“It was a very hard decision, but at the same time a very easy decision,” says Hugh Pile, of his decision not to return to L’Oréal after his sabbatical and instead take on a permanent role at his family business, Blue Skies Holding.
It might also seem like a strange decision. Pile was, most recently, the CMO for Western Europe at L’Oréal, responsible for multimillion pound budgets, a huge marketing team and the strategy for brands recognised around the world. He has given that up to become sales and marketing director at a brand most people will never have heard of.
Yet that is the challenge that in the end convinced Pile to stay; the opportunity to build a consumer brand from scratch. To, as he puts it, “get his hands dirty” again. And of course the draw of working for a family business that has changed the way fresh cut fruit is produced and made a real difference in the markets where it operates.
For those that don’t know (and most people won’t), Blue Skies Holdings supplies fresh cut fruit, including mangoes, watermelon, papaya and pineapple to some of the world’s biggest retailers, such as Waitrose and Sainsbury’s in the UK. But unlike most suppliers, it runs its operations from the markets where the fruit grows – so Ghana, Brazil, Egypt. Pile describes it as the opposite of neocolonialism, where the resource is taken out of the market of origin as quickly as possible.
Instead, Blue Skies Holdings has built production facilities in these markets. In Ghana, for example, it employs 3,500 people and runs a “give-back model”. Staff are paid three times the average wage, canteens offer free food, free buses ferry staff to and from work and it provides occupational healthcare for workers and their families. Communities and infrastructure have built up around these sites and, through its foundation work, Blue Skies Holdings is helping these communities by building classrooms and libraries, drilling boreholes for water.
L’Oréal was wonderful but I really have enjoyed coming back and starting again and building something from scratch – a brand that no one has ever seen or touched or felt before.
Hugh Pile, Blue Skies
“By placing the factories in the market, we offer two benefits: one is fresh from harvest and the second is adding value at source,” explains Pile. “In as little as 24 hours we can take fruit from the ground, to be cut and packaged in our factories and delivered by plane to depots in the UK. The core thing [my father] believed is that fresh from harvest is the absolute pinnacle of the consumer experience. And that sustainable business makes profit and puts that back into the community.”
Most people will have eaten Blue Skies products, but won’t be aware they have. That is something the company is looking to change, and why Pile has made the move now.
He admits that the pull of the family business has been like the Sword of Damocles hanging over his head for his entire career. He has always felt that he should work there, but equally wanted to have his own career because there is “nothing worse than the boss’s son coming in and not bringing any fresh ideas to the business”.
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