Interview by Han Yang Lim

5 Minutes to Read

Renée Elliott is the Founder of Planet Organic, the UK's largest certified organic supermarket. Since 1995, Renée has championed the causes of eating sustainable, organic, healthy food that contributes to the well being of her customers and the communities her stores serve. Not only is Planet Organic a health food haven but it also provides a range of natural beauty products and health supplements. Blessed with this rare opportunity, I am excited to ask Renée about her business, insights and experience.

Han Yang: I first wanted to say thanks for agreeing to this interview. Could you first give me a brief description of what Planet Organic does, the customers it serves, and the philosophy and values behind the business?

Renée: Planet Organic is a natural and organic supermarket selling the best quality alternatives to foods you would find in a conventional supermarket.  In addition to that, we have a Health & Bodycare, which is vitamins, supplements, herbs, homeopathy and natural remedies, and natural body, face, skin, baby care.  Our shops also include Juice Bars with Food to Go made in our certified organic kitchens.

Our mission is ‘to promote health in the community’.  We read every label and think about every food that we sell because we care about our customer’s health.  We are a values led, commercially driven business.

Han Yang: Venture Capital Movement is focused on helping startup founders connect with existing venture capital funds. When you first started out, information on funding was a lot less accessible. How did you manage to get investors in your initial stage? Do you have any advice to how to attract investors or on attracting the right kinds of investment?

Renée: It was very difficult for us to raise the half a million we needed to open the first Planet Organic.  In the end, our investors were a couple of my friends, an organic farmer and the friends of my business partner’s father.

It is much easier to raise finance now – and many people wanting to invest in socially innovative business.  My advice is try to take money who believe in your idea.  Taking money from people who are just looking to make money can be tricky.  It’s much better to have someone on board who is excited about your concept.

Han Yang: Planet Organic now has a growing e-commerce business. How different do you find growing such a business compared to a brick and mortar one that Planet Organic now largely has? Do you find your current capabilities and experience in brick-and-mortar transferring over to growing your e-business?

Renée: It’s very different and isn’t my true love.  I love retail because it’s an intimate customer facing business.  On-line is great for selling product outside of London and building awareness, but I love the in-store shopping experience, the interaction between customers and our team, seeing kids drinking a smoothie, in-store tastings and people hanging out.

Han Yang: In terms of logistics, what is your philosophy or approach when it comes to finding and negotiating with suppliers? What are the challenges involved in sourcing the logistics to provide your customers with the right products/services and how did you overcome them?

Renée: We find manufacturers at trade shows here, in Europe and America, but many people find us first.  Our biggest hurdle has been a fragmented and unsophisticated supply chain that we have tried to consolidate and computer-ise.

Han Yang: What current trends are there in the market for organic groceries?

Renée: Free from organic and raw organic are big growth categories for us now.

Han Yang: And what areas of future growth are you potentially looking at?

Renée: I’m not giving all of my secrets away!

Han Yang: 2015 is projected to be the fifth straight hottest year on record. How is Planet Organic helping to mitigate the effects of climate change and what strategies do you have for motivating your customers into being more environmentally friendly?

Renée: Planet Organic has always taken environmental impact very seriously. All of our meat is bred on British soil and our fish is all sourced sustainably using traditional fishing methods. We know organic produce has a lower environmental impact, both in terms of CO2 release and damage to the immediate environment and wildlife, so we never compromise on our commitment to offering the broadest selection of organic products on the market. We also compost all of our food waste and turn it into fertilizer to offer our Muswell Hill customers. 

Han Yang: What is your approach behind hiring people? What processes or strategies are in place to ensure that the right people are in the right positions to help Planet Organic grow?

It is important for us to find employees with warm and friendly personalities who also have an interest in our products.

We therefore recruit very carefully, going through a 3 stage process where we do a telephone screen, a trial shift with a food test and then a final approval with the Store manager and a member of the HR team. We use competency based questions to check that people can give us examples of how they have lived our behaviours in previous roles.

Han Yang: Thanks once again for your time in answering my questions. Just one last one before you go, do you have any advice for budding entrepreneurs of today who are contemplating starting their own venture?

Renée: Just do it.  You have one precious life on this amazing earth.  Make it worthwhile.  Rx

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Questions 7 and 8 were answered with help from the very capable people at Planet Organic. Photo provided by Renée Elliott.