Interviews

Charlie Bigham's: Cooking growth with principles, pleasure and premium prices

8 min read

08 December 2015

Former deputy editor

High-end ready meal maker Charlie Bigham's was named Mid-Sized Company of the Year at the Growing Business Awards. Real Business caught up the man behind the food to find how the company is scaling its premium products in a market where consumers are looking to save.

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It’s been reported use of the term ready meal sets founder Bigham’s teeth on edge, so when we spoke to the leader of the Growing Business of the Year: Mid-Sized Company, it’s a subject that had to be raised.

Offering in his own words a description for the business, he simply said “a food company”.

He conceded that while Charlie Bigham’s may indeed fall into the bracket of a ready meal business, it’s anything but a true depiction of the operation that was established back in 1996.

“We make delicious food. I set up the business because I strongly believe food is one of life’s great pleasures. In the UK, we’re not in danger of starvation and we want to provide the opportunity to sit down and share a meal with other people,” Bigham explained.

“Ready meals aren’t about that,” Bigham added. “They’re about function over enjoyment – you go to the microwave with a plastic fork. With us, we look to provide a chance to sit down at a table, perhaps crack open a bottle of wine and have a good chat.”

As a 19-year-old company, Charlie Bigham’s has been around for a long time. Today the company’s products can be found in Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and on Ocado, and is experiencing sales in the region of £38m.

Interestingly, items are priced at around £7-£8, which is considerably dearer than a supermarket’s own brand option of £3-4.

Of course, Black Friday is a fine example of consumers that are looking to save money, as is the increasing market share of low cost supermarket chain Lidl, which has applied pressure to the likes of Tesco.

So how is Charlie Bigham’s able to grow in the region of 30 to 40 per cent year-on-year? According to Bigham, it’s down to the company’s ability to cater to the masses – quite literally.

“We’re here for anyone who wants delicious food that doesn’t have time to prepare it from scratch – that’s a very large potential market,” he said.

“We focus on meals for two people in a situation that’s very common – when you have a busy day or week, which may or may not involve kids, and you want to have a good catch-up.”

Read more winners’ stories from the Growing Business Awards:

Bigham noted that the busy lifestyles of Brits means the products have broad appeal nationwide – regardless or whether people are very well paid or on an average salary.

“You don’t have to be posh or rich to eat our food – it’s £7 for two people. Think what you may spend on coffee and a bun on the way to work. 

“£3.50 per person for a meal is very affordable, accessible and cheaper than a takeaway pizza,” he added.

Given that the company has spanned almost two decades, Bigham said the key thing he’s learnt in that time is to stick to principles.

“If you have clear articulated set of principles that you as the person who started business believe in, then they should stand test of time and you need to stick by those come what may, which isn’t always easy to do as things come along to challenge you,” he said.

On the topic of challenges, Bigham said that it’s a case of attracting and training the best people, as well as borrowing money.

As a business that now employs 250 people, he added: “Talent probably becomes more important as the business grows because for a business to thrive it needs great people and they don’t get easier to find.

“We have great people but we’re constantly on the lookout. The general sentiment is if a really good person walks through the door then we’ll find a job for them.”

With finance in mind, he noted that while it’s not impossible to secure funding, it is more difficult than it was before the financial crash in 2008. As a result, the focus on recruitment has allowed the business to be fortunate enough to continue achieving growth annually.

Bigham believes the firm was able to see off competition at the Growing Business Awards because of its strong track record and noted it “wasn’t just a flash in the pan”. He added if he was a judge, he’d have looked for a company that looks as though it can stand the test of time for years to come, which is the hope he has for his food enterprise.

The CBI launched a report in November and director-general Carolyn Fairbairn called for mid-sized companies to receive more recognition and support as the sector contributed £59bn to the economy between 2010 and 2013.

She said: “As a country, we’re good at telling the beginning of the story. We’re also good at telling the end of the story. The story of “Brand Britain” of big, well-known firms which people recognise and interact with every single day.

“Yet the ‘missing link’ is the most interesting part. It’s the part where entrepreneurs grow their great idea. Where they increase their profit, hire more people and expand beyond national borders.”

Questioned on his thoughts on the matter, Bigham said that 19 years ago there was certainly more funding and support around for startups and small businesses, and that there is far less money around now on the whole.

“In terms of medium-sized businesses, I think governments do have a greater tendency to support small businesses. That’s a good thing in many ways because they get a leg up at a time of high risk,” he said.

“What’s interesting is when you get to our size, there is very little funding available – but for us that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We’re very lucky we’ve had stable net growth, which most firms want.

“As statistics show, employment is really created in mid-sized businesses. We have 250 people working in the business and could easily see that number double over the next three to four years. That’s growth for us, but it has benefits for the wider society. There is an argument there because mid-sized firms growing strongly are often the engine for economic growth and bring in significant numbers.”