Josephine Fairley| Interview | Podcast | Maria Franzoni | MFL Global

Interview with Co-founder of organic chocolate company, Green and Blacks, Josephine Fairley

This week Maria’s guest on the show is Josephine Fairley. Having been the UK’s youngest ever magazine editor in her twenties, Jo Fairley co-founded Green and Blacks in 1991 with her husband Craig Sams, now a one hundred million pound a year brand under the umbrella of Mondalez. Passionate since her teenage years about clean, green living she continues to work as an ambassador for Green and Blacks while also acting as a consultant to brands that are seeking increasingly to become more ethical, sustainable and to embody stronger values. A serial entrepreneur, she has translated her lifelong interest in the senses into a series of successful ventures, Judges Bakery and the Wellington Centre in her hometown of Hastings, and the Perfume Society, the world’s first networking organisation for those interested in the sense of smell. Author of twenty-five books, she has contributed to a wide range of publications including The Times, YOU Magazine, Mail on Sunday, Red, Psychologies, and more.

Maria: 

So, this week my guest is Josephine Fairley. Having been the UK’s youngest ever magazine editor in her twenties, Jo Fairley co-founded Green and Black’s in 1991 with her husband Craig Sams, now a one hundred million pound a year brand under the umbrella of Mondalez. Passionate since her teenage years about clean, green living she continues to work as an ambassador for Green and Black’s while also acting as a consultant to brands that are seeking increasingly to become more ethical, sustainable and to embody stronger values. A serial entrepreneur, she has translated her lifelong interest in the senses into a series of successful ventures, Judges Bakery and the Wellington Centre in her hometown of Hastings, and the Perfume Society, the world’s first networking organisation for those interested in the sense of smell. Author of twenty-five books, she has contributed to a wide range of publications including The Times, YOU Magazine, Mail on Sunday, Red, Psychologies, and more.

Jo, thank you for joining me.

Jo Fairley:    

Thank you, Maria. It always makes me sort of feel like I want to go and have a lie down when I hear a list like that!

Maria:   

Yes, you have done an awful lot. So, let’s go back to the beginning. Tell us a little bit about becoming the UK’s youngest ever magazine editor. Is that what you studied to do?

Jo Fairley:

No. I left school when I was sixteen with six 0 levels and that was it. The words of my careers mistress were just ringing in my ears telling me I would never amount to anything. And when she said that to me, it was like she ignited rocket fuel under my chair and I was just so determined to prove her wrong. I trained to be a secretary, which was something you could actually do and actually I think everybody should train to be a secretary because I just think it gives you the most amazing life skills and it teaches you how to get stuff done and I think I’ve carried that with me. But I ended up with a job at the age of 19 on a magazine and I worked my way up there from secretary to become the senior feature writer, interviewing incredible people, lots of Hollywood film stars like Bette Davis and Charlton Heston and I mean, honestly, living legends.

And then at the age of 23, my boss said Jo, I need your help on something and I said sure, and he was a very young, dynamic guy and he had a sister publication called Look Now. And I said okay, Terry, how can I help? And he said well, I need a new Editor for Look Now. Okay, Terry, what sort of person are you looking for? He reeled off a list of attributes and at the end, I said as a joke, well what you really want is someone just like me. And he said yes, I’d like you to start in the morning. And that was extraordinary. I mean, he had just spotted something in me that I didn’t know was there. And so, I became a magazine editor literally overnight.

The first month I was convinced I was going to be found out. I suffered a real imposter syndrome, so I totally understand that. And after a month of feeling like I was going to be fired any day, we had put a magazine together and I’d been through all of the kind of mechanical processes of actually producing a magazine. And the second month came round, and I realised, actually I know how to do this now. It’s a mechanical process and that freed me up to be creative and so I was a magazine editor throughout my twenties, until I was almost thirty and then went freelance.

Maria: 

Wow, there’s so much in there. I mean, so much in that. I remember, I think it must be a generational thing, I remember when I was in school and my mother said to me learn how to be a secretary. And she said that to me because … she said, if ever you’re out of work, you’ll always have something to do.

Jo Fairley:

Yes, and I think it’s absolutely true. You can organise anything. You just learn to get stuff done. You learn how to get stuff from A to B. You learn how to organise your own diary as well as somebody else’s. You just start to know where to go for things. And I think all of those skills have really helped me.

Maria:   

And I think its skills that we’re losing, actually, and of course I never was unemployed, so that was great. The other thing you said which is really, really profound is that once you’ve got a system in place and you follow it, you can then be creative.

Jo Fairley: 

Absolutely. And you know, I have something up on the office wall in the Perfume Society that just says things only get done if you do them. And I’m a great believer that most things happen by putting one foot in front of the other and not actually just sitting around talking about stuff all the time. We know lots and lots of people with dreams and schemes and actually they never follow through on them. But that whole process of just doing things is what gets you from that very baby step to your destination.

Maria: 

And of course, one of the very big things you did was Green & Black’s. Just to tell you my favourite flavours so you know for future, Maya Gold and the 70% Dark Chocolate. I’ll send you a note. Can you tell us how that started?

Jo Fairley: 

So, I had had a bit of green streak in me ever since I was at school. A friend actually gave me a copy of a book called A Shopper’s Guide to Saving the Planet, and there was nothing I could do in Bromley in those days to save the planet except get my mum to drive a lot of gin bottles to the bottle bank. But that stayed with me and so I always was a bit of an eco-warrior. And in fact, just before founding Green & Black’s I had been writing a column for the Times called Ecosphere and I had been presenting a thirty-week series for BSkyB or Sky as it became, called Go for Green.

And then I married Craig Sams who’s incredibly green. He was a sort of a hippy entrepreneur … is a hippy entrepreneur … who had gone on to found a company called Whole Earth Foods and was Chairman of the Soil Association.  I’d never expected to go into business. I was having a great time interviewing lots of other business people and fascinating folk and I walked into Craig’s office and I found two squares from a sample bar of chocolate sitting on his desk. And of course, when you do that, you’ve obviously got to eat the chocolate sitting on your husband’s desk, it’s the law. And it was the most incredible chocolate I’d ever eaten. It was much darker than anything you could get on the market in the UK and I just said to him, what is it? And he said, “oh, it is a sample of the world’s first organic chocolate but I can’t really do anything with it” because his business, Whole Earth, was founded on the principles of no added sugar. And of course, chocolate has sugar in.

So, there was no way it would sit easily underneath that brand. And actually, the samples were on their way to a friend of ours in Denmark who might have been able to launch it under her brand because she had a much broader brand. He’d been speaking to a guy in West Africa about peanuts and this guy had said, I’ve got cocoa beans as well, are you interested? Craig said “well, not really but I might find you someone who could do something.” Because actually, it is hard to imagine now, but back in the early nineties, the natural food trade was so tiny and we were all such kind of crusaders, that we all knew each other. And you did a lot of this kind of well, I can’t do something but have you spoken to so and so.

Anyway, I just kept on and on and on at him and eventually he turned round and said look, if you’re so interested, you do it. And what he really meant was that I needed to do the PR and marketing which was obviously something, as a journalist, I had an insight into and I had to finance it. And that was my twenty thousand pound nest egg from selling my flat before I moved in with Craig which went into buying the first two tons of chocolate.

Maria:

Wow, that’s very brave.

Jo Fairley:

It was really brave, but you know, nothing ventured, nothing gained. And fortune favours the bold and all of those clichés. But actually ,they may be clichés, but they’re true. And I just felt that I would always wonder what might have happened if I hadn’t taken that opportunity. You know, if I’d just sat back and took the easy path … which was fun and well paid and exciting but wasn’t ever going to change my life.

Maria:

Brilliant. That is amazing. And why do you think Green & Black’s has been so successful?

Jo Fairley:  

I think we embodied incredibly strong values from the very beginning. My mentor and friend Anita Roddick, used to say that she felt that there was such a thing as business karma and that when you were trying to do good things, magic happened. And I think that what we had was a product that was not like anything else on the market. I mean, it was the darkest chocolate on the market at the time. It was the first organically certified chocolate in the world. It became the first product in the UK to carry the Fairtrade mark. And so, from the very start, it had great quality product. We packaged it not looking like a kind of niche product from the health food trade, but looking like something that you might find in a spiffy shop like Fortnum & Mason or the Conran Shop, which was an early stockist, or Harrods.

And then it had these incredibly strong values embedded in it. And we told the story of the chocolate of where it came from and the producers who grew it and whose family is benefited from this Fairtrade relationship on the inside of the wrapper. So, I’ve talked to lots of people about how they remember. They would sit there and they would open their early bar of Green & Black’s and they’d read the story on the inside of the wrapper of who grew it and where it came from and how it had made a difference to them. And, you know, in business now we take storytelling as a kind of given. It’s common currency. But actually, again, back then, there wasn’t that much storytelling around but for us it just felt completely natural. It was the way we did business and we wanted to share that with people as part of a kind of crusade to change the way that business was done.

Maria: 

And it worked brilliantly. And in fact, you went on to influence Cadbury who bought Green & Black’s because their milk chocolate is now Fairtrade.

Jo Fairley: 

Absolutely. Well beyond that, they have an incredible 400 million dollar investment programme in West Africa which has been put together with about thirteen different NGO’s and is policed by the Fairtrade Foundation and they’re working on the grant to improve women’s empowerment, to put in water infrastructure, to teach farmers how to farm better and improve their incomes. Also, to build schools, etc. working with those communities … whatever they want. And that has its roots in what Cadbury did with Fairtrade. Cadbury was really transparent about the fact that it was looking at the way we did business that really showed them that you could do good through doing business.

And, of course, Cadbury as a company sort of like to think they invented corporate social responsibility because they did so much work right back in the roots of their business to improve people’s lives. They built Bournville for their workers. They always took very good care of everybody. And so, I think that that came very naturally for them. But I look around now and I just see that … you know, I’m hugely gratified that that is the way that business generally is moving. And I think it’s happening for lots of different reasons. I think all of us are starting to think more about the impact of what we buy, whether it is you know, a single use plastic bottle that gets thrown away or whether it is organic versus non-organic, Fairtrade versus non-Fairtrade, etc. We’re all starting to question that and brands want to offer products to people who are consumers with a conscience.

And I think also on a kind of grander scale, big companies everywhere, if they want to recruit talented young people, have to have a strong message of values embodied in that organisation because the fabled millennials are asking lots and lots of tricky questions and they want to work for companies that reflect their beliefs and their philosophies.

Maria: 

Yes, quite right, and it’s great that it’s moving in that direction, as you say, I didn’t realise you were such a pioneer back then. It’s lovely to hear. Well done.

Jo Fairley: 

It was so unusual to be honest but lovely Anita signed me up for a networking organisation called Social Venture Network, which was literally a small group of people who were trying to good through business, through these social enterprises. And we would meet in places like Boston and Zurich etc. and it was people like Anita and Gordon, it was Ben and Jerry, it was Gary Hirshberg from Stonyfield Farm who went on to sell his brand to Danone. But we had to get it together and kind of mutually support each other in that kind of environment because we were kind of outlaws in a way. We were doing things so differently to the way that business was done generally back then in the early nineties that we needed a bit of a gang to say it’s OK. You may feel like a lone salmon swimming upstream but we’re actually a shoal and we’re all trying to move together.

Maria:

I know. Fantastic. Congratulations. Well done on all that brilliant work. I want to talk about you and your lovely husband. So, how do you … because I think you got married the year you actually founded Green & Black’s. So, how do you do the work/life balance? Did you have a work/life balance?

Jo Fairley:  

Yes. Pretty soon, I realised that I had to set some boundaries. And I think this is very relevant because I know lots of couples who are in business together and it works really well in one way because you’ve got this partner who you completely trust, who you pretty much know inside out, you know what decisions they would take in a particular scenario. But if you’re not careful, you’re going to end up talking about business 24 hours a day and you’re not going to have a marriage.

So, I realised after about a month it was heading in that direction and I said OK, what we are going to do is we are going to go for a walk every night for about an hour and we’re going to discuss everything to do with business during that hour. So, everything that had happened in the day. We actually worked in adjacent buildings. So, Craig worked at 269 Portobello Road and I worked at 267.  I took the top floor flat for my office. But we’d get home. We’d, you know, pull on our raincoats probably, and go marching off the streets up and down Notting Hill and we would download everything from the day and we would brainstorm and we would talk about HR issues and we would have product development ideas.

And long before iPhones, Craig had this little voiceit gadget in his pocket where he would record his big ideas. Because I think it was Buckminster Fuller said that you have 42 seconds to capture an idea before it disappears into the ether. I think we all know that, I think 42 seconds is quite generous some days. But then when we got home, he was banned from talking about it. And we would go on holiday and well, although he likes to do his emails on holiday, I like to just completely switch off and have some sort of defined downtime. And so, he wasn’t able to talk about it on holiday, either. If he tried, I would be like a five-year-old and I’d put my fingers in my ears, I’d go la la la I’m not listening, I’m not listening.

Because I realised that was what we needed. Otherwise we were just going to be a business. We weren’t going to be a couple. I have quite a few friends who are in business with their partners and they have all had to set some kind of boundary for it to be successful. And I’ve got one friend who, they do go on holiday and what they do is they schedule one morning on holiday to talk about business and then the rest of the time, they’re on the sun loungers or jet skis or whatever.

But I think that it is really important, but on the other hand it was great being in business with Craig because what we had were two completely complementary skill sets. And I think that this is crucial in a business. It’s no good having two creative people who want to do all the fun stuff, all the outward facing stuff. Or it’s no good having two accountants. Because those two creative people might have lots and lots of great ideas but nobody’s ever going to get invoiced. You have two accountants … you know, two sort of very logical thinking people you know, they can strategise and plan the living daylights out of a business. But I’ve had people come up to me and go well, I’d really like to be in business but I don’t have any ideas, you know. So, what really works is you’ve got two people … I mean, Craig does have a lot of ideas but our skill sets just kind of overlapped a bit in the middle. I was customer service, product development, PR, marketing … you know, can be seen as fluffy stuff. He was strategy, money, distribution, operations, all that kind of thing. So, that was brilliant because we had two people who let each other get on with stuff and we had these very complimentary skill sets which added up to one really good business.

Maria:

That sounds absolutely perfect.  A marriage of business and personalities. Fantastic.

Jo Fairley: 

It’s gorgeous. After 28 years and I love him to pieces.

Maria:  

That’s wonderful. And what happened then on the children front? Because you’ve got a bit of patchwork family. How did that all fit in?

Jo Fairley: 

Oh, yeah. I don’t have biological children, but I have magnetised a lot of waifs and strays basically. And so, I have a sort of adopted daughter, I have a whole bunch of goddaughters whose mothers sadly died and I ended up kind of having to be much more responsible for their growing up than I ever anticipated. I have two stepchildren who lived with us and I have now quite a raggle taggle band of grandchildren who obviously think I’m their Grandma because they’ve never known anything else, really. So, there were always a lot of kids around. And we were always working around them.

Maria: 

As well as your Green & Black’s, we talked about a couple of other ventures that you set up. One of them being the Wellington Health and Wellbeing Centre. Is it true that you set that up because you couldn’t find a yoga class to suit your diaries?

Jo Fairley: 

Well it was partly … I did rather greedily when we opened up this, or rather, selfishly scheduled an 8 am yoga class just so I could go. And I would underwrite the teacher’s fee if nobody else turned up but actually it rapidly became not an issue. We moved to Hastings from London and in London you’re just so used to being able to walk into any area of London and find a beautiful health centre, lovely décor, great teachers, coffee bar or whatever. And I got to Hastings and it was all sort of chilly church halls or people’s front rooms with the dog shut in the kitchen barking. And I thought, you know what … and this is my starting point for all my businesses … if I need something and it’s not being fulfilled, chances are lots of other people feel the same way.

So, we bought an incredible Regency tumble down building from the council and it had the most perfect yoga room to turn into a Yoga Studio and another perfect room to turn into a Pilates studio. And then we put in nine treatment rooms as well. Because I just felt that there were lots and lots of people moving down from London who would want great massages or aromatherapy or psychotherapy or physiotherapy or all those different things in one place. You know, not having to go here and there. And also one beautiful place. So, again, everything I’ve ever done has been … if it’s good enough for me, and I’ve got quite high standards, then hopefully it will be good enough for everybody else. So, I’m a bit of a kind of control freak about it.

Maria: 

All the best entrepreneurs are. So, tell me, you also have a Judges Bakery and you have the Perfume Society.

Jo Fairley: 

The Bakery I ran that for many years. I mean, we bought the bakery on our street just as we were selling Green & Black’s and I took it organic, 200 recipes, I think we had the thickest file at the Soil Association ever. We put in a one stop natural and organic food store. And to be honest, I never really planned to work there but it just so happened that my manager got pregnant and the very nice girl who I’d taken on to cover for her maternity broke her ankle on day three. So, I actually ended up in the bakery in the store for, I think, 363 days out of 365 in the first year.

But it was fascinating. I’ve never even had a shop job before and I completely learned how to run a bakery, how to run a shop, how to manage retail staff, how to do display, which you know, I’ve always loved design and so I got great stimulation out of the fact that retail is unbelievably visual. You know, you are constantly having to make things look really attractive for people to buy them. So, that was fascinating. And then it was sold to a local baker who offered to buy it from us and now it’s created a real kind of retail hub on our street, of a great cheese shop, the bakery and then next door we’ve just got a green grocer run by two dynamic 23 year old boys.

So, I am really proud of having offered people in Hastings an alternative to going to the supermarket.

Maria:

Yeah, you can eat well in Hastings, basically now. Okay, so you’ve also founded the Perfume Society. I mean, I love perfume but I think smell has such an effect on your mood. Is that why you started it?

Jo Fairley: 

Partly. I mean, I’ve always loved perfume myself since I was a teenager. My dad travelled a lot and used to bring back lots of stuff from duty free so I had a very sophisticated fragrance wardrobe from an early age. But funnily enough … I mean, throughout running Green & Black’s I had to continue to work as a journalist because all our money was tied up in stock. So, I would just get up very early and do my journalism before the kind of Green & Black’s day started. And one of the things that I wrote about and became quite good at writing about was fragrance. I loved the challenge of turning smells into words which is hard. I mean it’s really hard. So, I continued to write about fragrance and won lots of prizes for writing about fragrance, which was amazing because I’ve never even won an egg and spoon race before that, I think.

And one day I was doing a feature for YOU magazine about perfume with ten women and ten fragrances and I was putting out the ten fragrances that they were going to smell and I made this throwaway remark, “it’s so weird there’s no Perfume Society”. And I just got these shivers down my spine because I was thinking, this is extraordinary. You’ve got this business that’s worth billions. You’ve got people who are passionate about it. But there’s no hub for them, there’s nowhere for them to kind of, you know, bone up on it properly and maybe smell things together and meet perfumers and all that kind of thing.

And to begin with I thought am I hallucinating? Surely, I would know about this. So, I Googled it and the fourth entry that came up was Steak Appreciation Society. And that’s when you know that you’ve found a gap in the market. And then I went to my domain name provider and fragrance society, scent society, perfume society, all just sitting there. And I think nobody had done it for couple of reasons. One is mostly that you have to know everybody in the industry to make something like this work well because we have incredible events with perfumers, we do gorgeous discovery boxes like wine boxes but for scent lovers with smelling notes, etc. And really, you know, to make that happen you’ve got to be able to go and knock on the doors of the Chanels and L’Oreals and the Estee Lauders of this world and have them open.

And you know, when I was setting this up, I went to talk to Chanel, slightly with my heart in my mouth because they are Chanel and they turned round and said, can we host your launch party? So, I went, oh, let me think about that for a minute … Yes. You know, so it’s been really fascinating and I think for me what’s exciting is that kind of perfume is where food was twenty five years ago when the chefs started coming out of the kitchen, they started talking about ingredients and stories and producers and recipes, etc. And they’d previously been sort of shut away. And that is happening with perfume. The noses have come out of the lab, if you like, and they’re talking about their craft and their art. You learn much more about ingredients. And it’s very, very exciting and what we’re seeing is kind of people picking up on that like they did with food twenty five years ago.

Maria:  

I think you’re absolutely right. And having a good, big Italian honker of a nose, I appreciate perfume. So, listen, I could talk to you all day but I think what we should end on is just to hear how you got into speaking because we’ve worked together for a while now but how did that happen?

Jo Fairley: 

Most things in my life have just kind of been opportunities that presented themselves to me without me actively going out and pursuing them. And I think one day, I just got approached by somebody to speak somewhere and I went along and I did it and I found that it was incredibly rewarding. And I realised that as I was building my business, I had gone to listen to a lot of other people. I mean, I learnt business by listening to other people, by reading business books, by reading business magazines and trying to take lessons away from that and doing it on the job.

And I always … whenever I would come away from listening to a speaker, I would have that amazing brief window of opportunity to look at what I was doing from afar and maybe see how I could do it differently. And the other aspect of going to listen to somebody else was that realisation that you are not lone salmon, you are actually swimming upstream with a whole group of other people you often don’t get the chance to meet.

And so, I suppose I just felt like having got so much out of hearing other people speak that if I now was in a position to share a story and to share insights in such a way that kind of fired people up to go back to the office and keep going and do better and be stronger and move ahead, then that was something that I really wanted to do. And so I love doing it and I love the talking but then I really love the Q&A at the end usually when I get to talk to people who want to ask me stuff that I have to answer on the hoof and put me on the spot, rather as you have today, Maria.

Maria:  

And I’ve enjoyed it. And we love working with you. You do a wonderful job. And thank you so much for your time.

Jo Fairley:   

Thank you.

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