Douglas replaced the founders with great success, working with the new owners to achieve outstanding growth and development. Over the last 9 years, innocent has grown from £200m to over £450m in revenue and become a truly international brand, with only 20% of sales in the UK compared with the 70% Douglas inherited.
Aspiring entrepreneurs can take many lessons from innocent’s first 12 years under the founders and it is widely acknowledged that the business forged a new path for consumer brands over the last decade. But that story and those lessons have been the subject of countless discussions, articles, podcasts and more over the years, so it is the lessons since then – those learned under the steady hand of Douglas’ leadership – that we want to celebrate.
Doubling down on purpose
With 6 and a half years in the business prior to becoming its CEO, Douglas was already acutely aware of what made innocent so special. “The purpose, vision and values shone through from a very early stage”, he recalls, “and I made sure that that remained our guiding light.” That purpose was to “make delicious, natural food & drink that helps people to live well and die old.” Simple? Yes, but hugely effective in driving innocent’s remarkable success.
To keep that purpose central to the business, Douglas framed every decision he made around it. This ensured that he made the right decisions at the right time, but also helped to sustain the unique culture the founders had worked so hard to build. That culture centred around a team that was united by its purpose. Everyone believed in what they were doing, that it mattered, and that they were really making a difference. The result was an incredibly motivated and hard-working group of people, a priceless asset that Douglas realised he needed to sustain.
“Staying true to that purpose helped to manage people through the transition because the big picture stayed so consistent. We changed lots of things beneath it, but the truth to the main mission was always there. People bought into that as the reason to stick around and to continue believing in innocent.”
Douglas also pointed out how crucial the strong sense of purpose was for recruiting new people: “I think we’ve been so successful because we don’t just attract the best talent, we attract individuals that really want to work for us”, he argues. “They are drawn to innocent because of the clear purpose, vision, and values; they want to feel like what they’re doing makes a difference.”
Perhaps one of the most surprising decisions Douglas made during his time as innocent CEO, however, was to seek B Corp certification. “Not everyone at innocent understood it at first”, he recalls, and this was because many saw innocent as the innovator that preceded B Corp, at least in the UK, so why was it necessary? “I wanted a way to show the world that innocent was getting closer to its purpose rather than further away”, Douglas clarifies, “and after researching it, I thought B Corp was the best way to do that. It was a way to ensure continuous improvement.”
B Corp companies must be recertified every three years, and to retain their certification, they must achieve a score of 80+ out of a possible 200. Douglas knew those recertifications would act as an anchor, sinking the roots of innocent’s adherence to strong, positive social and environmental impact – which reflected the company’s values extremely well – ever deeper. Where Douglas slipped up was not deciding to make innocent a B Corp; it was failing to communicate his reasons for doing so to the entire company: “The massive mistake I made was keeping it early on to a small group of people.”
But Douglas’ decision did not take long to be vindicated. “After we took the questions from B Corp and devolved them through the business”, he says, “the leaders of each area looked at them and said ‘you know what? These are really, really good questions.’ And it helped us realise that we were not actually as good as we should be.” B Corp challenged innocent to think about areas that perhaps hadn’t been focused on enough previously, which incentivised and encouraged Douglas and his team to stretch themselves further. “It gave us a roadmap of how we could be better, how we could improve.”
“We actually saw – when we recertified three years later – that the passion and belief in B Corp within innocent is incredibly strong. And it wasn’t a top-down push, either. It was a bottom-up, continuous improvement mindset”, Douglas explains. And this is reflected in innocent’s B Corp score, which has risen drastically since its introduction from 93 points to an extraordinary 105 points. For perspective, there are only 3 companies in the world with over $1bn in retail sales and a B Corp rating of over 100 points, so this is a truly impressive achievement.
Douglas’ thirst for exacting positive impact through business has also led him in to the world of public policy and lobbying, as Co-Chair of The Better Business Act campaign. “We’re trying to get the law, or the Companies Act, changed to make it very clear that company directors have a responsibility – inside their business’ context – to balance people, profit, and planet”, he says. Currently, the Companies Act favours maximising shareholder profits over all else, while business’ contribution to society and the planet is no more than an afterthought. “It’s about more than just changing the law, though”, Douglas claims. “It’s ultimately about demonstrating that there is a new voice for business, a new perspective that business can change. It can be successful and do good.”
The entrepreneurial CEO
On his first day at innocent, if asked why he had joined the company, Douglas would answer, in a very matter of fact way, that he hoped one day to run it. This wasn’t arrogance or over-confidence; it was a demonstration of his love for the company and what it stood for. But where did this ambition to be a CEO come from?
“My parents were entrepreneurs”, he replies, “they ran businesses throughout my entire childhood.” And so Douglas’ evenings were spent around the dinner table, listening, processing, and absorbing the conversations between his parents, in which business was almost always the primary topic. “That experience as a young child – listening to my parents talk about it so often – it just instilled in me a real interest in business.” The seeds were sewn, and they would eventually germinate into a zealous ambition to be a CEO.
But those seeds needed watering, which is where KPMG came into play. “I was the first graduate into their corporate finance scheme”, he explains. Although a year of accountancy, followed by a year of banking exams, would not usually feed an aspiring CEOs dream, it would transpire that Douglas was, in fact, in the eye of a perfect storm.
“Corporate finance had just been deregulated”, he explains, “so accounting firms were stealing business from banks hand over fist, and KPMG was growing exponentially as a result.” The upshot was that Douglas was thrust into incredibly interesting transactions from a remarkably young age. “Right from my first day, I was sitting across the table from chief execs and board directors, listening to total business strategy.”
KPMG therefore provided a comprehensive, almost all-encompassing business education for Douglas. Of course there was the expected grounding in balance sheets, cashflow, P&L, etc. but that was overshadowed by the multitude of opportunities to rub shoulders with the business elite. “I was only 23 and watching all that happen around me just reinforced my desire to be in the boardroom.”
These days, young, aspiring business leaders usually find their way into the CEO hotseat by founding their own company, but this never appealed to Douglas. “I watched my parents do it multiple times”, he begins, “but I also saw the abyss of bankruptcy and, having seen both sides very closely, I found my middle ground.” And yet – while he doesn’t want to start his own company – Douglas is the very definition of the ambitious, entrepreneurial CEO.
“I like big challenges, making things happen, making things grow”, he explains. “It is the challenge that unfolds that gets me out of bed in the morning.” And this has been extremely evident during his time as the CEO of innocent, where he has made great things happen.
Take the new factory, ‘The Blender’, for instance. As the first ever innocent-owned and operated manufacturing facility, it was a big risk. And yet, by designing it with innocent’s core purpose and values at its heart – and with next to no expense spared – Douglas has made it a resounding success.
Additionally, and perhaps more impressive still, is the innocent Foundation’s goal of eradicating child hunger, in which Douglas has played a pivotal role. “We want the entrepreneurial value that sits at innocent’s core to be lived and breathed through the foundation, and we do that by investing in things that we think are potentially transformational”, Douglas explains. An example of this has been the foundation’s funding of the manufacture and distribution of a malnutrition diagnosis technology developed by Action Against Hunger. After offering the charity £1m, the hunger-related child mortality rate in Mali was reduced by 300% in just 24 months. Since then, the UN has approved the technology as a recognised method for treating severe acute malnutrition.
Obviously, this is brilliant, inspirational, and unique leadership, but what makes it truly extraordinary is that Douglas didn’t have to do any of it. He could easily have slipped into the conservative, risk averse, corporate mould that many CEOs adopt, but it is almost certain that innocent would not be where it is today if he had done so. Douglas is the most entrepreneurial of CEOs and, clearly, a very successful one, at that.
Succeeding at succession
Succeeding founders as CEO is hard in any business, but when those founders were three of the most celebrated and lauded entrepreneurs in the consumer space, it must be utterly daunting. But that’s what makes Douglas’ achievements so astonishing. He not only continued the success story, he made it his own, but how?
“First and foremost, you must have a deep passion and respect for whatever the business is”, he explains. “You have to care about the purpose and respect what has come before you. Whether you’ve been part of the business’s past or not, you cannot disregard its history.”
Founders do not get to the point of transaction by chance. Their success is not luck. It is a direct result of the purpose and values that they set out for their business. Changing those fundamental constructs would be folly for any CEO because it would jeopardise the efficiency of the business and make those within it immediately question their new leader. Furthermore, everyone associated with a company immediately looks to determine whether a new CEO truly buys into the company ethos or not. If they suspect disingenuity, they will not follow: a dangerous situation for a CEO to find themselves in.
Nevertheless, a new CEO cannot be a passenger, either. They must have the confidence to change things, except for a select few that are inextricably linked the company’s purpose, which Douglas calls, “level 1”.
Level 2 decisions, on the other hand, pertain to elements that – although some might disagree – are not essential to the company’s purpose. This is where a CEO can make their mark, and designating what constitutes level one and level two decisions will therefore play a crucial role in their success. But what comes first, according to Douglas, should always be the ability to show that a CEO is trying to move the business closer to what it set out to do in the first place. “You must be able to demonstrate to everyone that the purpose is being respected and worked towards. Then you have license to change all the other stuff, which is how you develop the company.”
For example, Douglas encountered significant resistance when he proposed adding vitamins to innocent’s products. “There was this belief that innocent should do nothing other than fruit, that we shouldn’t add anything to our drinks.” Nevertheless, he recognised that some customers wanted vitamins in certain smoothies, and managed to convince his team that it was in innocent’s best interests to listen.
Another thing that played a vital role in Douglas’ success at innocent was patience, a word we were surprised to hear, given that the new owner was none other than Coca Cola. Typically, you would expect such a company to enforce a heavy-handed FMCG methodology to scale the business as quickly as possible, but that wasn’t the case. Not at all.
“I sat down with James Quincy – who is now the CEO of Coca Cola – who told me that, while the ultimate goal was to scale innocent, it was equally important to do it the right way”, Douglas explains. “He wanted to keep a similar model to the one they had with the founders because it was so effective.” The upshot of such a patient attitude was a 10-year plan – formed collaboratively – to scale the business as fast as possible whilst making sure to never cut corners regarding the purpose, vision, and values. Some might say this is a luxury that few CEOs are afforded, but the reality is that this should indefinitely be the case for businesses that claim to be properly governed in accordance with their own purpose, vision and values, assuming they’re good ones, of course.