It’s been 10 years since Tom Griffith swapped his suit for jeans and his laptop for a blender. Ditching the pathway to corporate banker for the perils of business ownership, he and business partner Emma Welsh (a former head of consumer marketing for NAB) have sold millions thanks to a green smoothie made of four types of seaweed, among other products (31 to be precise) as part of their juice company Emma & Tom’s.
Looking back at the decade, which included a reinvention midway through – ditching a distributor and forging their own network – they now have direct access to more than 2000 cafes across the country and are testing out the waters in 80 Singaporean supermarkets.
From the first batches “that didn’t taste very good at all” to incorrect labels, transport woes, dodgy payers and expiring fresh juice without customers to buy it, Tom’s seen it all. “Early on it’s like, ‘Oh, God, disaster’, but then you realise that that is all you do – manage disasters,” he says.
Over juice, Tom says business is about “grinding away for years”, adding: “It’s a marathon not a sprint. There’s no point ending up under a table sucking your thumb in a foetal position because it’s all too much.” So what lessons can we glean from this intrepid entrepreneur?
When he was uncertain about his work-life, Tom went skiing.
To be completely accurate, he skied for no less than 170 days in 14 months.
“I know that sounds pretty slack, but I’ve been busy since,” he says with a laugh. And while it might sound like a delayed gap year to some, there’s nothing like a sabbatical to find purpose and inspiration. In between jobs, Tom says he knew he was ready for a challenge and didn’t want to end up as the CFO of something like Windscreens O’Brien (which was offered). But it was the snow, in the end, that sparked his juice quest, throwing back whole fruit smoothies in the US while hard at it.
“I hadn’t seen anything like this in Australia. It ticked all the boxes: it was on brand, it was a delicious and healthy product that anyone from a one-year-old to a 90-year-old could enjoy, it was doable, by that I mean it wasn’t like I would need to create a computer chip or something that’s a bit tricky, and it wasn’t already being done in Australia. In hindsight, it’s a very competitive area. I mean really competitive,” he says of the juice market.
When he interacts with business partner Emma, it’s up-front discussion from the get-go.
“You see co-heads of departments and they only last 18 months until one thumps the other and we’ve had 10 years without as much as a tiff,” Tom says, adding that he and Emma met for the first time at age 12.
“We respect each other, trust each other and have the same vision. It would have been lonely and hard to have done it by yourself, really hard,” even if it just means you can halve the tough phone calls when they need to be made, he jokes. Among it all, both have been married to respective partners and had children.
“We collaborate. It’s like a marriage in every extent. Emma phoned me this morning at 8am and I said goodbye to her last night at 8.45pm.”
When he visits one of their 2000 customers, Tom knows them by name.
Not every company founder can boast that. Nor do some want to. But for Tom (and Emma), a friendly relationship built on exceptional service and genuine respect is where it’s at.
“When we launch a new product, we can get it to 2000 customers in the first five days because the distribution is already there,” he says.
“We walk into the shops and they know us. The level of familiarity is key. I will be in Toowong in Brisbane for example and might go, ‘Is Shane here?’, and they’ll say, ‘No, Shane’s not in’, and I’ll go, ‘Is Georgia around?’, and they’ll say, ‘No, Georgia is sick today’, and I go, “Hmmm, what about Troy?’ That’s the level of familiarity we have; that’s our connection to our customer.”
When the monthly finance reports are completed, Tom visits his parents. “They are indirect stakeholders, emotionally at the very least, and Emma’s parents are the same. It’s like what you learn when you have a child, the word ‘grandmother’ is more than just a title, it’s an active role because they know a thing or two about raising children,” Tom says, admitting that his dad still doesn’t agree with the branding for their ‘Life Bars’.
“My father had a business for 50 years and my mother’s father was heavily involved in business, so they have some insights. One of his greatest sayings is, ‘Look after those who look after you’, and I’ve stayed true to that.”
When Tom takes his daughters to the park, they eat fruit.
“This time last year, I put a piece of birthday cake in my daughter’s lunch box for preschool and I said to her, ‘Did you enjoy your lunch?’, and she says, ‘Yes, daddy, I saw the cake but I had it after all the healthy stuff’,” says Tom, visibly chuffed.
“She gets it. They think it’s normal for me to go for a run, pushing 40kg along the Yarra, that’s the girls in the double pram.”
Last year more people in the world died of obesity than starvation, and that’s a concern in Australia. So much so that they are currently working with experts on an education program to help children decide on healthier food options – should I have a Mars Bar or a carrot? Many would argue sugar-packed juice is part of the problem.
“There’s all this flack about fruit juice being bad, and yes it is if it’s fully concentrated, because essentially it’s been reduced down to a sugary sludge. Then it just gets rehydrated, so it gets beaten to death and tastes like canned or stewed fruit. Our fruit is blended immediately and put straight in the bottle and then into a chilled truck – the whole fruit goes in,” Tom says.
But while juice of the “stewed” variety lasts upwards of a year, Emma & Tom’s juice has its challenges. From factory floor to café table, they have just six weeks to get it into customers’ mouths.
When Tom is asked business advice, he keeps it straight.
“It’s not rocket science. Get a brand. Get some staff. And off you go,” he says, simply.
Recalling when Emma hired her first truck to drive thousands of bottles from one location to another because it would haven’t made production otherwise, he says: “You just have to pull your finger out and do it; there is no marketing manager, no IT help desk.”
Tom feels their success lies in five key concepts. Turn negatives into positives: “When we first launched, we made 8000 bottles for our first run and had no customers to sell them to. We sold what we could and because the juice had a limited shelf life, we turned it into marketing and gave free juice to competitors at Melbourne’s Around the Bay in a Day event.”
Take advice: “You don’t think you need someone to sit back and hold a mirror at you, but you do. Everyone does. We have an advisory group now that asks us every month, ‘What the f**k are you doing?’”
Do more yourself: “Relying on a distributor and not doing it ourselves cost us significant growth in the first five years of our business.”
Forge good relationships: “We want one designer, one PR consultant, one banker.”
Maintain an absolute focus: “It’s easy to go off on tangents but you need to stick to your focus and be focused. The chilled juice section [in Australia] is a half-a-billion-dollar market and we have a significant share, but there’s room for growth. There’s no point running off somewhere to do something funky, let’s get Australia right first.”
They buy their guava from Thailand, but only because they have to. Each year Emma & Tom bottle around 5000 tonnes of fruit and almost all of it comes from the “MIA” says Tom – the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area.
“The oranges are squeezed in Griffith and then come to Sydney. You couldn’t get lower food miles,” he says of the 574km trip, despite admitting that Australia’s “tyranny of distance” has been a huge freight impost. “We’re big fruit users and it’s all Australian but you can’t buy commercially grown guava in Australia so we are forced to buy it from Thailand and passionfruit is not grown here commercially either, it’s from Ecuador.”
Their very first order of passionfruit cost AU$20,000. “Emma’s background was commodities and she thought it was a good buy. It sounded like a lot of passionfruit but it was what we need for the minimum run so we just had to do it,” Tom says. And before the order was even placed, he and Emma spent six months at home perfecting the recipes with a household blender. “If the fruit’s not fantastic, the juice won’t be fantastic,” he adds.