‘I treat my employees as teammates’

Founder and CEO of vegan food brand, BOL Foods, delivers £85 million in sales since launch

I treat my employees as teammates

“An enormous part of our success is our collective team mindset”

“Coming from a family of food entrepreneurs, starting a business was always something I had a passion for,” Paul Brown, the CEO and founder of BOL Foods tells me. “I had a number of bites of the cherry before BŌL: from a young age, school holidays meant shifts in busy bars and restaurants, and then at 21 first trying to launch that healthy food business.” Paul grew up in Manchester with his brother and parents, who both owned businesses in the food and drink industry. His father opened Manchester’s first wine bar, Cellar Vie, and his mother ran a catering business. 

Growing up in a family of entrepreneurs, Paul realised from an early age that nothing was unattainable – you just had to have the mindset and work ethic. He found a passion for sports and set himself the goal to become a pro athlete. “I was largely brought up by my mum, and I always say I won the parent lottery,” Paul said. “It was a hugely supportive upbringing, where going after your dreams was the common advice – and my dreams were usually sports focused, growing up with aspirations of being a pro athlete.” Unfortunately, an accident cut his sporting career short. But his dreams of being a successful entrepreneur lived on. During his recovery, Paul drew up his big plan to start a health food business. He went on to work as a chef at a café before moving on to selling smoothies for Innocent in London. 

He was eventually promoted to the Director of Food at Innocent. In 2015, he left the company after Coca-Cola took over the brand and turned its focus to drinks rather than food products. He took all the skills, knowledge and expertise from his time working at the brand to set up his own food company, BOL Foods, at the age of 21. When Paul first started BOL Foods, only half of their products were vegetarian and vegan. Paul always felt there was a shortage of fresh veggie-based food in the UK and wanted to bring tasty plant-powered meals to the market. He then decided to eliminate all meat and animal-based products and create a fully vegan brand. 

“We didn’t launch as a vegan business, but from day one half of the BŌL portfolio was vegetarian and vegan,” Paul explained. “With health at the heart, plant-based was always in our minds, and as I found myself closer to our industrialised food system my eyes were opened. I started to really educate myself on the power of good food, and the benefits of a plant-powered diet. We decided that we no longer wanted to contribute to the problem, and agreed practically overnight to cut meat, fish and dairy from all of our meals. Instead, we became an easy route to a positive choice, capturing the best of Mother Nature, and combining them with incredible, globally inspired dishes. We’ve truly never looked back.  

He continued: “At this time, the world of plant-based was relatively small – nowhere near the scale it is today. There were limited options for people looking to cut down, or fully remove animal products, which left a huge gap in the market. We were well placed, with a strong team of talented chefs and ingenious innovators, but it wasn’t without its risk. The decision nearly cost me the business, and along with half our recipes, we lost around half of our turnover overnight.” 

Starting a business comes with several hurdles and challenges – and Paul was no stranger to that. After locking down his business plan, Paul managed to get Innocent founders (JamJar Investments) to back his business along with several other investors who believed in the brand. Aside from the financial challenges that come with launching a business, Paul spoke about the personal struggles he also faced. Having to put more time and energy into the business meant sacrificing other aspects of his life. “The second thing that springs to mind is the sacrifices I needed to make around time,” he explained. “Regardless of how supportive your network is, the impact on friends and family is extremely tough. But there are also financial and professional risks and challenges. As an entrepreneur, you soon realise that at a personal level, time is the greatest commodity you have. The amount of time you have to put into your endeavour, especially in those early days is more than ever I ever could have anticipated. But on the flip side, the opportunities you gain for fulfilment and creativity, are two of the most rewarding feelings.” 

BOL Foods a vegan brand with nutritious and ‘good for you’ fresh plant-based meals for people on the go. The brand offers a variety of Power Shakes, Power Soups, Fresh Veg Pots, One Pot Meals, and Posh Noodles that are high in protein and nutrients. Since its launch, BOL has delivered over £85 million in retail sales, equating to 69 million portions of fruit and vegetables. This year alone, BOL has delivered over £24 million in retail sales with their products stocked in over 3000 supermarkets nationwide. 

Speaking about his astounding success over the years, Paul said: “I passionately believed when setting up the business that there was a need for what we were offering, and that it would resonate with people. If you’re confident in your brand, products, and totally committed to your mission, then it’s natural to expect success. I’d already seen what was possible from my time at innocent; we took that business from a grassroots entry player to a global brand in just a few years and I knew it was possible with BŌL. I couldn’t feel prouder of the growth in both awareness and love for the brand, but it hasn’t surpassed my wildest dreams yet.” 

With the cost-of-living crisis, rising energy bills and skyrocketing fuel prices, many businesses are taking a hit. Having the right team is crucial when times get tough, Paul said. Paul also likes to keep himself calm and optimistic no matter the weather. “Tough times don’t last, but tough people do. As I say to my team, the current size of events and influences we can’t control is greater than anything we conceive. From Brexit to lockdowns, to the current cost of living crisis – it’s definitely more than I’ve ever experienced in my 43 years on this planet. But I’m holding out hope that the headwinds will reduce in these coming years, and that things will shift to make things a little bit easier for everyone in this SME environment. By nature, our industry is riskier, so keeping calm and optimistic becomes invaluable.  

“Getting the right people is more crucial than ever in these times. What’s largely kept me going, is a team behind me that is every bit as passionate as I am. Then functionally, the quality of your product and service is going to be tested more than ever, so there should be an obsession to innovate and improve. I love the Japanese word, Kaizen: constant improvement. No one here at BŌL rests on laurels. Month on month, we’re looking to continually iterate and improve the experience BŌLievers have when they interact with the BŌL brand.” 

Paul’s mindset is very much that of an athlete. He treats his employees as his teammates – win together, lose together. Speaking about his mindset day in and day out, Paul said: “Intense, as the team will testify. I am definitely more philosophical now, but still as determined and passionate as ever about making the most of every day. And off the back of the toughest year for everyone, I’m also feeling massively grateful for what we’re doing. We exist in a space with huge potential for positive impact, and growth is an enormous part of our collective team mindset. Competition is rife and growing however so we need to be on our game every day. I have a huge drive to deliver and thankfully have a team of equally passionate people around me so we all drive and inspire each other through the good and tough times.”

He added: “My mindset at work is very much like it used to be playing sports, I see everyone around me as teammates who I work for not the other way around, we have a ‘band of brothers’ mindset here at BŌL so it feels more like working with friends and family vs “colleagues” – this really helps with mental health especially given how brutal things have been over the last few years.”

Latifa Yedroudj
Latifa Yedroudj

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