Cream of the crop: Gu founder James Averdieck talks Australia and rural fantasy

Harriet Green
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The founder of Gu has branched out – into coconut milk-based yoghurt
It's the kind of story you wouldn’t necessarily believe: someone cooked up the idea of a chocolatey pudding company while sitting in a coffee shop in Belgium, eating brioche. But for James Averdieck, founder of Gu, that’s exactly what happened. Back in 2003, he was a marketer for dairy company St Ivel, working in Belgium on the launch of Utterly Butterly. “I wanted to capture that chocolatey look, smell and taste and wrap it up in a brand.”
And although Averdieck wasn’t always going to set up an international pudding company, owning his own business was, as far as he’s concerned, pretty much inevitable: “I was just doing a sales and marketing job at St Ivel, but I learnt the industry there. I was always entrepreneurial, and if I hadn’t done that – if I’d got into the City or IT – I would have just started something completely different.” Add to that his belief that you should “stick to what you know”, and it starts to become clear why he sold Gu, less than seven years in, to Noble Foods in a deal that valued that firm at £32.5m. “I love Gu, but it’s nice to work on something different. I was looking for what to do next. I’m mid-40s – not ready to give up yet!”
After selling, the so-called Gu Meister enjoyed a brief stint as a TV presenter on the show Cooks to Market, which helped aspiring food entrepreneurs get from kitchen to shelf. “It got me really interested in small companies, which has always been what I know and love.” He then went looking for a new project – and it didn’t take him long to find one. Last year, he bought a controlling stake in coconut-based pudding company Bessant and Drury. The brand was using coconut milk to create ice cream and frozen yoghurt. “I thought, ‘God, that’s brilliant.’ It was dairy-free, good for you, but also tasted nice.”
Averdieck is now in partnership with founders Ian Drury and Steve Bessant, and together they’ve set up a new company The Coconut Collaborative, selling luxury yoghurt with the tagline “free from dairy, but not temptation”. It’s still very small, but is already being sold by Waitrose, Ocado and Tesco, with Sainsbury’s coming on board soon. The company’s overtly biblical website is testament to Averdieck’s love of creating a very recognisable brand and scaling it. He’s also confident that it’s arriving on the market at the right moment: it’ll play into an increasing consumer trend to step back from dairy, but not settle for bland alternatives, he says.
And “going for the niches” is something Averdieck preaches as well as practises. It should be foremost in your mind, whatever sector you’re in, he says. He remembers the competition Gu faced: “We always had competition, but not as much as you might think. We were the brand of choice in our space. But then we tried ice cream, and we had a really tough time”. It’s “exactly the same with coconut yoghurt,” so Averdieck is prepared to move quickly. “You can grow too fast, and we’re probably biting off more than we can chew, but my instinct is that we need to.”
Averdieck knows his optimism has its perils. “If you’re going to be an entrepreneur, it’s key that you’re pretty resilient and very optimistic. But I can be stupidly optimistic about other people’s businesses too.” One mistake successful entrepreneurs make, he says, is “thinking you’ll be a good investor just because you’ve been a good entrepreneur. It’s like footballers becoming managers – it doesn’t always work.”
And having tried his hand on the TV startup circuit, Averdieck is also well-placed to explain the perils of glamourising entrepreneurship. “I don’t actually think these programmes are unhelpful – they get people interested. But they’re certainly not a panacea. The reality is there’s often not much meat on the bone.” Starting any business is never easy, he says, “and I don’t think it should be. The first two years are pretty gruelling, and a lot of people don’t really know what they’re in for.”
Once you’ve managed to successfully lay the initial foundations, the “real value comes when you scale.” According to Averdieck, this is what startups need to worry about most – and he has one answer for how that’s best done in the food industry: automation. “I’m a great believer in machines. There’s this kind of rural fantasy about the way food is made, which isn’t true. The important thing is being able to replicate the process fast and with consistency.” He explains that the reason Gu tastes so good is that he insisted on using high-quality ingredients, while bringing the production process to a point where “everything that can be automated is automated.” That’s the secret, he says – “skilled staff, and good machines.”
And looking to the future, The Coconut Collaborative is currently gearing up for international expansion. Next year, its products will be rolled out in France and Australia. Averdieck says that Australia will be a key market for the firm. Aussies are “more health conscious,” and operating in the Southern Hemisphere will help balance the flow of business over the year. There’s also a “satisfaction to exporting,” which he says we “need to make more of as a nation.” But the move Down Under also highlights Averdieck’s ability to make business life the good life. “If I’m honest, I really like going there. Business is business, but you want to enjoy it.”
Companies: The Coconut Collaborative
Turnover: £750,000
Founded: 2014
Number of staff: 4
Job title: Co-founder
Age: 48
Born: Harrogate
Lives: Putney
Studied: Economics at Durham University
Drinking: I don’t drink
Eating: Bounty bars, Curly Wurlys, and smoked almonds
Currently reading: The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
Favourite business book: I prefer reading fiction
Talents: I can twiddle two pens round my thumbs in meetings if I get bored
Heroes: My father and grandfather
First ambition: Farmer. I would still like to be a farmer one day

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