Clare Blampied’s first child was her business which she started at the age of 26. She has grown Sacla’s UK subsidiary over the last decades from a time when pesto was almost unknown to adults to now when it is a staple part of children’s diet.
Her work and the way she manages her team saw them nominating her for the 2015 Specsavers everywoman in Retail Ambassadors which she won at the end of last month. They describe her as “a fantastic mentor and an enormous inspiration”.
Clare had been working for a food importer when she met the Sacla family from Italy. “There were quite a dynamic, pioneering family and had spent time creating an in demand product,” she says. They wanted to set up their first overseas subsidiary and the UK seemed a good place to start because it didn’t have such an ingrained food market. They asked Clare if she wanted to sell their products.
“I wasn’t brought up to be a businesswoman, but I loved the challenge and shared their passion. It seemed like a great opportunity,” she says.
It was the late 80s and the biggest challenge Clare faced was educating the British public about what pesto was. “There was no pasta sauce market in the UK. No Dolmio or other products. Olive oil was seen as purely medicinal. British people would only eat pasta in Italian restaurants drowned in red sauce. Pesto was different – it was concentrated and had to be stirred through. Our greatest challenge was getting people to try it and to understand how to use it,” says Clare.
She was fortunate that she found what she calls “pesto pioneers” in the press. She invited a few for a tasting session in Italy and they spread the word without her having to sell the product through an expensive marketing campaign. The launch came at a fortuitous time. 1990 was the year of the Italian World Cup. “Britain was in love with all things Italian. There was a food revolution going on. People were falling in love with food. Vegetarians were on the increase. City breaks were starting up. We were really lucky. There were lots of convergent trends which favoured us,” says Clare. “Supermarkets started calling and things took off quite rapidly.
She had to set up an office and build a team. “Our business plan was out of date in four months. We hit our year three target in the first four months.”
She adds that she didn’t have to worry about cash flow since she had total support from the Sacla family, including their grandson who was working with her in the UK from the beginning alongside a partner who managed logistics.
Her team has now expanded to 20 and many are long serving. “It’s still a tight team,” she says. “We are like a family. Building the right team has been the most important challenge I have faced. It’s not always easy to get the right people and it’s a huge responsibility to help them grow and to ensure they have job satisfaction.”
She says flexible working is a vital part of the culture as well as making work a fun place to be. All employees have their birthdays off. Quite a few are mums. There’s a Friday food club and staff eat together. “Food is joy,” says Clare, “and Italians do it best.”
Over the years Clare has developed what the company offers. There are many new products, such as a range of organic sparkling Italian drinks, Sacla has spearheaded a ‘Shopera’ video campaign that engaged an audience of five million and published three books. Clare has also made a film for the Slow Food Movement. “We are a pioneering brand and part of that involves embracing newness. It’s good to be innovative and ahead of the curve. We are about looking forwards not looking backwards,” she says.
It’s a strategy that has worked. Sacla now owns 57.1% share of the pesto market in the UK and has a £28m annual turnover.
In addition to new products, Clare is now looking to broaden her market to new customers, including hotels and restaurants.
She had her children a few years after she started the business – they are now 16 and 17. She says this was fortunate as it meant she could put in the long hours before they came along and could afford support. “By the time I had the children I could afford the right support to help me juggle,” she says. Her home was near work which meant she could be home for bad and bed.
She adds that, as a female role model, she knows she has inspired her daughter, who is now 17. “Both of my children have an interest in commerce and marketing,” she says, adding that they were “weaned on pesto” and they both now cook.
Clare herself is inspired by the food writing community. “It’s both business and pleasure – bleasure,” she says.
She admits that she has had “wobbles” over the years when things haven’t gone right and has struggled like all businesses over the last five to six years since the economic downturn. What has got her through this period is the support of business gurus and coaches who have helped her and her ability to gravitate towards “optimistic, funny and energetic people”. “This is important as my job is to inspire the team,” says Clare, “and I have had to learn to bounce back.”
She also inspires others outside her team. She talks to a lot of students and young women. She tells them to follow their passion and instincts, to get good mentors and build support networks, something she says women are good at doing. “I tell them you make your own luck,” she says. “You don’t need to know what you want to be, you just need to seize opportunities.” It’s certainly a policy that she has thrived on.