He is suspicious of private capital, goes with his gut over market research and invests in start-ups with no track record. This is Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones.
There are only so many times, as a journalist, that you arrive for an interview and more than two hours later are still on the couch, effectively being psychoanalysed. “You are very professional. Too professional,” I am told. “Being an effective journalist, it’s all about vulnerability,” I am advised. I am then asked about my childhood. This was meant to be an ordinary business interview, if you could ever do an ordinary interview with the extraordinary Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones.
He works between the West Devon countryside and Parkhall Business Centre in Dulwich, but you might know Emmanuel Jones better as The Black Farmer. A child of Jamaican immigrants who settled in inner city Birmingham, he’s now a gentleman farmer in Cornwall with 30 acres of cattle grazing land to his name. Since buying the farm, he’s also had a reality TV show that introduced nine inner-city black teenagers to farming life; he’s run (and failed) to be a Conservative MP in Chippenham, Wiltshire; and is now running a food accelerator scheme, The Hatchery, which has already produced four businesses.
One of the latest Hatchery start-ups, Smörgåsbord, a range of Swedish meatballs launched in January, already has a £4 million turnover. Emmanuel-Jones certainly has experience in producing a successful food brand; his award-winning gluten-free range – sausages, pork cuts, meatballs as well as cheese, bacon, chicken and eggs – is stocked in Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Co-op and Ocado, among others, has a £7 million turnover and is worth about £15 million, he estimates.
In a recent interview in The Daily Mail, he revealed that he doesn’t invest in the stock market. “My rule is: do not invest in something you do not understand. I think that is a bit like gambling.” In any case, he owns 100% of his business and has always been wary of private equity. “You’re on somebody else’s timetable; you’re on somebody else’s agenda.” If there’s anyone’s advice worth taking – in whichever situation you might find yourself – it could well be his.
Emmanuel-Jones welcomes me into his 10th floor riverside flat overlooking Wandsworth. Tall, with impeccable style, the man stands out, never mind his white afro, and his face marked by vitiligo. The lighter patches of skin on his upper lip, eyebrows and chin are remnants of his cancer treatment five years ago.
Fitting in has never held much interest for him. His parents were part of the Windrush generation and he grew up, the second child of nine, in a terraced house in Small Heath in Birmingham. As the oldest boy, he looked after the family allotment. “If you are brought up in an urban setting, you spend most of the time looking over your shoulder,” he says. The garden, however, gave him peace, space and freedom, without the constant pressure of having to react to his environment. “I liked that feeling so much that I decided from the age of 11, that one day I’d like to have my own farm.”
Fundamentally the immigrant mindset is an entrepreneurial one, he believes. “It’s an emotional risk to leave everything behind, your family, your friends, everything that you’re familiar with to go into unknown territory.” His urge to own a farm is just another step on the same journey as his parents, although they were dubious about his ambitions. “It is the job of us, the second and third generation, to break out of these enclaves and go and claim the rest of Britain.”
Crawling out of the shit heap – that’s his phrase, not mine – wasn’t easy. His attitude to both study and authority made school life and his short-lived army career difficult; even the officers could not lick him into shape. “I have a dishonourable discharge to my name because I was a pain in the arse,” he reflects. After a stint in catering, Emmanuel-Jones decided to pursue another passion: documentaries. Two years of knocking on doors at the BBC in Pebble Mill in Birmingham led to a meeting with a producer, whom he calls his “guardian angel”. He gave Emmanuel-Jones a job as a production runner in what was essentially an Oxbridge enclave.
It was the start of a 15-year career in television, producing food programmes and launching the media careers of chefs like Gordon Ramsay, James Martin and Antony Worrall Thompson, but the idea of a farm, and the capital it would require, eventually pushed him to take another risk. He left the television industry with just about enough to pay his mortgage for three months. The move paid off; his food-marketing business soon had clients like Lloyd Grossman sauces, Kettle Chips and Plymouth Gin.
In his book, Jeopardy: The Danger of Playing It Safe on the Path to Success, he tells the story of his work on the Plymouth Gin’s 1999 guerrilla marketing campaign. The brand unilaterally declared itself the sponsor of the solar eclipse. “Does the sun have image rights?” This wasn’t his most ridiculous publicity stunt. For Mr Brain’s, a brand of faggots (a little-known British delicacy of meatballs made with mixed mince and offal), Emmanuel-Jones launched a search for Mr Brain’s biggest fans. He called it Britain’s Faggot Family
The thinking behind the brand name The Black Farmer went along similar lines. It was 2003 and Emmanuel-Jones had remortgaged his home and finally bought himself a farm in Devon. He had fulfilled his dream; now all he needed was an idea and a business. “I saw there was a big gulf between urban and rural Britain – it’s as if it’s two separate countries. I thought actually I could create a brand here that would try and connect the two while challenging the stereotype of what Britain is and what a black person can and can’t do. I decided I was going to do a sausage.”
He would name his range after what fellow farmers called him, even if the market research suggested it might offend people. The success of the brand backed up his initial conviction: “Research will tell you what people are thinking today but it will not tell you what they will think tomorrow.” At the time, gluten-free was not as mainstream as it is now, but for Emmanuel-Jones, not only did it provide a point of difference, but the challenge would be to render this difference palatable to everyone else. It was prescient thinking. It’s estimated that in the UK 8.5 million people have gone gluten-free. Although only 1% of the population suffer from coeliac disease, many have adopted the lifestyle as they find it healthier and conducive to weight loss.
However, it’s not all about the product, however high quality it might be, says Emmanuel-Jones. “People do not buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” In between the range of flavoured cheeses, the antibiotic-free pork cuts, chicken wings, bacon and meatballs, he also has a range of high-quality bespoke scented candles, Pause, which he makes himself. This, he believes, represents the future. As AI and mass production become more ubiquitous, consumers will value the stories behind the products, the craftsmanship, and artisanal creations made to individual specifications. “The skills that have been looked down on in the past are the essential skills that you need in the future,” he says.
Supermarkets that churn out standardised products, effectively limiting choice, are going to run into trouble, believes Emmanuel-Jones. The online world is making it increasingly easy for producers and consumers to bypass these distributors and the soulless and taxing experience they offer. Online shopping also offers potential for the shopper to choose products that are precisely tailored to their preferences. The challenge for small artisans who can cater to these tastes, he says, will be to make distribution financially viable. They’ll only be able to do that by working together and sharing resources.
It’s this kind of thinking that pushed Emmanuel-Jones to set up The Hatchery, his business accelerator that specialises in food and drink brands that are so early-stage that the idea hasn’t really hatched yet. “If someone has already got a name, and they’re established, I’m not really interested in that. I’m interested in people who have nothing.”
Emmanuel-Jones owns half of Smörgåsbord, and in return The Black Farmer sorts out branding, manufacturing, distribution and logistics and administration. The Black Farmer’s accountancy is done at its London base at Workspace; Parkhall Business Centre in Dulwich was chosen for its location, the flexibility of the tenancy and the excellent food in the café. “It’s extremely convenient and the building is light and airy,” he says. “If I do need to have a meeting, it’s perfect for any client, whichever business they are visiting.”
Helping others has always been part of his brand. In 2006, he launched a rural scholarship for black teenagers from cities all over the UK: Young Black Farmers. It’s well worth catching on 4OD as an example of how gentle reality TV used to be. There is a sense, despite Emmanuel-Jones’ tough love, that the teenagers will come out happier than when they entered. He has no time for Dragons’ Den and programmes of a similar ilk where participants are “fodder for entertainment rather than for their benefit”.
Money is not his main motivator anyway. “Never chase money; chase success. Because with success, money follows,” he says. Otherwise you risk prioritising the agenda of banks, which are often more interested by the security of their investment rather than its potential. “They need us entrepreneurs.” He then adds, looking pleased, “Do not fear the moneymen.” Like any marketing man, he loves a catchy slogan.
Five years ago, Emmanuel-Jones was treated for leukaemia and underwent a stem-cell transplant. He spent a year in hospital. “It was brutal,” he says. The business survived his illness; in fact it ran more smoothly, he laughs. Strategy and marketing took a back seat while his neighbour looked after his farm. That period of reflection has made him more aware of the strength of his vulnerabilities. In his book, he writes, “As so often with these moments of adversity, there was a blessing hidden somewhere; it has brought home to me more than ever the kindness of people who ask if I need help, hold doors open for me and otherwise go out of their way to help someone who is struggling a bit.” He is now open about his dyslexia, which he hid both at school and at the BBC. Cancer, and the mottled traces on his skin, are a reminder of the change of perspective his illness offered and the battle he won. “It actually makes you work out what is important... For me, it’s the impact you’ve had on people’s lives, it’s how have you managed to touch people’s lives and enabled them to go along the journey they have ahead of them.”
Next up, in addition to looking at export opportunities, he has plans to transform his farm with a restaurant, shop and a wellness centre – “my temple” – so the brand will depend less on supermarket sales. I think of the advert and imagine it will be as far as you can get from what we’re used to at Daylesford or Doddington Hall, but he’ll need outside investment to make it happen. “That’s when it gets quite scary,” he admits. That’s a big risk for a businessman who has always done everything on his own terms. “I’ve got to get psychologically prepared to make that big leap.”
Can The Black Farmer win big with his next idea? Either way, you get the feeling he won’t play it safe and will be around for some time to come.
Do you want to partner up with Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones to grow your own food and drink brand? Find out more about his incubator here.
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