The coronavirus pandemic could spell the end of the regular five-day week in the office, says one of Britain’s most successful businesswomen.
Jo Fairley, joint founder of the organic Fairtrade chocolate brand Green & Black’s and a string of other successful businesses, is speaking at the Innovation Showcase at Energus, Workington, later this month.
She believes that the practice of working from home at least some of the time, a necessity during lockdown, can and should become the norm for many.
She said: “It annoys me when I hear people talking about everyone going back to the office. My teams have always worked remotely.
“When I was at Green & Black’s, we employed two single mothers in key roles who would have found it impossible to work in an office full time.
“If an employee would prefer to spend three days a week working from home, take that on board. That person isn’t going to let you down.”
Jo famously sunk almost every penny she had – including the £20,000 equity from the sale of her house – to launch Green & Black’s with her husband-to-be Craig Sams in 1991. Despite that, she doesn’t see herself as a risk taker.
“It didn’t feel like a risk, it was such a good opportunity,” she recalled. “When an opportunity presents itself, I go for it. If you don’t, you’ll never know what would have happened if you had.”
Her other ventures have included a bakery, a wellbeing centre, a perfume business and a website based on her bestselling book The Beauty Bible.
Perhaps surprisingly for someone often described as a “serial entrepreneur”, none of her businesses has failed. There is a common theme, however. Green & Black’s was the first organic Fairtrade chocolate brand and all the others were either firsts in their field or firsts in their local area.
Jo said: “There’s an advantage to being first. I’m not interested in looking at what someone else is doing and saying, ‘I want a bit of that’.”
Like many successful business people, she wasn’t academic. She left school at 16 with six O-levels, written off as a failure by her careers’ teacher.
She went to secretarial college and started work at a teen magazine where they saw her potential. At 23, she became Britain’s youngest magazine editor.
Today she is an advocate for vocational qualifications and feels schools should do more to equip youngsters with life skills.
She said: “Young people need to know how to navigate the world. Schools should encourage them to use their brains creatively. There’s too little of that.”
The decision to sell Green & Black’s to Cadbury in 2005 was a wrench but, she maintains, right for the business.
“We’d grown so fast we were having cash-flow problems,” she said. “Everyone thinks that fast growth is fantastic but it’s really hard to manage.”
Cadbury was itself taken over by Kraft five years later but Jo is delighted that Cadbury and Kraft embraced Green & Black’s ethical ethos.
She said: “When a big business buys a smaller business, they learn from them. Kraft set up Cocoa Life, a $400m community programme in West Africa.
“When a little company does the right thing, it makes a little bit of difference. When a big company does it, it makes an enormous difference.”
She is a firm believer that having ethical values benefits a business by motivating and energising its employees.
“It changes the culture,” she said. “People want to get out of bed in the morning because they’re doing something to make the world a better place.”
Jo has a light-touch management style. She sets deadlines and targets for her team, offers help if they ask, but otherwise lets them get on with it.
Yet she remains very driven. She could have retired after the sale of Green & Black’s but continues to launch and run businesses.
She said: “I’m curious about what I can do to make things happen. Perhaps it’s because I can still hear my careers’ teacher telling me that I’d never make so much as a Girl Friday. That spurs me on.”
You can hear Jo talking about innovation, the importance of branding and how businesses can embrace change at Energus’s Innovation Showcase on Wednesday September 29. The event runs from 9.30am to 1.30pm.
Admission is free. Places can be booked here.