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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

Exclusive: Berry Company's founder vision bears fruit

Super berry drinks firm revenues grew to $7.5 million in 2016

Ten years after it was founded The Berry company's drinks are sold in more than 40 countries
Ten years after it was founded The Berry company's drinks are sold in more than 40 countries

The office of The Berry Company is dominated by an enormous black board.

On it, scribbled in chalk, are the how, what, why and whens of the company’s current juice lines.

This symbol of founder Khaled El-Yafi’s ambition and passion is positioned in the epicentre of this rapidly-expanding drinks company.

Mr Yafi, 38, does not look like the stereotypical vision of a healthy juice drinks influencer. Stocky and muscular, the British-Lebanese entrepreneur looks like he would be more at home chucking around a rugby ball than experimenting with exotic berry drinks and waxing lyrical about antioxidant trends.

Bursting with energy, he speaks with such quick-paced enthusiasm about his company it is unsurprising that he has achieved so much in such a relatively short period of time.

British-based The Berry Company was founded in 2007, just before the world became obsessed with ‘clean eating’ and ‘superfoods’. Now, ten years on, Yafi’s drinks are sold in more than 40 countries and he values the company at £25 million (Dh122m).

“At that time the drinks market was much more threadbare by ways of innovation,” reflects Mr El-Yafi, sipping a glass of his company's Super Berry Purple juice.

He recalls that a typical supermarket shelf in 2007 would have been stocked with what he referred to as “conventional flavours” such as orange, apple and cranberry, in both the chilled and ambient aisles.

“Exotic ingredients were something that just were not coveted in Britain,” he says.

As pomegranate juice began to make a stir in the US, it heralded the beginning of what would grow to become the ‘clean eating’ trend marketers love to hate. The health benefits of antioxidants made super berries such as açai berries and blueberries irresistible to customers.

Privately educated at Eton House, Sussex House and then The American School in London, Yafi went on to study at the European Business School, before joining his father’s ethnic food business.

There, he helped his father develop a lower end pomegranate juice in response to the now fashionable Middle Eastern fruit.

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“All of a sudden competitors from Pom Wonderful and Pomegrate had very, very emphatically and aggressively spread all over the market. [It was] like nothing I have seen before. It was almost instantaneous,” he remembers. .

The entrepreneur had his inspiration. He realised it was too late to jump on this particular bandwagon and identified that their success had been rooted in the larger antioxidant trend.

“I said what else is antioxidant rich and let’s just build a company around that. Every time you looked at it it was always something berry”.

After deciding to become the brand leader in blueberry juice, El-Yafi needed a name for his company. It was his mother who suggested ‘The Berry Company’ as it would give him flexibility to expand into other fruits.

With around £30,000 of capital from his family, the business was cheap to set up. El-Yafi only needed to find an artwork designer and to buy his first production items, such as the bottles and ingredients. Aside from one outside investor who bought out some of El-Yafi’s aunts and uncles, the project has grown off its own financial successes.

The first three products that launched were blueberry, raspberry, and blackberry. Despite being famous British flavours, the latter two were later blended with other fruits to help boost their sales, as only the trendy blueberry found a steady audience early on.

El-Yafi monitored what fruits were becoming fashionable and spotted the rising popularity of açai and goji berries. Helped by an easily adaptable packaging design and a good supplier, The Berry Company was able to launch its two new fruit drinks within two months.

Within a year of launch, The Berry Company’s drinks were on sale in the UK’s popular health food store Holland and Barrett, the company's first national account. By 2008, their bottles were on sale in leading high-end supermarket Waitrose.

El-Yafi began to set his sights on the export market and now distributes to more than 40 countries across the globe. Dubai is a particularly strong market for The Berry Company.

“Dubai is an amazing market…] Dubai and the Emirates have been the best market of the [Middle East]”, he says.

In Iceland, a surprise success story for the company, they sell around 65,000 bottles of goji alone to a total population of a little more than 300,000 people.

The company has witnessed a 10 per cent growth in revenues each year for the last three years, with turnover hitting $7.5 million in 2016.

El-Yafi has spent the run up to his company’s 10 year anniversary by releasing a host of new products.

Innovation is not a new thing for El-Yafi, who aside from exploring different berry flavours, has guided the company into expanding into different sizes of bottles, various types of packaging and releasing five teas: black, red, yellow, green and white.

When the UK government and media began to target sugar, ultimately leading to the introduction of a sugar tax beginning in April 2018, The Berry Company found itself at risk of taking a hit.

“Now in the UK in particular there is a huge backlash on sugar," says Mr El-Yafi.

The more discerning consumers are much more savvy now about ingredients so we had to diversify very, very aggressively in the last 12 months with innovative products that were moved away from our juice drink range.”

The Berry Company has since brought out a lighter, lower calorie range, sweetened with stevia leaf, as well as a sugar tax exempt ‘100’ juice made completely from fruit juice, which went on sale in the UK earlier this month. The company has also launched a children’s range, and is currently working on a sparkling range to be launched in the UK next month.

“The 100 per cent juice range is something that for a few years now I felt was pivotal to the brand. We needed to have a strong authority product that is the ultimate no nonsense product,” says Yafi.

How does El-Yafi ensure The Berry Company isn’t over-expanding?

“We don’t.”, is his bold response.

“I liaise with my distributors. They have a finger on the pulse and they let us know in their market what they think The Berry Company should do in product development, by way of [new product development] and brand extension.

“[This means] we’ve launched products that are consistent with where the trends are and you only need a product to work in one market for it to justify its existence.”.

El-Yafi prefers a try it and see approach, saying “what works, sticks. What doesn’t gets phased out and we try again”.

Two blows for The Berry Company were failed attempts to distribute in the US in 2016 and in Australia in 2013 with country-compliant packaging.

“We partnered up with well meaning distributors but perhaps who... [were] not experienced enough and we wanted to believe in them and it didn’t work out. It was costly and we had packaging in the end that we had to throw away,” says Yafi. Tens of thousands worth of packaging was wasted.

But the entrepreneur is in too much of a rush to navel gaze.

“Time is too precious. [If a product fails] it’s a question of lets sell through our inventory and we’ll provision for it. The key is not to overproduce, not to over commit and not to overspend. I’m not overly sentimental about a product one way or another”.

Not burned easily, The Berry Company has recently begun distribution in Mexico with hopes to expand across Central America. This time around, the company has learnt his lessons from its mistakes and adapted.

The juice products are being made locally in Mexico with fees being paid to the company as opposed to importing the finished products, while the company's business partner in the country has taken the liability for the packaging and ingredients.

“I hope it goes well and it’ll be an interesting test," says El-Yafi.

"If some such project happened in the States it would be fantastic but it’s not something we’re seeking. it would have to be an opportunity that someone presented to me”.

Only time will tell if The Berry Company’s latest endeavors will continue to bear fruit for the company and its founder.