Proving Them Wrong: Lizzie Vann

Posted on: 01 July 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

Ten years ago Lizzie Vann started her own organic baby food firm Organix. Today she is one of Britain’s most successful business women. Michael Wale found out why.

Rejection after rejection by the money men to her business plans hurt all the more, because she had already been a City high flyer herself.

Lizzie arrived in the City in the mid-80s, when the bonuses flowed as fast as the champagne and it was boom-time for the yuppies. She had started out as an investment analyst, but ended up working for the American bank Chase Manhattan, whom she praises.

"I learned about options, financial derivatives and global management."

What the Americans are brilliant at, is lots of training. In return she had a big car and and lots of money. But lurking at the back of her mind was that she was not completely happy. This came as no surprise to those who knew her.

Born in Leicester in 1958, she was clever at her comprehensive school, and arrived at Lancaster University at the tender age of 17 to study bio-chemistry and ecology. Every parent's dream daughter. But within a year the whole course of her life was to change.

Lizzie reflects, "I was too young when I was at Lancaster. I was not enjoying it. So I left after a year and went across to Leeds. I was involved in a housing commune, a women’s refuge and a wholefood shop. The stuff you do in your late teens and early twenties. I studied everything from Marxism to lecturing to people on estates about eating proper food. After that I decided I had to understand how money worked."

It was her first step to succeeding in the City. But when that success came with Chase Manhattan she felt unsettled. But then another twist took place in her career, as the Americans decided they wanted to relocate 200 of their workers on the South Coast.

Lizzie VannLizzie was put in charge of the move, and discovered Bournemouth, a place she says she immediately fell in love with.

“They drove slowly, but they had these trees, the sea and the New Forest.”

As a result she felt that she needed to work for a company that would give her the feeling it was a part of society. So she ended up working for a design firm in Poole, just along the coast from Bournemouth.

She says, “It was meant to be a short appointment, but the more I got involved the more I got interested in small companies. Also women could be better recognised in small companies. Big companies had glass ceilings. I ended up working there for two years.”

Another change was also taking place in her life; her approach to health.

She admits, “I’ve had health problems from an early age. I had asthma and eczema and was convinced using steroids to defeat them was wrong. I got interested in the holistic approach to health and medicine. The last year that I spent in London I got really stressed out and was taking sleeping pills. Working for the company Michael Stewart in Poole made me realise that consumers wanted better quality goods than the producers would supply. The large food conglomerates couldn’t see the point. Someone said to me in 1991 ‘will organic food sell?’ We’d had salmonella, listeria in cheese, a number of food scares."

“I had a Road to Damascus moment. I suddenly decided this is my passion. Good organic food for the people.”

Lizzie teamed up with her friend Jane Dick who was a mycologist, and they wrote a business plan, to launch an organic babyfood company, which needed £500,000 backing. Having been a City high flyer herself Lizzie confesses she thought it would just be a matter of looking up a few old friends in the City, and the money would be forthcoming. She was in for a shock.

The first three financial institutions they went to all said the same thing - that the two women had no previous experience in the food industry. As more and more applications met deaf ears they noticed the same words were being said at each refusal: “You need another person on the Board.” Lizzie and Jane Dick soon realised this was really code for "Where’s the man in this venture?"

So, instead of £500,000 as originally planned the two women decided to go it alone and launched Organix with their own money. But they only had £25,000 each to put in to the venture. So that’s what they did.

Reflecting on the anti-female prejudice that happened ten years ago Lizzie says, “I think there is a lot less prejudice today against women. We just got on with it at the time. I’m not so sure that if we had had the £500,000 at the beginning things would have worked out any different. Women have an awful lot of talent but not confidence. They must take the next step and believe they can do things.”

Lizzie VannAs for Organix, from slow beginnings, when Lizzie and Jane had to sell their cars and re-mortgage their homes, and borrow on their personal bank accounts, things slowly started to develop.

In 1994 they went to a venture capitalist 3i, who didn’t hesitate at taking a quarter of the equity for £250,000. After five years Jane Dick decided to leave to pursue other interests, so Lizzie still invents all the recipes. Her products filled the shelves in supermarkets and chemists, and last summer they could be found in every Little Chef across the country.

Her organic babyfood idea has had a major effect on the baby food market, with the entry of the giant companies like Heinz and Cow and Gate. But it has had no effect on the sales of Organix, which has remained a private company, employing 30 people, but employing other companies to produce and package their products.

Lizzie lives near her offices on an organic farm on the edge of the New Forest with her partner of many years Mike Thresher, who designs all the companies’ packaging. She helped bring up his three children.

She is very much a hands on Managing Director. The Organix factory is moving from Scotland to Dorset. In the autumn she spent three weeks in Australia in search of organic apricots and raisins. In 2003 she plans many new lines for older children, and to address supplying organic food to counter wheat and dairy product allergies.

With 50 per cent of all baby food now sold being organic she is optimistic about the future, but believes public procurement supplying food to schools, hospitals and the armed forces must be persuaded to buy organic.

And if the proof is in the eating then Lizzie Vann remains steadfast to her own products. Always eating, testing and tasting them daily for her lunch!

By Michael Wale


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