe in being totally transparent – and whatever is written in this report is also written in a simple way, there’s no jargon. When doing something like this, it must be done in a straightforward manner. By laying out what you’re doing and what you want to achieve, it’s a great way to encourage others in industry to join in too.

Sustainability is bigger than our company; we need to work collaboratively across the board if we want to accelerate progress and do it properly.

The research we’re undertaking in sustainability is not just for us and it’s not a marketing campaign. Greenwashing is bad, but I strongly believe greenhushing is just as harmful.

Interested to meet more teams? Watch our latest Me & My Team video, which sees the Food Manufacture team visiting crisps manufacturer Burt Snacks.

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