Camilla Stephens: Award Winning Entrepreneur
In 2010, Camilla Stephens won the Athena Award in the 2010 NatWest everywoman Awards, in recognition of her inspirational career to date and her work with Higgidy, the company she founded. We caught up with Camilla to get more insight into how she got to where she is today.
Starting Out in Business
For me, a career in food was much more tempting; frustrated by the lack of creativity at school, I was looking for a way out – and that was cooking. I left halfway through my A-levels to attend Leiths cookery school in London, followed by a stint with Leiths’ catering company which provided food for clients such as the Orient Express.
From there I moved onto Justin de Blank, the Mayfair gastronome’s paradise, where we (together with the other cooks) produced a wide range of food in the kitchens above the shop. My next step came at Good Housekeeping magazine, which I joined in the early 1990s, when attitudes to food were changing. I call that time the ‘pesto and sun-dried tomato years’. Our diets were changing and we shopped more globally. It was a good time to be involved with a food magazine.
Starbucks and the Seattle Coffee Company
After a stint as assistant cookery editor, I decided to go and live in America for six months and came across Starbucks, which at the time did not have outlets in Britain. Impressed by the business, I went to their headquarters and suggested that I could take the concept to Britain and develop a range of food to accompany the coffee. In a very nice way they said, ‘no thank you, we’re not interested in you taking Starbucks to England’.
Undeterred, I heard about a couple who had started a similar coffee chain in London, the Seattle Coffee Company, and I approached them with the same offer. I was taken on as a Barista for four days a week and on the fifth day, was given free reign to research and source a selection of muffin, cakes, sandwiches and pastries to sell. Food was a huge success, as was the Seattle Coffee Company, which expanded to 50 cafés and a few years later was bought out by Starbucks. I stayed with Starbucks as head of food for the UK for three years before leaving in 2001 to become a freelancer.
Starting My Own Business: Higgidy
It was during this time of freelancing that the idea came about to set up a pie company. Having seen how various sectors of the food industry were developing – and having noted the emergence of companies such as Green & Blacks, Innocent, and New Covent Garden – I felt there could be a market for high-quality pies.
So in 2003, along with two other investors, I put in £50,000 to start up a business. A large percentage of the initial investment went towards building a kitchen where handmade, high-quality savoury pies could be produced. In its first year the company won a contract to supply the Eat Café chain with pies. Yet despite sales of £260,000, start-up costs left us with a loss of £10,000.
However, since that time, we have launched the Higgidy branded range into the supermarkets and sales have grown and the business now has a turnover of £10million and supplies pies, quiches and tarts to Sainsburys, Waitrose, Boots, Budgens and Booths.
Route to Business Success
I think one of the biggest challenges for a small food producer is to move from a cottage industry/farmers market scale to supplying the supermarket. It takes risk, it takes huge levels of investment before you see any sort of return and there are no guarantees that the supermarkets will get behind you.
From a product perspective, we’ve stayed one step ahead in our industry by not compromising on the quality of our product and maintaining the integrity of the business whilst growing. We’ve also identified and brought on board great people who bring skills and expertise in areas that I lack.
Starting a business is a risk, but one that can pay off, but you shouldn’t be afraid to fail, and definitely don’t be afraid to ask advice.
Award Winning Success
Winning the 2010 National everywoman Demeter Award was a great honour for me and an amazing achievement for Higgidy. It gave me a huge confidence boost both personally and in my working life. It has made me even more determind to carry on the juggle of a growing business and a family.