Despite leaving school with no qualifications, Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones carved successful careers in catering, television and PR. Having bought a Devon farm, he launched sausage brand The Black Farmer, which is now worth £15m. Here, he shares forthright views on entrepreneurship and UK farming, and explains how to turn your customers into your sales force…
A man in a hat leads a troupe of Morris dancers across Devon’s undulating green landscape, he waves the Union Jack and the rousing chorus of “Rule, Britannia!” fills the air. If you haven’t seen it, this is the premise of The Black Farmer’s first television advert in its 12-year history. It aired in early April, spliced with montages featuring, among other things, succulent sausages sizzling on a barbecue, grainy newsreel footage of Martin Luther King and a flamenco dancer wearing a blood-red dress. The advert, shot by acclaimed commercials and feature film director Tony Kaye (American History X), is as much the story of Jamaican-born founder Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones as it is a vehicle to sell his range of products. Emmanuel-Jones takes a starring role and narrates the film with stirring lines such as “I am black, red, white and blue… I am the universe… I am freedom… I am the flame of my forefathers.”
Director got a sneak preview of it, two weeks before it aired, during our cover shoot at Emmanuel-Jones’s west Devonshire farmhouse in Broadwoodwidger, near Launceston. He spoke of the audacity of an independent brand (with a retail value of £15m The Black Farmer remains family owned and has never taken external investment) daring to do a TV ad in the corporate world. Like everything Emmanuel-Jones does it’s meant to make people think and challenge stereotypes. “Success is about absolute hard work, focus, and to understand you can’t be like anybody else. If you want to be like everybody else then you’re not going to achieve the dreams that you have,” he says. “I’m a great believer that part of what you’re going through in life is having the courage to dream.”
One of nine children, Emmanuel-Jones moved to Birmingham when he was three. Aged 11 he was tasked with the responsibility to tend his father’s allotment. “We were very poor, and [the allotment] was a way to supplement the family income. It really became my haven away from the misery and poverty I was surrounded by. There was no way I wanted to live in the shithole I was brought up in. I didn’t see any glory in it. I would do whatever it took to change everything about my personality so I could climb up that pecking order. And I realised very early on that if I was going to get on, that is what I had to do. And that mind switch is all it takes. It’s as simple as that.”
After leaving school with no qualifications, he enlisted in the army, but was discharged for indiscipline. Catering provided a living but didn’t give him the leg up the social ladder he craved. He decided he wanted to get into TV, and after two years of befriending “anyone who worked in television, from security guard to cleaner”, he was rewarded with an introduction to top BBC executive Jock Gallagher, who gave him a three-month trial as a runner. “Friends and family thought I was nuts because I could hardly read and write. It’s very much the profession of the Oxbridge type. They thought, ‘This guy’s getting ideas above his station.’”
Under the mentorship of noted producer Peter Bazalgette (now ITV’s chairman), he climbed the ranks to producer-director of the BBC’s Food & Drink, giving celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay and James Martin their first breaks. “At every single stage of my achievement, someone had bent over backwards to give me a break,” he recounts. “A young, enthusiastic, hard-working, challenging, difficult person who had a fire in his belly just appealed to them. I’m not the sort of person that people are going to employ from looking at my CV. It’s all about spotting the talent of somebody who’s going to give me a break.”
In 1994, Emmanuel-Jones launched PR agency Commsplus with his wife Michaela Pain. It specialised in food and drinks and was responsible for bringing Cobra Beer, Loyd Grossman sauces and Kettle Chips to the market. The Commsplus strategy proved an indicator of his future business and his DNA as a challenger entrepreneur. “We went for entrepreneurial brands [because] the big corporations weren’t interested in us. With big corporates, it’s more about schmoozing rather than actually delivering something that’s going to have the right result… The people who do well with them are the people I call the ‘suits’, people who are very sophisticated and who massage egos… whereas we’re doers. Our clients were classic entrepreneurs who had no money but once had a dream, who wanted to change the world and believe the world could be a better place.”
The Black Farmer
After 15 years and some “audacious” PR stunts – Emmanuel-Jones famously had Plymouth Gin ‘sponsor’ 1999’s solar eclipse (“who said we can’t!”) – he grew tired of the industry. “The thing about working with clients is that clients are a pain in the arse – unless you’re working for entrepreneurs – because it doesn’t come down to what is best for the brand. It’s all about internal politics; people second-guessing what their boss might think or fear, and all that nonsense.”
Anticipating the move towards gluten-free, in 2004 he invested £350,000 to launch the first mainstream gluten-free sausage brand. Experience taught him not to produce or distribute the product but to work with a local manufacturer to make products to his own specification.
“Even though I’ve got a farm here, we’re classic marketers,” he says, pointing out that though not fundamentally part of the business, his farm concentrates on hay, silage and cattle.
“The brand to date has been built purely on below-the-line activity. Most marketers are big willy boys – they get turned on by marketing budgets and advertising. They don’t understand or see value in below-the-line. The above-the-line boys have made a profession out of what they call ‘measurement’. There’s a massive industry that’s been built up on what I call the bullshit of the supposed importance of above-the-line.
“You want the consumer to become your sales force, to buy into what your brand philosophy is. [If] they’re prepared to tell people about it and they feel some form of ownership, they feel part of it. Entrepreneurs think big. We don’t talk about selling a few sausages, we’re going to revolutionise the world! I wanted to do a brand that was very mainstream, and to really take them on. Sausages are quintessentially British produce. I wanted to do the best quality out there.”
And the name The Black Farmer? “All my next-door neighbours round here used to call me the black farmer. And I thought well, you know, that’s a pretty good brand name. Not only that, it has an edge to it. In this age of political correctness people aren’t too sure about the correct language to use. Down these parts people would feel a lot more comfortable using the word ‘coloured’ than ‘black’ because they think ‘black’ is rude. It makes the white liberal set unsure too: ‘Well, should you be referring to people’s colour?’ People complained… [but] I wouldn’t call it the ‘Afro Caribbean Farmer.’ All this nonsense, based on a fear of what the correct language should be.”
He says that with success and money, people don’t see skin colour: “The challenges, racism and prejudices come when people are in need and they suffer because of their gender, their colour, their religion. For those of us who are fortunate enough to be successful, we don’t actually experience those things. Therefore when we are successful we have a responsibility to do our bit to help those people who are trying to climb up the ladder. That’s my fundamental philosophy.”
A former – but unsuccessful – Conservative party candidate for parliament, Emmanuel-Jones draws parallels between entrepreneurialism and immigrants leaving their country of origin to better their children’s lives.
“Every single foreign person you meet in this country should be celebrating, because they possess a courage the majority don’t have… That is my origin, and I think all too often people in this country, especially the black community, forget the reason we’re here is because we had courageous parents who decided to leave their comfort zone to better their lives. They suffered and they struggled and they had a pretty hard time as a consequence, but my god, what a pedigree to have, to be from that sort of background of courage.”
Early sales success initially came from selling direct to consumers at farmers’ markets. He then launched a successful campaign to get his products stocked in major supermarkets by posting the email addresses and telephone numbers of retail buyers on his website and asking satisfied customers to contact them.
“If you want to build a brand, the key thing is, how do you get the consumer on your side? The consumer is more important than your wife. They are more important than your children. They are the most important thing in your life. If you are serious about building a brand and if you are really serious about your consumer, that is the mindset that you need to have. The consumer will make or break you. The consumer is the difference between food on the table and starving.”
Emmanuel-Jones blames a lack of consumer awareness and “cliques” for some of the problems facing farming. “I think the consumer comes very low down on the list of priorities with some people. They’d spend more times rubbing shoulders with politicians than being a friend of the consumer.” Getting “urban brothers or sisters” on board could change the face for farming and provide a proud connection between urban and rural Britain, he claims.
Drawing parallels with the catering industry, he sees the future of UK farming as becoming more specialist, and takes a swipe at the food service industry – from restaurants to hospitals – which he claims serves food which isn’t produced here. “Nobody’s out there campaigning and saying it’s not good enough.”
On the question of the EU referendum, Emmanuel-Jones remains neutral, believing that a decision either way wouldn’t affect his business. He does, however, acknowledge that the timing of a vote amid an international climate of terrorism and concerns about migration could produce a different result than if the vote was held in a few years: “You should never do politics based on fear. Life revolves around those who are brave enough to conquer it.”
In January 2014, he almost died after being diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia. Hospitalised for a year he underwent a lifesaving, rare stem cell transplant that has caused a secondary illness, graft-versus-host disease, which has caused some pigment loss to his skin.
“When I look in the mirror every single day, it’s a blessing that means you can never take anything for granted. I was lucky that I got ill when the business had established itself, that it didn’t actually matter whether I was there or not.”
The Black Farmer remains fiercely independent, with a staff of three. “We don’t have the sort of pressures of tons of employees, tons of infrastructure. We’ve got a lot more flex than some people have because we’ve developed the business in a way that allows us to breathe.”
Once the “money boys” – as he refers to venture capitalists, investors and even Dragons’ Den panellists – get involved, he explains, it’s not about the brand or what the brand stands for. “It’s about them making their return as fast as possible. Many people end up trapped. Launching a business is like life itself. You’ve got to go through ups and downs. You’ve got to learn from your mistakes. And you want to create an environment where what mistakes you make – and you’ll make many – don’t cripple you. The moment you’ve got other people’s money involved it doesn’t give you that breathing space. But the more you can control, especially in the early years, allows you the time to learn and to grow. If we were funded and financed by somebody else, we would have fallen out by now and the brand would become something different.
“Your road to ruin is the day you allow the money guys to determine what you do with your brand. Because they’re not really interested in brands and values and what you stand for and you wanting to change the world… Entrepreneurs want to change the world, and for me it’s more than a sausage that I’m selling. It’s a belief system. It’s a way of life. It’s an attitude. I don’t want to be confined by my colour or stereotypes of what a black person can or can’t do, or should do.”
Looking back over Emmanuel-Jones’s life so far, no one could argue with his recipe for success.
CV – Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones
1985 Joins a BBC training scheme
1987 Becomes producer/director of Food & Drink
1994 Launches food and drink PR agency Commsplus with his wife Michaela Pain. Clients include Loyd Grossman sauces, Kettle Chips and Cobra Beer.
1997 Buys a 30-acre farm in Devon
2004 Launches The Black Farmer brand
2006 Launches the Rural Scholarship, with nine urban school leavers spending five intensive weeks on his farm
2010 Stood as a Conservative candidate in the Chippenham constituency at the general election
2014 Wins a Black British Business Award (Fastest Moving Goods for The Black Farmer)