Shaper: Charlie Bigham

Show aired on 27th January 2018

Transcript

Elliot Moss
That was Jason Moran with Ain’t Misbehavin’. Good morning this is Jazz Shapers, I’m Elliot Moss, hello, thank you very much for joining me in this jolly New Year 2018. I hope you are having a good time already. What is Jazz Shapers? I hope you remember, it is the place where you can hear the very best of the people who are shaping the world of jazz, blues and soul and right alongside them we bring someone who is shaping the world of business and we call them Business Shapers. My Business Shaper today I am very pleased to say is Charlie Bigham and Charlie is the founder of the eponymously named Charlie Bigham’s and they make food, lots of lovely food which you can buy in all sorts of places and we will be talking a lot to Charlie about how he came to get into that business and how he has grown it into a fifty million plus turnover operation. In addition to hearing from Charlie you will be hearing from our programme partners at Mishcon de Reya some words of advice for your business and then of course we’ve got some brilliant music from the shapers of jazz, blues and soul; Ella Fitzgerald is in there, Albert King is too and so is this from Gregory Porter.

That was the Gregory Porter with French African Queen. This is Jazz Shapers and you are listening to me, Elliot Moss here on Jazz FM and Charlie Bigham is my Business Shaper today and Charlie is the founder of Bigham’s and Bigham’s is a maker of beautiful food, a maker of food that you will enjoy whatever your flavours and tastes are. Charlie, hello.

Charlie Bigham
Very nice to be here Elliot.

Elliot Moss
Thank you so much for coming. Tell me a little bit about why you decided to set this business sup over twenty years ago. I know that you studied English I believe at Edinburgh University, finished in 1990 – this is going to be like This Is Your Life – I promise I’ll stop in a minute. You started life as a management consultant and many of my guests have started on that part of the journey as well, that’s been what they’ve done. Tell me then how it went from there into doing your own thing?

Charlie Bigham
Well its always quite easy with hindsight but if I look back I think I was always kind of destined to set up, you know, set up my own business and work for myself as the truth is I was actually pretty rubbish at working for anyone else and I didn’t really like being told what to do. So if you know, I kind of look back into my school days I was always the sort of slightly nightmare guy at school who was selling things to you know, whatever I could sell I’d sell and I don’t know, I guess I just enjoyed, I enjoyed that and so, yeah so as I say, looking back now not a surprise that I’ve ended up setting up and you know, running and growing a business. I love it. Why food? I was sort of casting around for an idea once I’d decided I wasn’t going to be a management consultant anymore and I kind of thought the idea didn’t matter what it was and then luckily you know, probably based on having a chat with someone actually I realised the idea did matter and it was really important it was something that I was interested in and I love food. I love buying it, I love cooking it and I quite enjoy eating it as well. I am probably not alone in that.

Elliot Moss
I guess not.

Charlie Bigham
And so I kind of… so food was a really, it just seemed like a really great thing to do and then I put my businessy hat on I suppose and looked at it and said okay well it feels like a nice thing to do but will it make sense as a thing to do from a business point of view and you kind of take a look at the food market and you know, food market is a massive market in just the UK alone, it’s quite a dynamic market actually in the UK, you know it was when I set up twenty odd years ago and still is today and you can start a business in food and grow it quite quickly and I guess right from the start my ambition wasn’t to have a little niche, you know, corner shop type business or one site business and you know, lots of fantastic businesses like that but I always wanted to do something a bit bigger than that and when I look at food I thought yeah actually you know, if I am lucky enough to come up with an idea that works and people kind of you know, come along with me then it could turn into something, it could turn into something more than just a start up business.

Elliot Moss
And just before we go to Ella Fitzgerald, tell me know, just in your own words… what’s on offer? If I am a consumer what can I buy from Bigham’s?

Charlie Bigham
Well the important thing is we don’t make ready meals. Some people think we make ready meals. We don’t because ready meals are about sort of compromise and you know, no one is going to really enjoy them and look forward to a ready meal. So we just make nice food however you can cook it easily at home, you just pop it in the oven, half an hour later you’ve got nice food.

Elliot Moss
There you go. I hope you are feeling hungry even though it is quite early in the morning. Stay with me for much more from my Business Shaper that’s Charlie Bigham, founder of Bigham’s. Time for some more music, I mentioned her earlier, it’s Ella Fitzgerald with Get Happy.

Ella Fitzgerald with the upbeat Get Happy. I am with Charlie Bigham, he is founder of Bigham’s, they make lovely food, nice food not ready meals, ready to eat food, no nice food.

Charlie Bigham
Nicer than that.

Elliot Moss
Nicer than that, better than that. You mentioned a couple of things I want to pick up on. Obviously we ascertained that you were a management consultant. What were the biggest lessons you got from that? What were the learnings that you actually think, looking back again, you were strategic in getting, the skills that you put in your top pocket and said, they will be useful I’ll set up my own business?

Charlie Bigham
Well I think… I was lucky enough I worked for a very good management consultancy which was called Amber Consulting and it has kind of morphed into Accentua Now and it was sort of a big, global business and so I kind of… and I think when you go into you know a first job, you know what I say to my kids or other young people now is just make sure you work somewhere where you are going to find excellence because it will stand you in good stead for later on. So I was fortunate enough to kind of see excellence. I think being part of an excellent organisation is really good and I still kind of look back on some of the things and I think, God they did that really well. The other thing I think being a management consultant teaches you is to sort of analyse a bit, you know, to stand back and look at things in the cold light of day and especially you know, if you are working as I have been now for a long time in food, food is quite an emotional thing and it should be an emotional thing and it is brilliant for it to be an emotional thing but you know, it is important you have the ability to still stand back and you know, make kind of sensible long-term business decisions and that’s helped me do that.

Elliot Moss
And those both make a lot of sense. There is something else you mentioned which is interesting, you said I didn’t want to do a corner shop thing, I wanted scale and that is interesting. Why was there that ambition? Was it just a well of course it’s going to be big or was there something else that was driving that?

Charlie Bigham
Well it’s not, it’s not you know size for the sake of size and we are not in you know, we’re not a massive, I mean you know we are a larger business than when I started now and we have got three or four hundred people that work in the business so we are not small anymore but in food industry terms we are still a little minnow which I like because it means we can be nimble and different and do our own thing and you know, we are not a slave if you like to, to the size, to the size we are.

Elliot Moss
But you felt that whatever you created needed to be scalable, there was a sense of that that just made sense to you?

Charlie Bigham
Yeah I think it’s about impact you know, if… I think there is something exciting about reaching you know, having an impact on quite a large number of people. You know I find it exciting today that two or three hundred thousand people you know, sit down and eat our food every week.

Elliot Moss
That’s cool isn’t it.

Charlie Bigham
Tonight it’s great that you know, whatever that means is there will be thirty thousand people sitting down tonight and eating food that we’ve made. That’s really exciting.

Elliot Moss
That feels good. Stay with me for much more from my Business Shaper, Charlie Bigham, founder of Bigham’s. He’s going to come up a bit later but before that we have some words of wisdom from our programme partners at Mishcon de Reya for your burgeoning business.

You are listening to Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss. Every Saturday I get to meet someone who is shaping the world of business and I get to ask them questions, hopefully not too difficult but hopefully insightful or at least they will prompt insightful answers more to the point. If you haven’t had a chance to listen to all the programmes in the last seven years then you can go into iTunes, put in the words ‘Jazz’ and ‘Shapers’, there’s a podcast, you can go into the catch-up area of JazzFM.com and a new thing in 2018, we will be repeating this programme at 5.00am every single Monday and just because we can, you can ask Alexa and you can even listen to Jazz Shapers there. I think one of the first programmes in the world to be available directly on Alexa. All this innovation, it’s hard to cope. If you are coping stay with me then because Charlie Bigham is my Business Shaper and that’s today and that’s right now and we have been talking a little bit about his background and why he has been well trained, well primed to set up his own business which he did over twenty years ago. You’ve been running this for twenty years, not everyone that sets up a business Charlie has the rights kills to develop that business you mentioned, those three or four hundred people, there’s a lot of operations, I know that you’ve just opened another kitchen which is a big deal, big logistical deal. What have you had to learn along the way in terms of dealing with that scale that you so wanted way back when? What sorts of things have you had to go, I didn’t know that and now I need to be better at it?

Charlie Bigham
Well I think the first and most important thing you have to do is you have to realise, or certainly for me, you are actually not very good at anything. I do a little bit of everything. I dabble here and there but very quickly you know, when you start a business you have to find other good people and so for a very long time now you know, that’s been a big part of what I do, how I spend my time is trying to find great people to come and join our business because at the end of the day it is only if we have got great people in the team who are better at their individual jobs than I would ever be that we are going to really thrive and grow as a business.

Elliot Moss
And obviously there are lots of important people but in terms of the really key, key people that ensure that the trains are running, they look right, they are going in the right place. How many are we talking about in a business your size?

Charlie Bigham
Well its funny because actually the way we organise our business, we say the most important people of all are the people who make our food day in, day out because we only exist as a business because our food tastes better than other food that it sits alongside. So when we talk about our business we talk about you know, the kitchen team who make our food every day and then the support team, you know, which other people might call head office but our job as the support team and I am a member of the support team is actually just to support what we do day in, day out – making great food.

Elliot Moss
And along the way and that makes sense, I mean it is a sort of inverted way of looking at things but the product must be, it must have primacy…

Charlie Bigham
Yeah.

Elliot Moss
…and that’s what you are really saying if one would call food a product. Have you had moments in this twenty so year journey where you’ve just said, I’m done, I’ve had enough, I can’t take this anymore?

Charlie Bigham
Not yet.

Elliot Moss
This guy here, you look, I mean we were talking about stress, you have no stress evidently. You talked about that briefly before as well to me. Why, why are you not stressed?

Charlie Bigham
Well…

Elliot Moss
It’s not fair.

Charlie Bigham
…I don’t believe in stress. I don’t think it’s, I don’t think it’s helpful. I think very little, you know, very little positive comes… it’s a sort of negative emotion stress and you know, running a food business it’s a relentless thing to do because we start, you know we start at you know 5.00 ish in the morning, we might be… our last you know deliveries of the day might be going out at 11.00 o’clock at night. We are working seven days a week so if you chose to get stressed about it there is just too much to get stressed about so I think I decided right from the outset I am not going to get stressed about it. That doesn’t mean there aren’t ups and downs and there aren’t moments of concern and moments of you know, joy and elation when things go right. That’s great but yeah, I don’t really do stress.

Elliot Moss
Charlie Bigham doesn’t do stress. You heard it here on Jazz Shapers. Stay with me for more from Charlie and quite happy now we have Nora Jones with Carry On.

That was Nora Jones, the lovely Nora Jones with Carry On. Charlie Bigham has been talking to me about not being stressed but enjoying the ups and downs as well. As you’ve built this business, the one thing that happens as a by-product of it apart from food and fame with a small ‘f’ I guess in a way because people as you said, thirty thousand people tonight will be eating your food. There’s the money side of it and you get more to count which is a good thing and then you have to borrow some here and there. Does the money bother you personally, I mean you know, I am not going to talk about your personal wealth or not but do you like, have you enjoyed the journey of earning more money personally or has it been about the size of the business and the quality of the business you have created?

Charlie Bigham
You know I am very fortunate, if you start up a business and it goes well you end up with some money and that’s nice and it enables you to go off and do amazing things that maybe you wouldn’t have done otherwise so I am grateful for that and I enjoy it and I you know, I live the benefits of that so it’s fantastic but for me, business isn’t about trying to make more and more money. I do believe if you are in business, if you’ve got a business you’ve got to make a choice about whether you shrink or whether you grow. Standing still is never an option. I have never really seen a good reason to shrink so that means you grow and if you grow and you do well then the business should make some more money. But why do you want to make more money? What I say to the team is very simple. Profit equals freedom. If we make some money generally what we do is we reinvest it back in the business and it gives us the freedom to take risks, to do the things that really matter, not just to me, but matter to us as a team and you know, because our business is absolutely about making delicious food but I do believe that business goes beyond just producing a product or a service, there is something, there is a lot to be said for business being a force for good and yeah, going beyond just… far beyond the bottom line.

Elliot Moss
Stay with me for more from my Business Shaper, Charlie Bigham, in fact it will be our final chat it’s gone that quickly and we will be playing a track from Albert King, that’s after the latest traffic and travel here on Jazz FM.

That was the blues man, Albert King with Kansas City. I’ve been talking to Charlie Bigham and I have him just for a few more minutes. Charlie just before Albert we were talking about money. You borrowed a little bit when you started. How much exactly was it?

Charlie Bigham
We borrowed about £5,000 to get the business started.

Elliot Moss
Wow, which is not a, I mean that’s obviously £5,000 is £5,000 but that in terms of what you have gone and done with it, how do you think you managed in those first early months to make that money work? Looking back?

Charlie Bigham
By working very, very hard. Lots of hours.

Elliot Moss
Yeah never not working.

Charlie Bigham
And not paying myself for a long time and I say to people, you know people do… one of the lovely things about if you’ve been running a business for twenty years you get to a stage where people start picking up the phone, as I did twenty years ago, and say I am thinking of doing this, can you help? And I say to people when you know, when they ask about this money thing, how much money do you need to start and I say well basically you’ve got to make a choice. You either do it with a small amount of money and work incredibly hard and probably, you know live slightly on the breadline for a few years and grow a bit more slowly or you go and raise a slug of money and then you can move much faster, you can hire in you know, some really good people earlier on in the process but the flip side is you are going to right from the… you know, day one, be conceding some control and maybe complete control of your business.

Elliot Moss
And you’ve maintained pretty much control of the business I am imagining?

Charlie Bigham
So I took the, took the…

Elliot Moss
The first route?

Charlie Bigham
…tortoise route and yeah I am glad now that I did because the business is, we are completely independent and we can make our own decisions. We don’t have to go and check with some investors who might have some different views to us.

Elliot Moss
You also mentioned something earlier about the kind of business you are going to have and that balance, and you’ve talked about focussing on the quality. You have a number of charities, one of which I am going to mention now which is the Beating Bowel Cancer Charity which actually was set up I believe because you lost one of your colleagues, a young colleague…

Charlie Bigham
Yeah.

Elliot Moss
…a year and a half ago. Small business, small number of people, that must have a huge impact in terms of how you then all feel as a team when you lose a member of your team?

Charlie Bigham
Yeah it’s, it’s kind of, you know, it’s difficult to talk about now. I mean George who died of bowel cancer aged thirty four, just over a year ago, you know he was a lovely guy and he, he was a key member of our team and someone I worked with very closely and you know, I miss him today. We all miss him today. It is really difficult in a small business when, when something awful like that happens because it’s kind of like an emotional hand grenade going off in the middle of the business and you know, a year on I think we are still, we are still completely understandably feeling the impact of that. As I say, we miss him and he was a huge contributor to the business and I think our business wouldn’t be where we are today without a lot of what he did for me and he was a lovely guy so.

Elliot Moss
But also on the flip side of that, the heart and the head in business and people often say you mentioned analysis at the first part and that critical thing over there. It strikes me also that there is a lot of heart in this business and the heart, the fact that there is a connection with people that work for you and yes it is small but it doesn’t always happen, that’s… it feels like that carries the team, carries the business as well from emanating from you?

Charlie Bigham
Well I think any business is a community and we’ve got an amazing bunch of people who work, you know who work in the business and we are always looking for more amazing people, especially now as we have just expanded and built a big new kitchen down in Somerset as you mentioned. So we are on the look out for amazing people but if you want to just not attract but retain amazing people you kind of have to look after everybody you know, very carefully but also and it’s not… when I say look after it’s not you know, pay is obviously part of it but that’s only a small part of it and I think giving, creating an environment where people can be proud to work and want to come in every day and feel part of a community. I mean both our own community within but part of the wider community without and to be doing something important I think makes a huge difference.

Elliot Moss
Listen carry on doing what you are doing. It seems to be working. I am going to have to taste your lovely food, I mean a terrible admission to make isn’t it Charlie but you are going to have another what thirty thousand and one tonight eating your food. Thank you so much for your time. Just before I let you go, what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Charlie Bigham
I have chosen a track by Jimmy McGriff, from the seventies. The seventies I think is just a…

Elliot Moss
Great decade.

Charlie Bigham
…great decade, a great decade of lots of wonderful things, one of which I think was the Hammond organ so we’ve got a bit of the Hammond organ. You won’t be surprised to hear that I love to cook, what I like when I am cooking is to put on a bit of music, turn it up louder than most of the rest of my family want it to be and so one of the tunes I love putting on is Groove Grease by Jimmy McGriff and then I’ll get chopping some onions.

Elliot Moss
I’ve now got in my head you cooking in the kitchen. Well this is it, here it is just for you. Thank you Charlie.

That was Jimmy McGriff with Groove Grease; the song choice of my Business Shaper today Charlie Bigham. He talked about finding that first job and making sure when you find it that you work where you can see and feel excellence. A really good point. Analysis, another really important part of what he learnt as a management consultant and has applied to his business. The idea of impact of wanting lots of people to be impacted by the business he chose to develop and boy has he done that with around as he said, thirty thousand people eating his food every day. And finally that thought about profit equalling freedom and what he has gained from running his own business. All really, really good stuff. Do join me again, same time, same place, that’s next Saturday, 9.00am sharp here on Jazz FM. I am Elliot Moss, thank you very much for listening, the news is coming up next.

Charlie Bigham

Charlie Bigham studied English Literature at the University of Edinburgh. After leaving university he was a consultant at Andersen Consulting, which subsequently became Accenture.

Charlie founded Bigham’s in 1996, a manufacturer of ready to cook foods which avoid artificial additives and using “chef led kitchen techniques” stocked in Tesco, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s, among other stores.

Bigham’s also prepares recipes for a number of retailers and restaurant chains.

Listen live at 9am Saturday.

“It’s always quite easy with hindsight, but if I look back I think I was always destined to set up my own business and work for myself. The truth is I was pretty rubbish at working for anyone else and I didn’t really like being told what to do.”

“I love food. I love buying it, I love cooking it and I quite enjoy eating it as well. I am probably not alone in that.”

“The important thing is, we don’t make ready meals. Some people think we make ready meals. We don’t because ready meals are about compromise.”

“What I say to my kids or other young people now is just make sure you work somewhere where you are going to find excellence because it will stand you in good stead later on.”

“There is something exciting about having an impact on quite a large number of people. I find it exciting that two or three hundred thousand people sit down and eat our food every week.”

“I think I decided right from the outset I am not going to get stressed about it. That doesn’t mean there aren’t ups and downs and there aren’t moments of concern and moments of joy and elation when things go right. That’s great but yeah, I don’t really do stress.”

“I do believe, if you are in business, you’ve got to make a choice about whether you shrink or whether you grow. Standing still is never an option.”

“I took the tortoise route and I am glad now that I did because we are completely independent and we can make our own decisions.”