We chat to Bob Clark, managing director of Clarks Natural Sweeteners, who brought maple syrup over to the UK, tells us when is the best time to start your business and how running a business is never a 9 to 5 job!
Please explain who you are, what your business is, and what it does/aims to achieve?
Established in 2008, Clarks is a natural sweetener business that launched maple syrup uniquely in squeezy packaging – a move which brought the great taste of maple syrup to the UK masses and doubled the size of the UK maple syrup market to £16.8m. Clarks is now the UK market brand leader with a 53% share.
We now employ 34 people at our factory in Newport where we produce our range of pure and blended maple syrups, honey, natural sweeteners, ice cream sauces, natural coffee syrups and natural spreads in both retail, foodservice and industrial formats.
With the on-going debate around sugar, we are seeing strong growth on all our natural sweeteners – however it is on maple syrup that we have currently made the most impact.
What time does your day usually start and end?
There are no set times for my days! It all depends on the day’s agenda. Long days in the office are naturally par for the course, but it’s great to be able to work from home in the evenings too so that I can spend time with my family. But this definitely isn’t a 9 to 5 job.
What is your favourite part of your job and what is your least favourite part?
My favourite part of the job is still NPD. I love looking for gaps in the market and developing new products to meet these gaps. I also still really enjoy customer-facing part of the role – meeting buyers and finding out what their needs are and how we can meet them.
As to my least favourite part – there really isn’t anything that I don’t like doing. I’m very lucky! It is good to now have a great team around me who can deal with the day to day running of the business, giving me time to focus on longer term plans and brand strategy.
What inspired you to start your business? (And what made you want to be your own boss?)
Pre-Clarks, I’d worked in sales and marketing for large food PLCs. Establishing great contacts in the retail industry, this experience also built up my resolve to have my own company and create a business that played to my strengths and suited my way of working.
Where did the idea for your business come from?
The idea for our first product came from understanding the market and identifying a unique opportunity. I was importing pure maple syrup into the UK for several years and realised that the price point and packaging where hindering growth of the business. We struck on the idea of combining maple syrup with carob fruit syrup to create a product that was unique, affordable and could be stored in plastic squeezy bottles. And the UK maple syrup market was born!
What has been the biggest challenge for your business?
As a fast growing business it is making sure that we sustainably manage that growth and have the right level of supply, people and investment to support it. This has been a challenge from the offset. Back in 2008, after creating our Clarks original blend in my kitchen at home, we managed to gain an initial listing with a major retailer and started packing our squeezy syrup by hand, with the help of family and friends, at a new factory in Newport, South Wales. A tough and difficult time for any start up, but 9 months later we managed to get another major retailer on board and eventually started to automate and now we supply all major retailers in the UK, in addition to a wholesaler/foodservice sector, business to business and exports – currently to 10 countries
What do you feel are the biggest obstacles to growth for SMEs in the UK?
In the early days of our business, banks weren’t interested in lending money to us and fortunately we were able to find other avenues. So I understand how hard it can be for start-ups to get the funding they need. I would suggest researching all your funding options.
As you grow, getting the right people in your business who understand and commit to your vision is important, so its key to search them out. (how do you suggest SMEs search out the right people?) In order to meet the right people, you need to network. Getting out and meeting people within the industry is so important, both from a recruitment point of view, as well as to get a greater understanding of key issues and changes within the industry.
At Clarks I have a great team, passionate and committed, which is fantastic to be around.
Have you made any mistakes along the way and how did you overcome them/learn from them?
Our biggest mistake was investing and launching our Ambient Chocolate Dessert Pots range. We’d created a great product for a gap in the market that we believed existed – but unfortunately it didn’t take off. This mistake was actually a blessing, as it drove us to go back to basics and challenge our brand and its product stretch, identifying what consumers love, expect and want from Clarks. It ultimately did give us some great insight. Our key takeaway: Clarks is a natural sweetener brand, and that is our area of focus.
What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to anyone looking to start their own business?
If you have a really unique idea consider the following: does it fills a gap in the market? Does your research and discussion within the industry back this up? Can you cope with the idea of working long hours for initially little reward? If you can answer yes to all these questions and still feel passionate about starting your own business, then go for it!
And don’t let a lack of experience or skills hold you back. I had no manufacturing experience. A fresh perspective and a little bit of naivety can actually help you. Also, there is never an ideal time to start, so don’t just sit and wait.
What do you do to relax away from the hustle and bustle of work?
I have two boys in their teens/early twenties so I don’t really get to relax! I love what I do but I try not to talk about work at home so that I can switch off. I enjoy watching the rugby and very very occasionally play golf (badly). My new hobby is becoming a beekeeper! We are in process of moving and once we are in our new home, I will be getting a hive.
Do you manage to achieve a good work/life balance?
More so now than in the early stage. It was harder at the beginning, but as we’ve grown and I have been able to employ a management team, I am now able to take a (little) step back and enjoy some time off now and again.