Jamie Keeble, Heck
Keeping supermarket chilled cabinets stocked with sausages is no mean feat in a pandemic lockdown but Heck co-founder and sales director Jamie Keeble explains how the Yorkshire-based firm rose to the challenge with the help and determination of its 150-strong workforce.
- What was the inspiration for your business?
The main inspiration was to create an amazing family business with my parents, myself, my brother and my sister. My parents set up the sausage brand Debbie and Andrews many years ago but when they did a buyout agreement things didn’t go as planned and they had a really bad experience with it. So we came up with the brand Heck to give it another go. We decided that Heck would be completely gluten free which was a real point of difference, with a long term view to becoming the number one premium brand again, something we have now achieved.
- How did you find your first customer?
Our first customer was Tesco in 2013. It was not easy – it took a year of pitching and travelling up and down the A1 to the Tesco headquarters. But our timing was good because back then there was no completely gluten free sausage brand. Our first order was a national distribution of our Heck 97% sausages and we haven’t looked back since.
- How did you finance the growth of your business?
We started out with a loan from HSBC but our bank manager moved on and the bank threatened to foreclose on us – something we will never forget – so we found a venture capital fund based in Glasgow called Panoramic Growth Equity who agreed to give us £500,000 in return for 25% of the business. They got a pretty good deal but at the time we desperately needed to invest in new machinery to cope with demand.
- What has been the most difficult or challenging part of growing your business?
Generating enough cash to keep on re-investing in the business. We have invested heavily in the very best sausage making equipment from Germany to make sure we become the number one sausage brand and it has always been a challenge to maintain the balance between cash and investment. But we are starting to see our profits go up as we become more efficient through streamlining production, canny marketing and being strict in meeting sales targets.
- What has been the impact of the pandemic on your business and how have you dealt with this?
It has actually been a very successful period for us. All the panic buying at the start of lockdown was pretty good for business. It was nice having retailers phone us for a change, asking how many packs of sausages we could give them today. It was a real buzz and quite exciting. The challenge was trying to fulfil the orders so everyone in the business worked around the clock to make sure it was done. We had eight varieties in the market but decided to run our production with just our two best lines, Heck 97% and Chicken Italia, so we could fill the orders without production switch overs. The situation has gone back to normal but our sales have remained high, because the pandemic made a lot of people try our products for the first time which was great. We also moved into the frozen category because one retailer was struggling to fill their freezers and asked if we could help them out. It wasn’t easy but we managed it. If there is an opportunity you have got to take it.
- What mistakes did you make?
I would like to have got into the vegan market a year sooner in order to really establish ourselves there. When we started making vegan products we went down the plant based route, using ingredients such as fibres and grains, but now we have brought out a range of pea protein products and we should probably have gone down that route first because our pea protein range definitely does much better. We also originally launched with vegan balls which was the wrong format but we didn’t know how to produce a vegan sausage skin at the time. So we have learnt along the way.
- What has been the secret of your success so far?
Being surrounded by a brilliant team.
- What advice would you give an entrepreneur just starting out about how to grow their business?
Don’t lose focus. Stay faithful to your products and believe in them and in what you are trying to achieve. And stick with what you know. A lot of people try things because they like the sound of it but they don’t really understand the business or the industry they are about to go into and I think you need that key knowledge.
- What personal quality or characteristic has been most useful to you as an entrepreneur as you grow your business?