The typical teenager barely knows what they want to do next week, let alone what they want to do for the rest of their career. But Natalie Campbell knew from the age of 15 that she wanted to be a CEO.
For this month’s Three Things Podcast we invited All Together Volunteer Advisor and Belu CEO Natalie Campbell MBE to explain where that desire originated, how it helped to develop her focus on impact, and to ask for her Three Things – three pieces of actionable advice CEOs can implement in their businesses, today.
The renaissance woman incarnate
The typical fifteen-year-old barely knows what they want to do next week, let alone what they want to do for the rest of their career. So, how exactly did Natalie Campbell come so early to the realisation that she wanted to be a CEO?
“I believe people are born to do anything they put their mind to”, Natalie explains, “and I wanted to be in control, to own my agency, to be the lead character in my own story.” The elucidation of this purpose enabled Natalie to see life with more clarity. Everything she did was based on its ability to bring her closer to her goal, and the first manifestation of that process lay in her early employment. “I had 12 Saturday jobs. I would go to one in the morning, one in the afternoon, and one through the night”, she reveals. “I fell in love with work.”
1It is one thing to have a dream, but quite another to have the tenacity and conviction required to make it a reality. Natalie proved early on that she possessed not only the vision, but also the attitude and industry necessary to become a CEO, and those attributes were promptly recognised by her superiors.
“I became a senior supervisor at Morgan, so I was opening and closing, doing rotas, cashing up, and I realised that it wasn’t that hard”, she says. That insight formed the foundation of an idea that would come to fruition in her final year of university. “I’m deliberate”, she explains, “I chose Lancaster because of the modular syllabus structure and because it was a small place. I knew I could start a business there”. And that’s precisely what she did when, in 2005, she was granted a license to operate as a Morgan De Toi franchise store: “Morgan was my entrepreneurial baptism of fire, and I’ve been hooked ever since.”
Natalie Campbell’s CV//
2005-2007: Owner/Franchisee – Morgan De Toi
2006-2010: Campaign Manager– Enterprise UK
2010-2020: Founding Partner – A Very Good Company
2018-2020: Founding Director – Sussex Royal
2020-To Date: Co-CEO – Belu Water Ltd
Other portfolio roles include Board appointment at vInspired, UnLtd Big Lottery Fund, government advisor, podcaster, author and broadcaster,
The next thirteen years saw Natalie broaden her entrepreneurial expertise and expand on the lessons she’d taken from Morgan. So much so that she was able to collate her learnings in her book, ‘Starting a Business in Seven Simple Steps’, which was published by HarperCollins in 2014.
“One of the first things I learned about being a CEO is that being a nice person isn’t enough”, Natalie says. Understanding processes, systems, finance, structure, and the art of people management were all things Natalie needed to educate herself about, and it’s these hard yards that ensure the longevity of a CEOs tenure.
But this period was about much more than simply learning what it is to be a CEO. It was a journey through impact and change that has led Natalie to where she is today – as the CEO of Belu Water – which began with a Campaign Manager role at Enterprise UK.
Various roles thereafter contributed further to Natalie’s disposition for impactful initiatives. She helped promote diversity as a Board Member of vInspired, supported social entrepreneurs with UnLtd, an experience that served as the genesis for her belief that business could be a force for good, before going on to found the Sussex Royal Foundation.
“I realised there was a shift towards goodness aligned with business” she explained, an understanding that compelled her to form her own business to empower, uplift, and help people long before it became the ‘in’ thing to do. After figuring out a model she believed would work, Natalie founded the visionary social innovation enterprise, A Very Good Company, in 2010.
Although the initial idea was to adopt a similar model to the Toms one-for-one model, the business firstly needed to generate some capital. “Cashflow is queen”, Natalie states, “so we became consultants to make money.” Yet, in what could be described as a serendipitous turn of events, AVGC became so successful in its consultancy work – with its first two clients being none other than Virgin Media and Marks & Spencer – that it was able to create a campaign known as ‘A Good Week,’ gradually evolving into ‘Tech for Good’, and positioning AVGC well ahead of the purposeful business curve. “That was the moment where my business purpose really solidified”, Natalie clarifies, “when I realised that you can run a business and do good.”
This crystallisation of her purpose in business motivated Natalie to launch Sussex Royal, the Royal Foundation of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, where Natalie would spend two years as the Director of Insight and Innovation before moving on to Belu.
With such a stringent focus on impact at her core – and having worked for, founded, or managed charities, social enterprises, and purposeful businesses – we were keen to learn which model Natalie thinks lends itself the most to delivering impact. “I’m absolutely convinced that the legal entity doesn’t matter”, she explains. “As long as you know what your purpose is and how to get cash into the business, it doesn’t matter.”
Belu’s refreshing refresh
Natalie joined Belu Water as CEO in 2020, just three weeks before the UK was plunged into its first lockdown. Belu’s fundamental focus was to create a brand of sustainably sourced water that would drive change throughout the water business. What many found to be the most interesting element of that goal was its commitment to donating all of its profit to Water Aid, but Natalie had much greater aspirations for Belu’s future.
“When I inherited Belu, the mission was to give as much money to Water Aid as possible”, she explains, “and while that’s brilliant and noble, I realised we needed to align our purpose more closely with what the business could become if it was to be sustainable.” Belu’s purpose should not have been solely about its donations to Water Aid in Natalie’s opinion, but to change how water is perceived worldwide.
“People are more in tune with the climate crisis nowadays”, she clarifies, “but it isn’t just about carbon. Not having water on earth, or having insufficient levels is just as detrimental. We’re trying to make people realise water’s importance because it is so often overlooked in the Western world.”
With this refreshment of purpose in mind, Natalie set about embedding it into the organisation, its culture and its values, its marketing and product, and the broader stakeholders, to ensure everyone and everything was aligned behind it. And then Natalie went a step further than most purposeful businesses. She overhauled Belu’s Articles of Association too, enshrining a commitment to “sustainable access to water and sanitation for all” as the company’s legal purpose, relegating the interests of shareholders to the company’s “secondary and subsidiary objective”. Wow.
Why go that far to embed purpose and remove shareholder primacy? Is it really necessary? “Absolutely; it was vital for me to demonstrate that you can make tweaks at an institutional level. It’s the only way to prove to people within the business that they can make different and better decisions.”
These changes ensure Belu’s purpose remains central to every decision, no matter the circumstance. Their articles dictate their default position, which is not to “cling to the money” but to do what is right, morally and ethically. “If you don’t change your articles, they will eventually become a constraint. At the point where you try to exit the business, build a board, or when times are tough, you will revert to making money if your articles don’t say otherwise.”
An innovative approach to institutionalising purpose is not the only unusual organisational change Natalie brought to Belu. Within a year of being appointed CEO, Natalie surprised the company by promoting her COO, Charlotte Harrington, to the position of co-CEO alongside her, splitting her job in two.
“We were co-designing the next 10 years of Belu’s future, so we were like co-founders anyway”, she explains matter-of-factly.
This long-term strategic planning fostered an understanding that each was more suited to different elements of the business than the other. It made sense for them to own the elements they were better at, and work collaboratively on those they had a similar aptitude for. The old saying that ‘two heads are better than one’ rings true here, not just because they have a wider bank of knowledge to call upon, but because they both keep each other on the right track. “I will say ‘what’s the biggest experiment we can do?’ And Charlotte will ask ‘what’s the right experiment for us to do?’”, Natalie explains.
This might sound like the classic CEO-COO dynamic, but Natalie insists that it is much more than that. “It flips”, she says, “we detail and deliver in our lanes.” Nevertheless, the question of what happens in such an arrangement when both parties disagree remains. “Each of us has the final say when that occurs within an aspect of the business we own,” she clarifies, “but when it’s something we share responsibility in, we coach each other through it, almost like marriage counselling.”
Co-founders should heed this advice because they are often equals in the decision-making process. The essence of working through disparities relies fundamentally on constant communication. You must listen to one another, put forward your perspective, and be willing to adopt other perspectives to come to the best decision for your business.
All Together had one more burning question for Natalie. In many of the other interviews she has given in the past few years, she has talked very openly about her salary. “I earn £100k a year. And so does Charlotte.”
Why, we asked, is she so keen on publicising this? “Because women never talk about their salaries, and that’s why we get paid less”, she explains. Beyond this commendable reasoning, transparency throughout business clearly matters to Natalie. “If you’re going to go to the nth degree [with purpose] to change your articles, you can’t run a closed-shop business”, she argues. “You must open source the business for scrutiny so that you can learn. That’s how Belu gets better.”
I want to be free
Given how much Natalie has achieved since that first spark of inspiration to be a CEO caught fire – and how much of that has been for the benefit of others – it seemed appropriate to ask if her personal purpose had changed at all over the years. After all, the roles she has taken on have demonstrated an ever-increasing commitment to positive impact on the world.
“I still want to be free”, she explains, “I still need to be in control, but of course I want to be able to facilitate change for others, too.” In a refreshing acknowledgement of the importance of self, Natalie demonstrated that she’s moved very little in fact from her 15-year-old self. “It’s not about the external, for me”, she argues. “I have to be the best version of myself to realise any benefit for anyone else, and so my purpose is about me. In the words of Joseph Campbell: a vital person vitalises.”
Natalie clearly has a unique gift. An ability to enthuse, – for sure – to lead and to inspire. And the capability to bring together the people and resources to make stuff happen. This is the dictionary definition of the entrepreneur. But to call Natalie an entrepreneur is frankly to devalue her. She is a Renaissance woman in the most original sense. And while barely half way through her career, we can only imagine the future portfolio of roles she will take on, or the organisations she will lead and influence, or the change she will manifest. And so we will watch with great interest, and continue to seek her advice and counsel along the way.
Natalie’s Three Things
We concluded the podcast by asking Natalie, as we do of all our guests, for Three Things – three pieces of actionable advice that CEOs can implement today:
“If you know yourself and your heartsing, you will run a successful business. You will build a culture and purpose that people want to follow, as well as a life that you love.” The first step of this process, Natalie says, is to sit still. “See how long you can sit still with your own thoughts – no one around, no conversations – and just listen to what comes in and what comes out. What is comfortable? What is uncomfortable?” Making this a habit will help you to define what really matters. That understanding will then inform your decisions not just in business, but in life, and will ensure you remain on the right track.
“There is nothing more freeing than having the comfort and freedom to show up every day as who you are, good and bad.” A lot of people work hard because they are avoiding themselves. It’s a theme that permeates every level of employment and is undoubtedly a toxic motif of modern society that stunts progress. Having the freedom to bring our whole selves to work propagates honesty, which is a crucial factor when evaluating issues facing a business. If you can’t be honest, you can’t hope to make the best decisions, and that is to the detriment of progress.
Look after yourself
For many years the cult of entrepreneurship championed the idea that it was necessary to work to maximum capacity all of the time, but Natalie renounces that belief. “Looking after yourself – your body and your mind – is the thing that will allow you to run another business if you get knocked down. It means you can be nice, and you can say that you don’t need to prove yourself anymore.” Founders and CEOs will often work every hour of every day, but that lifestyle is not sustainable. You must take the time you need to look after yourself and relax, otherwise you will enter the well-documented state of burnout, and that is most certainly not conducive to running a good business.