Alan and Juliet Barratt
You need to challenge yourself
When husband and wife team Juliet and Alan Barratt decided to disrupt the chocolate bar industry, they were met with scepticism, but. Carb Killa is now the UK’s best-selling protein bar and the pair has just sold a majority stake to Cadbury’s owner Mondelez. They talk to Smith & Williamson’s Hall of Fame about building their business.
There weren’t many signs in Juliet’s childhood of the entrepreneur she would become. She had a traditional educational background: going to university, followed by a post-graduate degree at Exeter. A teaching career saw her become head of sixth form at a rural school. In the end, however, she wanted a new challenge and decided to step away from the coal-face of education.
She moved out into vocational training, getting out into the workplace. She was head of education for a major charity, delivering training to teachers and advising on policy. She sat on exam boards. Education was a huge part of her life.
However, Juliet and Alan had long harboured an ambition to launch their own branded range of health products, trade-marking Grenade in 2006. It was clear they could achieve more with both of them in the business. She needed to step back from her day job and focus on it full time: “I went to work for Alan for 12 months with the ambition to start our own brand. We started to look at product development and then to build the marketing piece around that. We sold Alan’s original business and launched Grenade in February 2010.”
The husband and wife team found working together surprisingly harmonious: “We had clearly defined roles – I was responsible for marketing, while Alan was responsible for sales and new product development. We had the same work ethic so there was trust there and we were working towards the same goals. We had similar values, such as hating owing money.”
The difficulties were more around the immersive nature of running a business: “We didn’t have kids, so we had no cut-off at the end of the day. That was difficult. Other people have normal lives and our life was Grenade: our holidays were business trips.” That’s not to say she didn’t enjoy it – she remains passionate about the business and what they have built: “There are moments when you launch a new product when you think ‘what have I done’? But if you don’t have that element of fear, it’s not as good. You need to challenge yourself.”
The business grew rapidly, listing in the Sunday Times Fast Track 100 for the last 5 years and entering the SME Export Track 100 in 2017. After nine years, Juliet stepped away from day to day management of Grenade at the start of this year. She is now focusing on non-executive director roles, helping out smaller businesses. She has returned to her education roots, working with young people and mentoring. Most importantly, having not a lot of time off in the last 10 years, she may have a holiday.
Alan came from a family where almost everyone was self-employed: “The trouble was,” he says, “they never made any money. They had a tremendous work ethic, but they tended to work very long hours doing dirty work for terrible money.”
He was determined to do it differently. He had an entrepreneurial streak from an early age, re-selling Mr Kipling cakes to people who were having their MOT done, for example.
After A levels, he discovered a passion for weight training: “I was rubbish at sport, but I loved weight training. I dropped out of school and went to work in a gym. I was a gym instructor for ages, earning below the minimum wage, but I really enjoyed the life.” The seeds of his first business were sown when he started to distribute US supplements in the UK. The business did well and grew solidly, but he had greater ambitions.
The idea for Grenade had been germinating for some time. The pair had had trademarks in place and a good range of niche products. They also knew their marketing strategy, developing an eye-catching Grenade-shaped bottle for its range of drinks. By 2015 the company was well-established, selling via specialist retailers such as Holland & Barrett, and Amazon.
The next goal, however, was more ambitious. Alan wanted to build a consumer brand targeting people who aren’t necessarily gym bunnies, but who care about their health, the amount of sugar they are eating and want to be healthier: “We had all the experience and expertise in niche products, but we had never built a consumer brand. We decided to take on the big chocolate brands. We took everything we’d learnt in sports nutrition and put it in a bar format. We created a protein bar, with low sugar but high protein. It just took off. The chocolate market hadn’t been disrupted in 50 years. We had always sold via special locations such as health clubs, but then thought that if a Mars Bar could be everywhere, so could we.”
There were other companies making protein bars, but as Alan saw it, no-one had made a good one. He tried a huge range of different product recipes and concepts, going through 40-50 prototypes until they were happy with it. Today they have sold over 100m bars. In doing so, they have disrupted the chocolate industry.
He says: “We believe our rivals still have a long way to go. They may be reducing sugar, but they’re not increasing protein. The worst thing has been that as we have disrupted the industry, some have played dirty. While they haven’t got anywhere, it is a distraction from the day to day business. We simply had to take comfort from the idea that we must be getting to them!”
Grenade received the best possible endorsement in early 2021 when Cadbury owner Mondelez snapped up a majority stake, valuing the business at £200m. Alan will remain as chief executive, with other senior management also retaining equity stakes.
It is a welcome reward for Alan who, for the first four years, didn’t take a penny out of the business or a day off: “It is ridiculously hard work. I am CEO. The buck stops with me and I’ve become really conscious of that as I’ve employed 60+ people. I feel very responsible.”
He believes those early years working in a gym have served him well: “Over the years, I’ve been good at building relationships. All the years of working in a gym, it’s help me understand what consumers really want and how to get people to do things for me. I can talk to all sorts of people about different things.”
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