Paul Lindley, CEO of Ella's Kitchen

Ella’s Kitchen: a revolution in baby food

Innovative leadership enabled the astonishing growth of Ella’s Kitchen

Entrepreneur Paul Lindley, founder and CEO of baby food brand Ella’s Kitchen, has driven his business from zero to over 20% of the British baby food market in just eight years. Clear, innovative leadership has been key, he says

If you’ve had a child in the past eight years, chances are you know the Ella’s Kitchen® brand. The baby food business was launched in 2006 by Paul Lindley, who has taken the brand (named after his daughter) from no employees to a company with more than 60 and, according to company figures, a 20% share of the UK baby food market.

Ella’s Kitchen arrived on supermarket shelves during the recession. Paul won over consumers with his concept of pouched, organic food and a personalised brand with strong values that would connect with parents at an emotional time in their lives. Last year, he sold Ella’s Kitchen to Hain Celestial Group, a US-based organic baby food business, while remaining as CEO.

A clear leadership vision

“Key to our success has been engaging and motivating the people in our business,” says Paul. “From the time I was able to start employing people, I had a clear vision of what my leadership style should be. First, we would give employees a clear sense of purpose, in their individual job and as a company. The Ella’s Kitchen mission and the heartbeat of the business is to improve children’s lives by developing healthy eating habits that last a lifetime.” The company’s success comes from communicating this message to consumers and suppliers, and it starts with the team believing in and embracing these values.

“Second, we strive to give employees autonomy within their jobs.” He believes this is where entrepreneurs often falter because company founders can find it hard to let go and surrender control to their team. “As a leader, it’s crucial to stand back and employ people who are better than you; you simply can’t be the best at every element of the business.” This is a key issue during economic recovery, when businesses may feel confident about recruiting more staff. As Paul puts it, “Giving employees the freedom to do their job in their own way creates enjoyment and engagement.”

His final principle is about staff development. “It’s easy when you’re recruiting simply to think about the staff you need now, but where will those people be in a few years time?” According to Paul, issues with logistics or cashflow can be dealt with more easily than problems with people. “Ella’s Kitchen has a Keeping People Happy (HR) team that understands it is people that make a business, not money. We are a profit and purpose-led company and effective leadership begins with finding employees that share our cultural values.”

Recruitment and communication

Ella’s Kitchen is an emotive brand, but its recruitment process is as rigorous as that of any large corporate. The Ella’s Kitchen senior team have developed a three-stage interview process that focuses on mind set as much as skill set, followed by a three-month probation period. “During that time, we expect new employees to fulfil their goals and we retain only the ones who ‘get’ us,” he explains. “If they don’t fit with our corporate culture, it’s not fair to them or the rest of the team.”

Paul and his team have instilled five company values in Ella’s Kitchen, which act as a checklist for business decisions. “It creates a consistent approach from management to thinking, risk-taking and action. And that leadership is evident to employees,” says Paul. “I’ve learnt that leadership is about giving more than a cheque. A shared vision and personal acknowledgement is a huge motivator for people.”

Communication is also key. “It’s about listening to everyone and talking to each other as much as possible.” Paul describes it as “telling stories” to each other, to customers and to suppliers. For employees, that might mean, for example, leading an Ella’s Classroom, passing on skills to their colleagues. 

Doing it differently

Entrepreneurial companies have the freedom to try quirky leadership ideas that bigger companies find difficult to enact, according to Paul. Ella’s Kitchen puts on a lunch each week, which employees sit and enjoy together. “We also pay for professional singing tuition and the company choir Ella’s Voices performs at the summer and Christmas parties,” says Paul. “And we have had annual Don’t Come to Work Days, when we asked our teams to do something outside their direct jobs, but in line with our vision, that they can bring back to the business.”

“It’s about bonding, talking with each other and learning. People enjoy working here because of their engagement with our values, and ultimately that’s a very cost-efficient way to get results.”

Five business lessons

1) Devise a clear vision that you can share with your team. A distinct mission statement will give employees a sense of purpose.

2) Employ people with skills you don’t have, then leave them alone to enjoy their job.

3) Get everyone talking. Everyone needs a clear line of communication to everyone else.

4) Think ahead when recruiting. A happy, satisfied member of the team is more likely to stay with you for the long term.

5) Establish a distinct company culture that benefits employees. Company values can form useful performance indicators.

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