Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones MBE
There's no such thing as certainty
It’s not every urban teen that dreams of owning a farm, but Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones sat on his allotment aged eleven and made himself a promise. Everything he did from that point on was with that dream in mind, as he tells Smith & Williamson’s Hall of Fame.
Born in Jamaica, he came to the UK at three years old as part of the Windrush generation. His family moved to inner-city Birmingham and he had a classic urban childhood, living among Irish, Asian and Caribbean immigrants. There were eleven of them to their two-up, two-down home. He knew what it was like to be hungry and the allotment provided a useful supplement to the family’s store cupboard.
“The allotment was my oasis, a sanctuary from misery. I loved being on my own there. Today, when I do talks, it’s all about having the courage to dream. It’s an Americanism but dreaming for something better is very important otherwise history keeps us trapped.”
He believes there is something naturally entrepreneurial about immigrants. After all, he points out, most didn’t come. Those that did were hoping for something better.
His education was a waste of time. The local secondary modern school was nothing more than a holding pen. “The teachers hated it, the kids hated it. They were policing us; a lot ended up in prison. It was an environment of no hope or opportunity.” When he left, he could barely read or write. His dyslexia went undiagnosed, dismissed as being ‘difficult’.
Wilfred joined the army: “This wasn’t a great idea for someone whose instinct was to challenge convention. The military is all about following orders. I didn’t last long and got a dishonourable discharge. At the time, I felt like I was a failure at everything. Catering was just about the only thing left, so I went to catering college.”
It wasn’t glamorous, but he enjoyed it. However, he realised he would never earn enough money to buy his farm that way. He decided television might be an option. It took him over two years of pestering, writing and calling producers, before he finally got a break. This single-mindedness has defined his life, “I had absolute focus: I was ruthless and had passion. Too much left-brain thinking stops you doing things.”
A producer took a risk on him and he eventually became a producer-director of food programmes, working with celebrity chefs such as Gordon Ramsey and James Martin. These guys were tough and he was good at managing them.
Just as everything was going well, he decided on another surprising career move. Recognising he was no closer to his goal, he left the BBC and set up a food and drink marketing agency: “I think most people would love to do this, but they have a fear of tomorrow. In reality, there’s no such thing as certainty.” He worked with some key brands – Lloyds Grossman sauces, Kettle Chips, Cobra beer. That finally gave him the money to buy his farm, in Lifton, Devon. It was 1999, some thirty years after his daydreams on the allotment in Birmingham.
He needed a product and he wanted something quintessentially British. He set about creating a great sausage. Then he needed a brand name. ‘The Black Farmer’ had the right ingredients – in a similar way to the Virgin brand, no-one could steal it and it had an edge to it. By 2006, his business was supplying sausages, chicken, eggs, coffee and cheese. He was helped by the Internet revolution, which allowed his to get his message in ways not possible just a few years previously.
Just as he had achieved his life’s ambition, life dealt Wilfred a considerable blow. He was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia. His life was saved by a risky stem cell transplant. His book ‘Jeopardy’ deals with overcoming adversity and failure, pointing out the danger in playing it safe. He argues that people are inclined to fear the consequences of everything going wrong, rather than the dangers in not living ambitiously.
He says: “Success is really hard work. It’s not like winning the lottery. I’ve had to work extremely hard and make sacrifices. It’s been a really tough road and people need to arm themselves for that.” However, today his business is thriving and he has launched a rural scholarship scheme to give young people from inner city communities the chance to live and work in rural Britain.
Having achieved his dreams, what is left? Flamenco dancing, he says. Another unusual choice for a Birmingham boy, but Wilfred has spent his life defying expectations.
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