Women in Business Q&A: Emma Heal, Retail Director, graze.com

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Emma Heal

Emma Heal joined graze.com as Retail Director in November 2014. Bringing 15 years of commercial leadership experience and entrepreneurial spirit to the graze team, her remit was to launch graze snacks into retail and build a strong team and killer proposition from scratch. By July 2015, Emma had overseen the hugely successful retail launch of the on-the-go range of 12 SKUs into more than 4,000 stores nationwide, including WHSmith, Sainsbury's and Boots.

After a first class degree from the University of Bath and six months studying International Business at Copenhagen Business School, Emma cut her teeth as a buyer at Tesco before moving to the other side of the negotiation table as account manager for innocent drinks' largest grocery account in 2006.

Following the successful launch of a £500k campaign for Age Concern in 2007, she was awarded Princes Trust Award for Business in the Community. Emma then went on to launch innocent into several countries in Scandinavia, sparking her passion for driving the strategic growth of innovative start-ups. Before joining graze, Emma was Head of Commercial Innovation for Africa at Diageo.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
To me, all opportunities are gifts to be appreciated and go after so I've said 'yes' to all sorts of things that scared me. I believe travelling, living and working in so many different countries has played a big part in how I've ended up in senior leadership roles at a relatively young age.

Adventurous by nature, I'm at my happiest with change. I love defining a goal and motivating myself and others to achieve it. My mantra is there's always a way through and I am a big champion of getting outside your comfort zone, as it's an amazing way to make some serious shifts in your development, both personally and professionally.

I was drawn to graze because of their drive, passion and guts. They took a risk by disrupting all the traditional rules of the food market and establishing a highly successful, pioneering direct to consumer online business. This brave move was driven by the desire to crack hard challenges using technology and I loved the fresh approach. I was asked to set up a new channel in an environment where there was low knowledge but an insatiable desire to learn and do. It was an exciting opportunity to deliver and ticked all my boxes.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at graze?
For me, it feels like all roads have led to Rome - with Rome being my role to launch graze from clicks into bricks.

I cut my teeth as a buyer for Tesco, the world's second largest grocery chain. From working on the shop floor to building ranges, I got first-hand experience of what works (and doesn't) from a merchandising perspective as well as a greater empathy and understanding of the sort of pressures my graze retail customers face on a daily basis.

Swapping selling for buying in 2006, I joined innocent drinks as an account manager for their biggest customer. With only 50 employees back then, I felt immediately at home and thrived in the fast paced, entrepreneurial environment.

When I was offered the chance to live in Copenhagen, run the innocent Danish business and set up their Swedish office, I jumped at it. The start-up environment meant I got to wear all the hats. Setting the strategy, building a dynamic team, ensuring ROI on every single £1 invested and lugging litres of smoothies up 4 flights of stairs every week. innocent was an incredible place to work and I am very proud to have been part of it.

I now run the retail channel at graze as a completely separate P&L, just like a start-up. It means I've had to make money in order to spend it. It all feels like circles of learning and I'm loving being able to use all the knowledge I've gained in practice day-to-day.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at graze?
The week of launch was a standout moment for me. The immediate warmth and support from graze subscription customers when they saw us in-store was as awesome as seeing the reaction of the graze team watching consumers pick products up off the store shelf and buy them - considering they've been an online business for 7 years.

Commercially, discovering our retail range had sold out across London within 2 days was a really rewarding moment. Until the product hits the shelves, you never really knew what's going to happen. Within 2 months of launch, we were listed with 100% distribution in Sainsbury's due to initial demand. We've driven a +40% increase in category sales in the UK's leading newsagent WHSmith and are living our goal of "making good exciting" by outselling the collective of three leading confectionery brands.

Challenge wise, building a team from scratch has been interesting. Being patient in such a fast paced environment with an ever increasing workload can be tough, but it's worth waiting for the right person. Dan Jacobs, Head of Talent at Apple, once said "I'd rather have a hole than an asshole". While I'd possibly use more appropriate language I think he was spot on. Finding people who are exceptional is a tall order. Especially when we need people yesterday. But they are always worth the hunt and the wait.

Commercially, a key challenge and therefore opportunity, is to keep on innovating. We can bring a product to market on-line in 48 hours so we are brilliantly placed to be at the forefront of consumer trends.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
Think bigger picture and put your "category" hat on first. Your product or service needs a real and clear point of difference in the market to justify its existence. If it's super complicated to explain then it probably isn't the right thing or needs stripping down.

Making mistakes and having a fail-fast mentality is all part of the evolution of a brand. Responsiveness to feedback and the ability to recover quickly is essential. Don't waste time beating yourself up about mistakes. Pick yourself up and use the learning to be even better next time.

Get friendly with the figures. Intimate, even. To run a sustainable business, you need to be able to follow numbers confidently. Take time out to get comfortable with a budget, P&L, balance sheet and cash flow statement. Face your finance fears head on.

Say "yes" more and set the example. Even when you're nervous, get out your comfort zone and gather as much experience as you can. My learning curve felt incredibly steep at times but it's been worth it. Give yourself and other women a chance to grow and shine with increased responsibility. I've recently brought two fantastic women into senior roles at graze who I know will help inspire other women to see that they too can achieve such positions with the right 'can do' attitude.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
To listen first. You can only bring people on the journey if they're invested in you personally, and this only happens when they feel they've been heard and understood. Progress and great decisions need an informed understanding of a situation and all variables. Even if you think instinctively or already know the answer, I suggest you keep quiet, actively listen, ask questions and then take action.

This includes listening to your customers. At graze, we receive 15,000 customer ratings an hour in our subscription business, if it's not hitting the spot, we can pull it quickly. When graze launched in America, we used our consumer feedback to localise 90% of our range to suit the different consumer tastes. When building the 'offline' retail launch range, we used the online ratings to curate a broad offering of 12 snacks. Alongside all our data, our launch retailers were extremely generous with feedback about our packaging and branding, so we hit the ground running with a winning proposition for consumers that started selling immediately.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
My personal life is as important as my work and I totally buy into the new buzz phrase of maintaining 'work/life-integration'. I cycle to and from work through a gorgeous national park, which gives me time to plan and process around the working day and it's on my leafy commute often where I have my best ideas.

It's important to have fun especially when the pressure level is up. We have a fabulous office overlooking the River Thames in beautiful Richmond which is great for our Friday after work drinks in the summer. Amusingly, we often have passers-by popping in assuming we're a bar...

My to-do list outside work is as long as it is inside. Weekend time is pretty chock-a-block and I update my calendar religiously to ensure I keep in touch with family and friends and take full advantage of living in such a cosmopolitan city. My wanderlust and passion for travel has taken me to over 75 countries so far. Discovering new food is always a big part of my trips and this year I'm hoping to try moss in Iceland.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
The gender imbalance in the boardroom is well documented and while I might sound like a broken record saying it, it needs to keep being said until the situation changes. From my experience, women need to grab leadership opportunities throughout their careers in order to be able to make the step-up to these top positions. We need to give women the encouragement and space to do that and ensure companies make it a top priority to have strong female leadership well represented at every level.

I think for women, there's a lot of time and energy wasted with "imposter syndrome"; worrying they're under qualified, don't know what they're doing, will get found out and fired and so on. To help discredit such self-doubts, I've found it helpful to stop that negative chatter by giving it a child-like whiny voice which makes it sound utterly ridiculous. It's important to remember you have your job for a reason. If you're feeling under-informed, rather than just allowing perpetuating insecurities to take hold, take some positive action. Speak with a colleague, mentor or friend, go do some research, ask Google. Knowledge is power, and in this case, reassurance. So grab it with both hands.

I think if more women could transfer their amazing energy into overcoming challenges and coming up with creative ideas to grow themselves and their businesses, then there would be a systemic shift in the makeup of the boardrooms across the world.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Mentorship has been huge for me. In small entrepreneurial companies, it's perfectly normal not to receive all the coaching you need from your boss. The best mentors I've had, I've approached myself. From people I've met, worked with and for, to people who I admire and respect, all my mentors have challenged me and given me a fresh perspective. I'm immensely grateful to them all.

I truly believe in 'paying it forward' so aim to be generous with the knowledge I have gained to help others. I advise entrepreneurs through industry networks, mentor young women at graze and in other businesses and initiate connections between women I know. For me, it's important to help other women up the ladder, no matter what rung they are on.

The World Economic Forum's recent report on the 'rise of the robots' argues that artificial intelligence will change the workplace beyond recognition, most notably in gender equality. Over the next five years, men will see three jobs lost for every one gained, while women face five jobs lost for every one gained. Since women are underrepresented in major new growth areas like IT, software development and analytics, they are more vulnerable. I now volunteer for a brilliant charity that helps inspire school girls to consider a broad range of careers.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Martha Lane Fox is exceptional. An entrepreneur at heart, Martha has many projects on the go including chairing the board of doteveryone and being a crossbencher in the House of Lords. She is the youngest female ever to do so and is publicly calling on the tech industry to train up more women to help solve the digital skills crisis, where women currently hold just 17% of jobs.

I love a TED talk and am always sending links to people after watching them. But honestly, I have the greatest and most profound inspiration from the strong female leaders around me. When I see women I know achieving fantastic things, it always reminds me 'Hell yes, I can and am doing it too'. Of the awesome women I know, one is a great friend from university days who is now a global SVP at Unilever and a working mother of two. Her ability to multi-task is like no one I've ever met. I also have many entrepreneurial friends from my time at innocent drinks who are running their own businesses and blazing trails. I admire the success of these phenomenal women so much. They spur me on every single day.

What do you want Graze to accomplish in the next year?
Having a retail channel is giving graze access to new snacking occasions and engaging new consumers who want to buy healthier snacks on-the-go. Ultimately, it will become an increasingly big part of the business and I love that. Off the back of the success of our launch into the USA, I am excited to diversify the brand into other markets through various channels. It's all part of our vision to be the No. 1 healthier snack brand in world and as a woman who loves a challenge, I'm energised, excited and more than ready to make this a reality.