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Growing big and staying small

Posted on by from Innocent

How do you retain an entrepreneurial culture when you are acquired by one of the biggest businesses in the world? Jane Marsh, group people director at innocent drinks, tells Mary Appleton how the smoothie company is doing just that.

When a group of three friends from university started selling smoothies at a music festival in 1999, they put up a sign asking people if they thought they should give up their jobs to do it full-time. They placed a bin saying ‘Yes’ and a bin saying ‘No’ in front of the stall, and got people to vote with their empties. At the end of the weekend, the ‘Yes’ bin was full, so they resigned from their jobs the next day – and innocent was born.

In 2009, innocent sold a stake of the business to The Coca-Cola Company for £30 million, with the three founders continuing to retain operational control. In February 2013, Coca-Cola increased its stake to more than 90%. Retaining the quirky start-up ethos instilled by the founders when you are acquired by a big company could be seen as an HR headache for some. But as group people director Jane Marsh explains, maintaining the ‘fresh’ culture that has become synonymous with the brand, while managing growth, is top of her agenda.

WE’VE GOT A VERY OPEN FEEDBACK CULTURE. I’d come from a culture where email was the norm, but when I started people had no qualms in telling me: “Jane, you’re sending too many emails!”. People are comfortable calling out behaviours, even with senior people. If someone does something that goes against our values, we talk about it openly and discuss the impact of it.

COLLABORATION IS KEY. I could never find any of my people team when I first joined – we deliberately mix up our seating in the building so teams don’t sit together. The advantage of this approach is that I get to overhear negotiations about fruit prices and sit next to someone discussing our charity partnerships. It helps me get a fresh perspective on the reality of what’s happening across the business and how it knits together.

OUR MOTTO IS ‘KEEP IT INNOCENT AND RIGHT FOR THE CULTURE’. Our relationship with Coca-Cola is a point of fascination externally. Often acquisitions do involve standardising and getting everyone to operate in the same way, but it’s the opposite here. Our philosophy is that we are connected, not integrated, with our shareholder and we’re able to learn from Coca-Cola (and vice-versa) to get the best of both worlds. Based on what I’ve seen, it’s a great way of operating so that we can grow and yet also stay small – stay “us” – at the same time.

“Having values doesn’t mean anything unless they speak to you inside”

CULTURE IS NOT SOMETHING YOU DEFINE, IT’S WHAT YOU FEEL. You feel what your culture is like from the environment and the way your people talk to you. Having values doesn’t mean anything unless they speak to you inside. There’s a palpable energy here – we’re not working in fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) for nothing. Even if you are only 70% sure, you’re encouraged to really go for it. If it doesn’t work, we will move on. There is a sense of family too. We have loads of clubs that grow organically, such as our cheese club. We don’t start or police them – they are self-regulating and continue as long as our people are interested in maintaining them. This means that, if people want it, the lines between inside work and outside work are blurred because people naturally socialise more.

FACILITATING CAREER PROGRESSION IS VITAL. I really encourage my HR team to be open with me about other career experiences they would like. If I can help them achieve some of these ambitions and they come back to us afterwards I think, in the round, that’s a win. We encourage everyone to create time each month for a conversation that is about their development. When we were a smaller company development happened more organically and could be less structured. As we expand into new geographical areas and employ more people we know we need to be more focused and deliberate in our approach to career development, so we have put this very high up on my agenda and have hired the right people into my team to help us with this.

THE WORKPLACE NEEDS TO BE SOMEWHERE PEOPLE ENJOY BEING. We have music on all the floors of our building here – noise is fine and if people need a quieter place to work there are places for that too. Customers can ring up our banana phone and chat to our staff about anything. We have a dedicated culture team and part of its remit is to look after the building, not only from a more traditional facilities team perspective but also making it an engaging place to spend time in. They will organise little treats and events without needing any kind of clearance – on a sunny day we might have an ice cream van turning up, for example, and everyone goes downstairs to queue up for one. The amount of energy this brings back into the building is palpable.

THE FUTURE OF WORK WILL BE DEFINED BY THE EVOLUTION OF TRUST. In other businesses I’ve worked in, people really value being able to work from home and it showed in our retention figures. A lot of companies will need to embrace that in the future. But it’s also about balance – I hope that we don’t forget that humans need to build a sense of community and connect. People are so innovative and productive when they’re together, so getting the balance right is a key success factor. 

YOU LEARN AS MUCH FROM FAILURE AS YOU DO FROM SUCCESS. I have learned the value of not taking yourself too seriously here. Don’t be worried about not knowing stuff, it’s amazing what you can learn if you just throw yourself in. I have moved sector – skills are so transferable. Ride the crest of the wave and jump.

“There’s a palpable energy here. We’re not working in FMCG for nothing”

Mary Appleton

By Mary Appleton

Mary is Changeboard's editor in chief.

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