Being an entrepreneur is all about timing. You can have the best-laid plans in the world, a huge amount of skill, but it’s really about catching the zeitgeist.”
This is Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones’s opening line to me. After a brief pause, he adds, “life is also all about timing”. This is something the founder of The Black Farmer brand knows all too well. In January 2014, he was diagnosed with leukemia. He spent a year in hospital, undergoing chemotherapy and stem cell therapy, which saved his life. He came out at the beginning of the year.
“Nothing focuses the mind more than being in hospital for a year. It’s a terrible shock, particularly if you’re used to being in control, but you need to develop a philosophy. This was so big, I had to learn to hand it over to a higher order.” Those who watched Emmanuel-Jones on Channel 4’s Young Black Farmers (which helped ethnic minority youngsters to work in rural communities), or Cameron’s Black Tory (Emmanuel-Jones stood for the Conservatives in Chippenham in the 2010 General Election) will know already that this is someone who doesn’t take life lying down.
He moved from Jamaica to Birmingham as a child, and grew up as one of nine children in a small terraced house. After a stint in the army (and being kicked out for poor discipline), Emmanuel-Jones went into the catering industry. “That wasn’t because I was good. Catering has saved many a soul in this country – because anyone can do it.” But it was this, along with a family allotment, that sowed a seed for working the land.
Enrolling on a training scheme, Emmanuel-Jones found himself working at the BBC on the television series Food and Drink. “I was in TV for 10 years in various roles. Food wasn’t sexy back then, but I travelled the world – and gave Gordon Ramsay his big break.”
Getting a break means a lot to Emmanuel-Jones. “All of my achievements in life have been down to people giving me a break. The great skill is being able to identify those people. You don’t know where your journey is going to take you, but it makes sense when you look back – and those people are always there.”
In 1994, he set up marketing and communications agency Commsplus, working with the likes of Loyd Grossman, Kettle Chips and Plymouth Gin. Ten years later, in 2004, he set up The Black Farmer – “for many, the name is risque and not politically correct; but that’s what makes people look twice”.
The money he made from his television career enabled him to buy a farm in Devon. A self-professed gentleman farmer, Emmanuel-Jones ploughed his expertise into creating exceptional products, with a personal connection to the consumer. “One of the things I did know was that the farming community has never been very good at forging relationships with consumers.” Producers often find themselves lacquering their attention on supermarket buyers instead.
When the latter said no to Emmanuel-Jones, he took his Black Farmer products – epitomised by its now well-known gluten-free sausages – on a roadshow around the country. Each happy customer was asked to write to buyers – “people did! As God is my witness, that’s how I got my listings”. Since then, the brand has grown, along with its fanbase. You’ll find The Black Farmer sausages in Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons. “It’s more than a sausage to me. It has the capacity to change how you feel. It means that people everywhere can have a special experience.”
OWN KIND OF MUSIC
Emmanuel-Jones prides himself in having built The Black Farmer up with no outside investment. “Whatever stake you may have, they’re looking for a return, and that means you’re basically an employee of someone with a big stick. I never wanted that. It means it’s been slow at times, but I’m not interested in how many tonnes of sausages I produce.”
This gives you an indication of Emmanuel-Jones’s attitude towards the market. “We’re now in this value game with food. Of course you can always buy it cheaper – if all you have to offer is value. But to be long-term, to last, you have to ask what else you can bring the consumer.” And the domination of the big players in the food industry isn’t built to last, either: “I’m of the belief that the big own label revolution is over. Aldi and Lidl frightened the hell out of the big boys; they weren’t nimble enough. Domination never lasts forever – just look at Rome.”
But The Black Farmer is ready for a small slice of control: “we want to dominate our category. We know that 60 per cent of people who have tried our products won’t buy anything else – it’s time to build on that.” Next week, Emmanuel-Jones is taking pitches from premier ad agencies vying for The Black Farmer campaign, due to start next year.
“If my epitaph is about a guy that made bloody great sausages, had passion, and inspired others to go and be extraordinary, I’d be happy with that. But my job isn’t done yet.” While he was in University College Hospital, Emmanuel-Jones took himself on a trip to a pub at Tottenham Court Road. “I nearly died trying to get there – they had to send an ambulance to take me a few hundred yards. I thought, ‘what a f****ing d***head’. But it also showed sheer human will, determination – there’s something admirable in that. Being ill has given me a new kind of vigour. As my wife said to me, I’m not someone who will yield.”
WILFRED EMMANUEL-JONES CV
Company name: The Black Farmer
Turnover: Brand value is £12m at retail
Title: Founder/managing director
Number of staff: 3
Born: Frankfield, Clarendon, Jamaica
Studied: Left school with no qualifications
Drinking: Mainly soft drinks. Current favourite is San Pellegrino Limonata
Eating: Roast chicken, always
Currently reading: Buying a Property in Spain, by Harry King
Favourite Business Book: Losing my Virginity, by Richard Branson
Talents: Leadership, inspiring others, trendsetter
Heroes: Nelson Mandela, Richard Branson
First ambition: To get out of the ghetto and own a farm
Motto: “Don’t chase money, chase success – because with success, money follows.”
Most likely to say: Anything is possible
Least likely to say: It’s not possible
Awards: Most recently: Black British Business Awards, FMCG Leader of the Year