Versa is a biannual publication and will be published every autumn and spring term. Versa will replace the former magazine, OA Bulletin and will offer a comprehensive insight into the many facets of alumni life.
10 10 Featured OA ADAM SOPHER, (OA 2003), FOUNDER AND DIRECTOR OF HIS FAMILY BUSINESS, JOE & SEPH’S GOURMET POPCORN JOE & SEPH’S Gourmet Popcorn From unauthorised tuck shops to a team of 50 and a product in Selfridges – Adam Sopher (OA 2003) talks to us about School life at St Albans and his globally successful family creation, Joe & Seph’s Popcorn. While you were at the School, did you have any idea what sort of work you wanted to go into? No, at the time I knew I wanted to go into business in some shape or form, but I didn’t really know how to get there. So I did the ‘usual’ and went to university and studied something broad to keep my options open. I went to Nottingham to study Economics, as I was quite motivated by doing something analytical and in the City, but I was ultimately interested in business. Were there any teachers who were particularly influential or memorable? I particularly remember Mr Walker, Mr Tolman, who left to join Harrow School at the time, and my French teacher Mrs Percival. They were great teachers. Mr Tolman was my Form Tutor and Economics teacher – he got me really passionate about economics. Mrs Percival taught me French which has become very useful in my business. Was there anything during your School experience that you feel was particularly valuable? I guess it’s all the different elements that School teaches and provides you with, like the academic side as well as extra-curricular activities like sports – which wasn’t really my thing! I met some really good people who I have stayed friends with too. There are two or three people from School in particular who I’m still close to, so that has a long-lasting impact. I even ended up sharing a house with a lot of the people who went to Nottingham from School, so there was that continuity. On the side, I set up a website whilst at School. At the time the web was relatively new, so I taught myself basic HTML and launched a website. I put my GCSE revision notes on the website and called it GCSE Guide. I sold that about three years ago. I also ran a tuck shop from my locker which the Headmaster actually closed down! What did you do after leaving Nottingham University? I graduated with a First and got a job in the City at Deloitte management consulting – they allowed me to defer my start date for a year so that I could go travelling with a guaranteed job offer at the end. I travelled all around the world including Australia, New Zealand and Asia. It was a great experience and I learnt about all different customs, cuisines and cultures. It definitely broadened my horizons. I spent two years working for Deloitte’s telecom and media clients, such as BT, Daily Mail and various others, doing consulting projects all over Europe. From there, I made the move to Dixons where I learnt an awful lot, as they were going through quite a challenging time. I then started getting itchy feet again and wanted to do something in a smaller business where I would have more of an impact. “Take advantage of all of the opportunities that school and university have to offer. They will always help at some point in life”
11 How did you end up in your current job? My dad was retired and had been making popcorn (which he’d been making since we were kids). My mum was a stay-at-home-mum and was eager to do something in a work environment. The three of us decided to have a go and launched a premium popcorn company. The recipes are so different to the norm with unique flavours and premium packaging. We air-pop the corn and don’t fry it. We also sieve out all the small pieces so you won’t get any corn kernels leftover. All of it came together well and we really loved the taste. I took some tasters into Dixons and everyone really liked them, and so did our friends and family. In October 2010, we attended a BBC food show in West London, which is a big consumer show with lots of stands where people can taste and buy products. In the course of two days we sold out and said “Ah, this has gone well, we might have a business here”. After the food show, Selfridges got in touch and said they were interested in working with us. It was here we decided to develop the business. What do you do on a day-to-day basis? Too much is possibly the answer! Today I’m visiting a new building that we’re hoping to move our offices to because we’re out-growing our existing offices in London. I’m working on a new product. I am catching up with my team, including the operations, marketing and sales teams. In September, I was in Dubai selling popcorn to the Middle East, and there’s a lot of customer management too. We work with many large customers such as Cineworld and Waitrose, so I respond to them daily. There’s a real variety. I work with my parents, and my brother has joined the business now. We are spread across the building though, so we’re not stepping on each other’s toes all the time. My dad looks after popcorn production, my mum looks after our warehouse and I look after the sales strategy and marketing side of the business. What have been your biggest challenges to date? One of the biggest challenges with any business is cash flow. We need to make sure that we have enough cash to fund growth, especially with a business growing as fast as ours. It’s especially important because some retailers don’t pay for 60 days after we’ve delivered the product. We manufacture in our own production kitchens and don’t outsource. We have a large team of over 50 people and we’re growing rapidly, which is a challenge. Six years ago, when we first launched popcorn flavours such as the Gin and Tonic popcorn, people asked us what we had done with the usual salted and sweet popcorn, because that was all the UK knew. There were a number of challenges getting customers to actually try it! And your biggest success? The first was seeing our products in Selfridges. It’s great seeing your product on a shelf but the biggest success is seeing it sell. I also get a lot of pleasure seeing a number of our team start as graduates and develop and grow into bigger roles in the business, as well as going on to do really interesting, cool jobs elsewhere. Is there anything surprising about your work? When you get to where we are now, and you walk into a bar in London, I start to notice our popcorn on the shelves which is cool but also quite a scary feeling. We don’t necessarily supply them directly because we’re working through a distributor, so we don’t know where our products are always going to be. It’s also cool seeing celebrities and people tweeting and Instagramming about our popcorn. It keeps our momentum going. Do you have any advice to pass onto current students at St Albans School? Take advantage of all of the opportunities that school and university have to offer. They will always help at some point in life. People you meet may end up being your customers in later life. Languages that you learn may also be useful, especially when communicating with customers and distributors overseas. Make use of your connections. It’s not easy starting a business. From the outside when you watch Dragons’ Den for example, it can look very easy, but it’s tough work. You’ve got to have a great, strong product and work really hard for it. If all of your ideas come together and you’re lucky, you can do really well and it’s the best career! For more information about Joe & Seph’s Gourmet Popcorn, visit www.joeandsephs.co.uk