HR & Management

"Our 'eat your way' motto exemplifies our ethos"

9 min read

07 August 2013

Deputy Editor, Real Business

While some businesses get hypnotised by the idea of international expansion, you need to know your limits and your strengths. Paul Oberschneider on why Vital feels comfortable being a domestic company.

Name:

Paul Oberschneider

Role and company:

CEO of Vital Ingredient

Employee numbers:

130+

Growth forecast for the next three years:

Historically, our sales growth for the past three years has been slightly in excess of 60 per cent. I would expect that to continue with stores we currently have in the pipeline and what we have forecast. That said, it will probably be higher; we have been testing the model these past three years, and getting our development team “right”, so we should be able to leverage that moving forward.

In under 50 words, what makes your business distinctive in its marketplace:

Being a Vital Ingredient customer gives you an un-paralleled choice of healthy food combinations which they can create. Our “Eat your Way” motto exemplifies our ethos. From our core salad range to our hot food, we are always at the front of innovation by introducing new ingredients and possibilities. We appreciate that customer’s time during the day is sacred, so we provide choices that are quick, with healthy choices in an atmosphere that is fun to visit. We are constantly changing our menu to make their journey more exciting.

What’s the big vision for your business?

I think the Vital brand has long legs and we are just getting started. We are now taking our core “create your own salad” model a step further. Vital’s “Eat your Way” concept now allows us to add items in our grab-and-go selection (such as artisan sandwiches, wraps, and a collection of snacks and deserts), and an ever expanding line of hot food to extend our shoulder periods of the day, which we never did before. We recognise people’s desire to eat healthy food, and we think that includes a lot above and beyond our initial core offer.

Although right now we are focused on London, we are consolidating our supply chain in order to penetrate outside of London. I think Vital can be a brand that represents healthy food and there are a lot of avenues we can take that.

Current level of international business, and future aspirations: 

I’m staying domestic. It’s tempting and people get hypnotised by the idea, especially if you are successful at home, but you need to know your limits and your strengths. Every market is different and there are steep learning curves. I think for a business like ours, we need to stay where we feel comfortable. Unless you have the organisation to move to other markets it is a dangerous undertaking as some have experienced.

Biggest career setback and what you learned from it: 

When I was developing property assets, I always regretted not doing more when I could have. If you have a winner, you need to leverage that by taking it further… until you can’t.

What makes you mad in business today?

Two things; people that waffle and people who don’t keep promises. I find that being too smart is a disadvantage. You need the blind faith and focus of a golden retriever. You cannot run a business if you don’t have commitment and cannot take decisions. Mind you, there are a lot of good ideas out there, but the one thing that keeps people from succeeding is their inability to take action—quickly. You have to have confidence in your product and vision and not be swayed by the waves of good advice, even if that means course correcting later on. Also I really believe you get a lot further ahead if you are honest and keep promises, even if they may cost you. In the end, business is about building trust with people; your customers, partners, bankers, suppliers etc.

What will be the biggest change in your market in the next three years?

I think a lot of operators will fall by the wayside. Landlord greed, and increased competition in the market have puts rents too high to sustain a healthy business model. This is going to come back and bite us all. I see operators taking on greater risk and land banking expensive sites in the belief that sales will catch up. You cannot borrow from the future indefinitely and businesses should make money from day one. I can name a few in the market that have gone through rapid expansion and who will not survive the increase competition and running costs. I think the sector will become more difficult and some names will disappear.

Can businesses in your sector/industry access the finance they need to grow? If not, what can be done to improve things?

The major problem with most entrepreneurs in this sector is they may have a good food idea or be foodies themselves, but when it comes to raising capital they are clueless. No forward thinking takes place, and when they need access to capital they are not prepared. I never plan ahead more than two or maybe three years, but I know with a pretty good deal of certainly what those two years might look like; from that I can begin to build relationships with funding partners. There are some innovative sources of finance out there, such as Santander’s Breakthrough programme, and investing the time to find the right partner with whom you have the right chemistry can really pay off

How would others describe your leadership style?

Decisive and execution driven. I also think people would say I let them get on with things. I try not to meddle. I want people to take responsibility and they can only do that if I give them responsibility. You can’t keep opening the oven and have a good result so to speak.

Your biggest personal extravagance?

Horses. A lot of horses.

You’ve got two minutes with the prime minister. Tell him how best to set the UK’s independent, entrepreneurial businesses free to prosper:

There needs to be real financial incentive – not just talk. IF you want to encourage entrepreneurs, then you need to prime the pump. Businesses who trade below £15m should pay zero taxes as long as they reinvest their earnings back into their businesses. Businesses should also be incentivised to train and educate their employees. I’m not talking about the current government programs, I’m talking about giving real incentives to businesses who can demonstrate in-house training programs. For every £1 invested in savings there should be a tax benefit of £2.

Longer term; the education system in schools in the future should be less about testing and meeting statistics, and more about learning and creativity. Today’s current education model just burns kids out and does nothing to get them thinking out of the box. If we want progress we need to change the way students think – we need to start looking forward and stop looking backwards.