CEO Paul Lindley: Ella in the Key of E

When Ella’s Kitchen CEO Paul Lindley, 48, took the stage at the Cayman Alternative Investment Summit stage on Feb. 13, his audience was rapt – and he had much to say. 

Lindley founded Ella’s Kitchen in 2006. Seven years later, in May 2013, the youthful-looking, Sheffield-born, Zambia-raised executive sold the children’s nutrition company to America’s Haines Celestial food group for £103 million (US$160 million). 

Not one to retire to a world of luxury yachts, however, or sip 1998 Dom Pérignon P2 Brut Champagne (or even a $62,000 bottle of 1820 Juglar cuvee) from a glass slipper, Lindley immediately followed the sale with the November 2014 foundation of a new enterprise, Paddy’s Bathroom, a premium-priced range of child-friendly naturally scented and colorfully packaged bathroom products such as shampoo, hand and body soaps and bubble bath. 

Ella is Lindley’s 7-year-old daughter. Paddy is her younger brother, and Lindley is coy when asked if Hain’s might follow the Ella’s purchase by acquiring Paddy’s Bathroom if he spins it into the kind of multimillion-dollar enterprise its predecessor became. 

The British entrepreneur, sharing the Alternative Investment stage with Virgin Group founder Richard Branson and South Sudan musician and activist Emmanuel Jal, also discussed his philanthropic activities, founding in late 2014 the African relief effort The Key is E with Jal, and the millions of dollars that have gone toward schooling and rebuilding in Jal’s benighted new nation. 

 

Business and philanthropy  

In an interview with The Journal, Lindley discussed both his entrepreneurial efforts and philanthropic ventures. 

“Over the last nine years I have built my business, Ella’s Kitchen, from a startup in my kids’ playroom, to a £100M global company and market leader in … Great Britain,” he said. 

“In 2014, families spent over £120 million on Ella’s Kitchen foods; every half-of-a-second of every day someone, somewhere around the world eats an Ella’s Kitchen product.” 

The company, he said, “has been recognized as one of Britain’s fastest-growing businesses, one that is led by profit and purpose. In nine years the company has gone from being a small business and becoming the largest baby-food brand in the U.K., and having a significant market presence in the USA and other countries.” 

Lindley acknowledged his recognition as Entrepreneur of the Year on two occasions, but did not mention the third, plus a string of other awards he has garnered since 2011. 

He was named Entrepreneur of the Year at the 2011 National Business Awards; Ernst & Young’s 2011 Entrepreneur of the Year in the London and South Region; Business Person of the Year at the 2011 Oxfordshire Business Awards; Entrepreneur of the Year at the 2012 City AM Awards; and Entrepreneur of the Year at the 2012 Pride of Reading Awards. 

He was also named the 2012 South East Director of the Year for Small and Medium Businesses and in the same year, the Institute of Directors named him Director of the Year for SME businesses. 

In 2013, Lindley gained an honorary doctorate from the University of Reading for his contribution to improving children’s health and his work as an entrepreneur; and in 2010 the U.K.’s Management Today magazine called him one of the “Top 50 entrepreneurs to follow on Twitter.” 

“It has been a success,” he said, “because we spent time understanding the market and knowing the consumer better than anyone else, because we have an awesome team, and because we dared to innovate and revolutionize our category; but I think the biggest reason it has succeeded is simply because it is built on strong values and a mission to improve children’s lives by giving them a better relationship with food.” 

 

Broader aspirations  

The social activist in him frequently surfaces in his conversation, tying his business ventures to his broader aspirations. 

For example, in 2009, Lindley helped found the Consumer Forum, a group of entrepreneurs who believe success is contingent upon how they approach customers. In 2011, he and the forum developed a tax-relief proposal urging small businesses to interact more closely with customers, better exploit trademarks and create world-class British brands. 

He was also guest editor of The Grocer, the U.K.’s leading food-industry publication, urging official support for small food businesses and obesity issues, particularly among children. 

He has acted as ambassador to the Family and Parenting Institute, and, in a sort of forerunner to his Key is E African activism, proposed addressing the problems of 1 million U.K. youth between the ages of 16 and 24 who are unemployed, not in school or training, through social entrepreneurship. 

In 2013, he launched Averting a Recipe for Disaster, a long-term plan to improve nutrition for children under 5, drawing on comments from the food and health industries, charities and the media, including the National Obesity Forum and the School Food Trust. 

Subsequently, the Leicester City Council launched a yearlong Start Smart collaboration between businesses, government and local communities to raise awareness of healthy eating among those under 5 years old. 

Lindley sits on the SME advisory board of U.K.’s Santander bank and is an ambassador for the Family and Childcare Trust. He is also a counselor at the London-based charity One Young World. 

“The idea that business can and should do good is right at the heart of the Ella’s Kitchen brand,” Lindley said, “and our customers know and trust that. 

“I have learned, and passionately believe, that the best businesses are those striving to deliver profits and a social purpose – both equally important. 

“I sold Ella’s Kitchen in 2013 and could easily have simply retired to the golf course with my earnings,” he said. “I didn’t do that.” 

He cites his ongoing position as CEO of Hain’s Global Infant Toddler and Kids division, overseeing Ella’s Kitchen and Hain’s organic infant-food Earth’s Best brand, his joint The Key is E effort with Jal and the creation of Paddy’s Bathroom. 

He did it, he says, “because of that simple belief that I have a responsibility to use the knowledge, skills, network, passions and energy I have as a successful entrepreneur to help entrepreneurship create more wealth, jobs, insight, innovation and above all social impact to improve people’s lives through business activities” 

The Key is E, he said, is “the social business we co-founded to support entrepreneurs in Africa whose businesses socially benefit children.” 

Just prior to September’s The Key is E launch, he told the U.K. Startups publication that the effort “plays exactly to my belief that entrepreneurship can solve society’s problems,” echoing Jal himself, who told The Journal that people with productive employment, education, a salary and “food in your belly” are not often those “running in the streets … cracking and rioting.” 

Lindley and Jal told Cayman’s mid-February alternative investment forum that corporate citizenship was a “new license to operate,” that business leaders could do things governments could not, blending economic and social development, “the brain and the heart,” to boost better governance within the growing market of Africa. 

Jal himself offers a hair-raising personal history. He calls himself a “war child” – the title of his 2008 documentary and album, the third of six recordings, and his 2009 autobiography. He was a victim of the nearly 30-year-long civil war between Sudan’s Muslim north and Christian south – expanding in 2006 to the country’s western Darfur region – and which has killed an estimated 2 million and displaced twice that many. 

At age 8, Jal joined the fighting after seeing his mother killed, his aunt raped, his brothers and sisters “scattered,” as he says, and his father ”detached,” commanding one of the warring factions. Jal ultimately fled the fighting, walking for three months with as many as 3,000 other child soldiers, most of whom died along the way, succumbing to hunger, violence and disease.
 

At the age of 11, Jal was rescued by British aid worker Emma McCune – chronicled in 2004’s 400-page “Emma’s War” – who smuggled him to Kenya. McCune died shortly afterward in a car wreck, but Jal pursued his education, finally migrating to the West. 

“I met Emmanuel in Johannesburg in 2013,” Lindley says, “and we immediately both felt we were long-lost brothers. 

“Even though we come from very different backgrounds, we think about the world in exactly the same way. We both grew up in Africa, and that’s our underlying united passion. [We] have an optimism that its future is bright and that we can help add to its shine. We quickly realised that we had plenty in common: We both have this belief in Africa’s future, both believe that business can be and should be the best driver of social change, that we both have dedicated our careers to improving the world for children and that we believe all Africans are bound by a common history and a common destiny no matter where they are living. 

“Therefore, we started thinking of a social business we could create to improve children’s welfare, that would help Africa achieve its potential in supporting others, whether on the continent or in the diaspora,” Lindley said. 

He believes that African entrepreneurs can galvanize change on the continent. The result, he says, “is The Key is E!” 

“We see our key opens the door between two connecting rooms: one of aspirant African social entrepreneurs and the other of influential social investors with capital, mentorship, market access and networks looking for such opportunities.” 

Lindley and Jal seek specific qualities from 10 pan-continent entrepreneurs. The organization says it has “strict criteria about the type of businesses we would consider investing in” and “strict social-impact evaluation metrics that we will measure our investments against. Although each investment is different, the social benefit to children needs to be clear and compelling.” 

In exchange, each of the businesses will gain: seed or growth capital in the form of a loan or equity investment; a network of African expatriate mentors, enablers and micro-investors; links to schools familiar with The Key is E efforts; opportunities for crowd-funding loans; a suite of tools and assets to support investment growth; and access to a network of like-minded entrepreneurs.” 

And what exactly is “E?” Lindley asks rhetorically: “Well, that’s whatever you’d like it to be – perhaps the key is entrepreneurship or enterprise; education or the environment. Maybe it’s empathy or emotion or perhaps the key is simply energy. As I say, you choose.” 

Asked if “Ella” might qualify, he says “yes … ‘E’ works on many levels.” 

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Emmanuel Jal and Paul Lindley

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