After cutting her teeth as a buyer at Tesco at the very start of her career, Emma Heal then went on to manage Innocent Drinks’s largest grocery account; launching the business in Scandinavia and even moving to Denmark before landing her current role of Retail Director at Graze. Emma works on building new retail strategies and reviewing the performance of the four separate business channels across the UK and USA. With the UK retail industry currently at its most competitive, Emma tells us how Graze has managed to stay ahead of the curve, nurturing customer relationships and ultimately building a stronger, better business…
Tell us a bit about your current role as Retail Director and what a typical day at Graze entails?
Launching a business from scratch in 7 months meant playing many roles while I rapidly grew a great team. Now Graze has been in stores for just over a year, the day often starts with a management or sales team focus, for example meeting my executive board to discuss the strategy of Graze’s four separate business channels across the UK and USA. I’m a big proponent of regular 121s, so I meet with each of my senior team once a week individually.
Product innovation is king at Graze. We can bring a new snack to the market in 48 hours thanks to our manufacturing and design capability. So more often than not, I’ll have a session with our amazing product team, tasting new snack ideas to bring to the shops.
I’m often out visiting our retail partners or meeting up with other companies to see how they do things and find learnings and ideas we can share. I also believe in paying it forward as much as possible, so often have meetings with start-ups to offer advice on how to crack the industry. My day is usually a mixture of all of these things so it’s always a fresh challenge.
Could you give us a brief rundown of your career before joining Graze?
I began my career as a buyer at Tesco, a great training ground for learning how to build a commercially viable category of products and offer the right range for different consumer needs. This included working with global brands and building own label ranges.
In 2006, I moved to the other side of the negotiation table to work for Innocent Drinks, managing their largest grocery account. It was a fantastic time to work for Innocent as it grew from 50 to 250 employees so the pace and opportunities were phenomenal.
After several years in grocery, I went on to launch Innocent into several countries in Scandinavia whilst living in Denmark. I absolutely loved the buzz and energy of launching a new brand and the accountability of managing a full P&L. It really sparked my passion for driving the strategic growth of innovative start-ups and I learnt so much in the time I was out there.
Before joining Graze to launch our retail offering, I worked for Diageo across Africa, commercialising over 40 innovation launches and building the respective routes to market. I got to see first hand how important it is to deliver on every element when bringing a product to market. Engaging pack design, clear value led marketing, firing up the sales teams, and of course how a product gets to shelf and looks great once it’s there.
Graze feels like it was ahead of the curve in the food subscription market, what do you feel has been its greatest success so far and what’s next for the company?
Graze realised very quickly that having a direct relationship with consumers created a significant business advantage. We have consistently invested in technology to support this rapid feedback requirement and subsequently have received over half a billion ratings for our subscription boxes since we launched 8 years ago and we still receive up to 15,000 an hour today. Our customer service team answer around 5,000 emails a week. That’s a lot of conversations when you start adding them all up, and it’s what our brand is built on.
Having that sort of relationship with our consumers means they’re the ones helping us curate the ranges we develop. They talk, we listen, then we ask a few questions and a few more to make sure we deliver exactly what they want. It’s a real community at Graze and it’s something we are extremely conscious of nurturing and not getting complacent about.
Following feedback and ideas from our consumers and retailers, you can now Graze ‘4 ways’. In addition to the subscription business, we now have an e-commerce shop so people can buy exactly what they want, and since we’re now in shops across the UK, people can pick up a Graze product when they’re out and about. We also have an additional business in the USA offering a Business To Business solution, helping corporations provide free healthier snacks to their employees. Only a handful of companies currently do this in the UK so we’re hoping to take the learnings from our American friends and bring healthier snacks to offices this side of the pond.
What advice would you give to other women wanting to work in your industry?
The retail industry is highly competitive especially in the UK right now. The big grocery stores like Tesco and Sainsbury’s are competing for the same people’s share of spend, and the whole sector is undergoing an unprecedented amount of change with the challenge of the discounters such as Aldi and Lidl, who are getting a real foot in the door, and cupboards, of UK shoppers.
It’s a dynamic environment that offers opportunity. If you are driven, numerate and can embrace new technology and ways of working, it’s an exciting place to be. Understanding and being able to easily articulate the value your product brings is important and if you enjoy all of that as well as building relationships with people, then retail is a fantastic industry to work in.
“We need to ensure companies make it a top priority to have strong female leadership well represented at every level”.
What challenges do you feel are the most prevalent in today’s market and most important to overcome?
Gender imbalance in the boardroom. It’s well documented and I might sound like a broken record for saying it but it needs to keep being said until the situation changes. My advice to women is to grab all the leadership opportunities that they can, in order to make the step-up to the top positions. We need to give women the encouragement and space to take these opportunities and ensure companies make it a top priority to have strong female leadership well represented at every level.
Having worked in some great entrepreneurial environments where I’ve been forced to take responsibility, I know how intimidating it can be but I honestly think by adopting more of the ‘what doesn’t kill you…’ attitude, women can go far. If someone has the opportunity to grow and learn, I’d say go for it.
If these leadership opportunities are made and women keep grabbing them, the move to board positions will change in time and I believe organisations will be better off for it.
As a self-confessed wanderluster, you’ve visited over 75 countries! Which of those surprised you the most and why? Where is next on your list?
It has to be Nigeria. I was knocked out by the amazing people I met working there. They have this entrepreneurial drive which was second to none and the most positive outlook on life which has created this wonderfully opportunistic culture.
My next trip is to Nepal and India over New Year. I’m looking forward to the combo of trekking followed by some relaxing and reading on the beach.
Back to the topic of work, who has inspired you most in your career? Did you have a mentor?
Richard, Adam and Jon, aka the founders of Innocent Drinks, were fantastic role models to learn from and they still continue to mentor myself and many ex-colleagues. Many of my friends from Innocent took on the brilliant experience of working there and are now running their own businesses, entrepreneurial ventures and are blazing trails everywhere.
However, if I had to pick just one individual who influenced me profoundly, it would be my first boss at Tesco, Alex Holt. Alex is currently spearheading the strategy for Australia’s biggest retailer, Woolworths, and I think she’s exceptional. She had an incredible ability to balance strong commercial acumen with building sustainable partnerships and inspiring a team. She also had a real eye for what would excite consumers, so was great at product proposition development too. I loved working with her and the way she managed to deliver on everything whilst still being a great person to work with. I try to emulate that balancing act of hers every day.
“Taking holiday is critical… We all need to re-charge to keep on delivering brilliantly”.
How do you maintain the perfect work-life balance?
You really do have to love what you do when you’re building a business as it’s pretty intense. I buy into the idea of maintaining ‘work/life-integration’. I cycle to and from work to fit in exercise and as I’m often at industry events during the week, I keep my weekends free to catch up with family and friends. I believe taking holidays is critical and have a pretty strict no-work policy when I’m away. I ask my team to do the same as we all need to re-charge to keep on delivering brilliantly.’
Tell us about your 9 to 5 wardrobe, do you have go-to styles?
As I have so many external meetings, my wardrobe is all about the classic work-dress. Smart casual without too much ironing. However, as I cycle to work, I have to be efficient and think ahead for my outfits so I tend to go for one easy-care item that’s easy to travel with (i.e. doesn’t crease), I keep 4 different pairs of heels in my desk drawer to save cycling with them. Trainers for the commute, heels for the office, pick and mix for the evening.
And finally, what is your favourite piece from The Fold’s AW16 collection?
I think the collection as a whole is stunning. So many great dresses to choose from. My particular favourite would have to be the Belgravia. It’s super simple and is one of those effortless go to pieces that make you feel a million dollars the second you put it on. And I can pop it in my cycle bag. Which is a double bonus.
Hair: Easton Regal
Photography: Kylie Eyra
Accessories: Emma’s own
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