William Kendall: Breaking the mould

William Kendall turned his back on the army, the legal profession and investment banking to be the driving force behind the business success story of Green & Black’s chocolate, yet he doesn’t consider himself to be an entrepreneur.

William Kendall is a man who appreciates good food, but I’m not talking about his appetite. He’s passionate about natural products and quality ingredients, an enthusiasm that has spilled over from his upbringing on the family farm into his current role as CEO of fashionable organic chocolate brand Green & Black’s. But where many business chiefs prefer to be hands-on and keep an emotional attachment to their growing company, Kendall is a fervent believer that hiring a competent team should enable you to take more of a back seat.

‘Business owners should recognise when it’s time to stand back and let fresh blood run the show. I’m convinced that hands-off ownership is the best approach, which probably makes me an unlikely entrepreneur,’ he maintains.

‘If you’ve recruited high-calibre management, I say give them the space to do what they do best. Make the most of them and reward them and you’ll keep them on board. It’s far too easy for owners to stifle key staff by being too emotionally involved in the business to be able to let others drive it forwards.’

That’s not currently a problem at Green & Black’s, which is expanding successfully beyond Kendall’s wildest dreams. The brand has become synonymous with ethical business practices, having been founded on the principle of sourcing organically-grown cocoa beans on terms that ensure the growers, such as the Mayan Indians in Belize, benefit most from their lucrative crop. The company has developed a cult following for its up-market confectionery and last year sold £22.4 million of chocolate products, mostly in the UK.

Now, in a deal estimated to be worth £20 million, it’s been bought out by Cadbury Schweppes, a controversial move that will see the small-scale chocolatier join a global portfolio of mainstream products. Criticism in the press has been levelled at Green & Black’s shareholders for selling out to big business, but Kendall is forthright about the reasons behind the decision.

‘We sold five per cent of the business to Cadbury three years ago, which we wouldn’t have done if we didn’t believe they wanted to maintain the ethical values we’d instilled in the business. Since then, they’ve been incredibly helpful but hands-off backers and they understand what we’re about. It was always our plan to involve them more as we grew. There’s a perception in this country that big business is evil, full stop, but that just isn’t the case.

‘Cadbury’s overseas experience and knowledge has been a really useful resource – they probably know more about cocoa production than any other company in the world. That’s going to be invaluable as we expand, but they want us to remain independent and Green & Black’s will continue to operate as a stand-alone operation with me as CEO.’

Sowing the seeds

Kendall’s career progression has been diverse, to say the least. Born in 1961 in Bedfordshire, his early years were spent tending to the family business; a successful farm. ‘It was a typical East Anglian upbringing in a rural community, which I see now is where my two key interests stem from: food and business.

‘There was always work to be done on the farm, even in the middle of the night or on Christmas Day. As a child, the concept of a lie-in was something many of my school friends enjoyed but was foreign to me. That probably shaped my approach to work and to applying myself.’

Kendall went on to join the army for ‘a mad, masochistic year’ before university. ‘I saw myself as a bit of a rebel,’ he jokes, ‘even though that didn’t quite gel with the fact I was head boy at public school! I thought the army would be something out of the ordinary and good for me, and it turned out to be just that. I met some great people, who went on to Cambridge with me and are still in my life today.’

He read Law at Corpus Christi College but admits, ‘I didn’t know what I wanted to do for a living. I guess it’s a classic case of living life in institutions, from private school to the army and then Cambridge.’

A brief stint as a barrister followed and representing corporate clients gave him an insight into the mechanics of business. ‘One of my masters in chambers remarked one day, “Kendall, have you ever thought of going into business?”, which seemed to be a disparaging remark on my skills as a barrister but actually he was right, I am much more suited to making a mark on a business venture than being an intermediary or adviser on the sidelines, away from the action.’

But the bright lights of the City proved too alluring and in 1986, Kendall became an investment banker with Robert Flemmings, ‘which was a fascinating life, but wasn’t for me. After the crash of 1987 I realised it was time to bow out gracefully and find something more suitable.’

So he decided to study for an MBA at INSEAD in France as a stepping stone into business. ‘It was a new direction for me for which I wasn’t particularly well-equipped and the course was a bit of an intellectual struggle,’ he admits, ‘but brilliant because of it. I had to work harder than others and probably got more out of it as a result.’

Tasting success

City job offers rolled in after he qualified, but Kendall says that, despite being ‘tempted by huge salary increases’, he felt he’d been there and done that and wanted something more enjoyable.

‘I’d met Miranda, my wife, at University and she had inherited a farm in Suffolk which was both a blessing and a curse because her family knew nothing about farming. So for years I’d been helping out growing produce and got back in touch with my interest in food – and learned to cook. I started making my own soup and kept meaning to start a soup business.

‘Ironically, the brother of a friend from Cambridge then contacted me to see if I’d be interested in helping with his business making and selling fresh soup. I was obviously interested, while cursing the fact that someone had beaten me to it!’

That person was Andrew Palmer, the founder of what became The New Covent Garden Food Co, and Kendall was initially employed on an hourly rate for a month, not just because of his business skills but also because of his farming experience. ‘I was originally brought in to help source cheap carrots!’ he laughs.

Suffice to say, he got to know the business inside out and stayed for nine years, taking over as CEO at the behest of venture capital investors Apex Partners. He proceeded to turn the business from a loss-making concern with £2 million sales to an iconic brand name with turnover in excess of £20 million.

Reaping the rewards

Kendall attributes his unorthodox belief in handing over responsibility to middle management to his experience at New Covent Garden.

‘We were very busy fools in the early days, working 24 hours a day and getting it right by luck more than judgement. Bringing in managers made all the difference. I think if the owners of a company have far too much on their plate to concentrate on growing the business, they won’t fulfil their ambitions. It’s much better to get in skilled managers to ease the pressure. There’s a fine line between delegation and abdication and I enjoy treading that line.

‘I certainly made my fair share of mistakes along the way,’ he adds, ‘but it taught me about expansion and control issues in business. I learnt a lot about how you maintain entrepreneurial drive in a growing company while introducing some of the disciplines you find in larger businesses. I was keen to draw on that experience in my next venture.’

In 1998, after selling his stake in the soup business, Kendall and his business partner Nick Beart bought out Whole Earth Foods, the company behind Green & Black’s chocolate, founded by Craig and Josephine Sams. ‘It was really taking off as the concept of organic foods was catching on. I was intrigued by the business model and products, and could see that Craig needed help turning his visionary ideas into a profitable business.’

Kendall and Beart immediately put a senior management team in place underneath them and the business turned a profit the following year. ‘Customer feedback told us that both organic chocolate and dark chocolate had an image of being poor in taste and somehow foreign, so we repositioned the product as a luxury chocolate with a traditional British image first and foremost, and an organic product second. Since then, sales have soared.’

Kendall says enthusiasm for quality, ethically-produced food will always be the driving force behind his success. ‘All the business expertise in the world is no substitute for good products, such as Green & Black’s,’ he enthuses proudly. ‘To be honest I don’t really like chocolate, but even I think ours is brilliant!’

Related: From luxury chocolate pots to healthy coconut treats – After waiting three and a half years to find the right idea, Gü founder James Averdieck is entering the desserts game again to tackle the dairy intolerance problem.

Marc Barber

Marc Barber

Marc was editor of GrowthBusiness from 2006 to 2010. He specialised in writing about entrepreneurs, private equity and venture capital, mid-market M&A, small caps and high-growth businesses.