Think of luxury chocolate, and you think of moments when you are rewarding or
treating yourself. You may have been under the cosh at work, or have just pulled
off a financial masterstroke that deserves a little self-congratulatory
For Nicholas Beart, becoming financial director of Green & Black’s – the
purveyors of high-quality organic, fair-trade chocolate – has certainly been
rewarding, both professionally and financially. For taking on a company close to
going out of business and turning it into the fastest-growing confectionery
brand in the UK, he has just received a tidy – if undisclosed – sum after
selling his 10% stake, along with the rest of the company, to Cadbury’s.
Beart isn’t your typical FD, if such a thing exists. He freely admits that
crunching numbers isn’t his particular bag, actively avoids talking about the
technical aspects of the job and openly acknowledges the part that luck has
played at times during his career. He has also taken some enormous risks and
overcome a lot of adversity – but the larger the risk, the bigger the rewards.
But behind his soft demeanour and self-deprecating humour, you can sense a
powerful drive and commitment that has brought him to where he is today, as well
as a love for the entrepreneurial side of the job that keeps him ticking along.
Beart ‘fell into accountancy’ after leaving Exeter University. He ended up
qualifying with KPMG in London, working mainly in audit.
‘With maths not being my strongest subject, I found the process extremely
tiresome and difficult,’ he says. ‘In retrospect I learned an enormous amount
and I rely on the training from KPMG constantly, but it was tough leaving
university as an arts graduate and having to reinvent yourself as somebody who
knows how to work a calculator and add up.’
Following a couple of secondments with the firm, Beart soon found he much
preferred the day-to-day involvement of accounting in business, and moved to
Grand Metropolitan Retailing, a company he had already been assigned to with
KPMG. During an 18-month stint as a special-project accountant, he was
responsible for the disposal of Pizzaland and the sale of Bernie Inns to
‘It was fabulous training,’ admits Beart. ‘I probably learned more in 18
months at Grand Met than I did in the two or three years after qualifying at
KPMG, because they were incredibly robust on financial controls.’
It didn’t take long for Beart to realise that he wanted to become an FD, but
being just 27 and with relatively little experience under his belt he admits he
was ‘completely unqualified, apart from enthusiasm and some rather unfounded
faith in my abilities’.
Nevertheless an opportunity presented itself, albeit a risky one. He was
taken on as finance chief of the New Covent Garden Soup Company, which was ‘as
bust as bust could be’, at a time when recession was gripping the nation. He
also took a huge pay cut from his position at Grand Met for the privilege.
‘I think, to be honest, I got the job because nobody else was stupid enough
to take it on. It was an act of complete insanity,’ he says.
There he met William Kendall. Like Beart, Kendall was young, ambitious and
slightly out of his depth in the job of chief executive. Together they formed a
strong partnership, one that is still operating effectively today. At the time,
however, both were slightly mystified as to how they had ended up at the
‘Their view, I suspect, was that we were cheap and young, and if it went into
liquidation or receivership, we were utterly expendable. I may be overly cynical
– but I think there was an element of that.’
It was at Covent Garden Soup that Beart and Kendall learned everything they
were later to put into practice at Green & Black’s, under the stewardship of
chairman Geoff Hancock. Despite a series of small disasters that befell the
company, including a huge factory fire caused by arson, a food extortion attempt
(‘we had to have phones bugged and I opened the post every morning wearing
rubber gloves’), and litigation from shareholders, Beart steered the company to
profit. As a result of this, Covent Garden Soup was sold to a small public
company, S Daniels, of which Beart became FD. Unfortunately this arrangement
wasn’t entirely agreeable.
‘Having gone through the process of selling Covent Garden Soup, we discovered
quite quickly that to all intents and purposes, we were buying it, which after
six or seven quite traumatic and tough years wasn’t completely our plan,’ admits
This led to the departure of Beart and Kendall just nine months after the
sale, and gave them time to reflect on their next move.
‘We had known from the mid-nineties that organic was the next big thing,’
says Beart. ‘William and I are both farmers’ sons and were interested in the
environment and the organic movement anyway. So it was kind of a no-brainer for
us to look for an organic business.
It was at this point that Beart and Kendall found Green & Black’s and
Whole Earth Foods, two companies run by a husband and wife team that were in
deep financial trouble. Beart says that it was always Green & Black’s that
drew his interest. While the dire situation of the company made it cheaper to
buy, at approximately £2m, it did cause some troubles in raising the money from
‘It was in even worse condition than Covent Garden Soup when we arrived,’
explains Beart. ‘It was so bad that when we were raising money from investors,
we deliberately did not carry out due diligence. If we had, we would have had to
show it to potential investors, and none of them would have put in a penny.’
Once the money was in place, Beart and Kendall swung into action, bringing in
a young, dynamic management team and installing robust processes to ensure the
successful transformation of the company.
‘We’ve always aimed to run small businesses with the best bits of a plc,’ he
says. ‘The aim is to run it as professionally as you can while keeping all the
flexibility and fun of working in a small company.’
Beart’s turnaround strategy is simple and, he says, formulaic. ‘We go in
there, I carry out a full review of the balance sheet and quantify all the
liabilities, because in small companies it’s often unknown just how much you owe
‘We create a five-year plan on the back of the due diligence, so we’re
comfortable with the margins. Then we create a budget and divide it up between
the management. Then we have weekly meetings and monthly boards, supported by a
clear management structure.
‘It sounds almost like the Ladybird book of management. Everybody says they
do it, but it’s amazing how many people don’t. We actually carry out what
everyone else says they do, and make sure people stick to it, which can make one
slightly unpopular on occasions.’
The plan worked spectacularly. Green & Black’s became ‘much, much more
successful than we ever imagined’, turning over £22.5m last year. They had
originally aimed for £14m.
To maintain its rapid growth, Green & Black’s sold up to Cadbury’s
earlier this year, becoming a wholly owned subsidiary of the chocolate giant.
Some say the company has sold out, although Beart strongly disagrees (see
below). He will pocket 10% of the price that Cadbury’s paid for the company
through his shareholding, but while coy about the figure, he is certain it’s
‘Yes we’ve made some money, but we did spend six or seven years on a low
wage,’ argues Beart. ‘The year before we bought it, we earned nothing, and the
next ,we were the two lowest-paid employees, by some margin. Anyway, it’s not
enough to retire on by a long way.’
The Beart and Kendall double act looks set to carry on with or without Green
& Black’s for some time yet. The two are already applying their formula for
success to other ventures outside the company, having recently invested in a
Sloane Street flower shop.
But all hands will need to be on deck for the foreseeable future, with plans
to break the American market being the next big step for Green & Black’s. If
Beart cracks that he will be fully justified in rewarding himself with as much
chocolate as he can eat.
Last month Green & Black’s sold the remainder of its shares to Cadbury
Schweppes for an undisclosed sum. The chocolate and drinks giant has had a 5%
stake in the company and a representative on the board since 2002, when Green
& Black’s was looking to raise money for a marketing push.
Despite the successful growth in sales over the last few years, the company
had managed to bring in nothing more than a very modest profit and was about to
hit two key obstacles to sustained growth that needed major resources.
Green & Black’s already used around 25% of the world’s organic cocoa and
needed to find ways to develop new sources. It was also outgrowing the Italian
family-owned business that was manufacturing the chocolate for them on Lake
The answer was already sitting on their board, while the rest of the
management team was slowly convinced of the merits of working as part of a much
The sale to Cadbury’s raised concerns that a huge multinational machine would
swallow the company’s organic, free trade origins, but Beart believes this
couldn’t be further from the truth.
‘If you believe in organic, if you believe in improving trade terms with
third and second-world growers of any product, you have to let big companies be
involved. If you leave it all to small companies then it’s never going to have
Beart adds that Cadbury’s has high ethical values and is currently involved
in trying to increase the production of organic cocoa in Ghana.
‘Some big multinationals are clearly quite scary animals but I think a lot of
them are tarred with the same brush as, say, arms manufacturers, and actually
there are good guys out there doing their best, says Beart.
‘Clearly it’s an issue and you worry about it, but on the other hand if we
want more organic crops then we’re going to have to have bigger players in the
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