Grants for equipment to enable innovation in small businesses in York, North Yorkshire and East Riding

Go back to Business basics to drive innovation

“You have got to embrace innovation,” says award-winning serial entrepreneur Jan Fletcher, OBE. “Innovation is the lifeblood of any successful business.”

Bridlington-based Bee Health is a prime example of the impact innovative thinking can have. Jan first got involved with the business 22 years ago when judging a BBC business competition.

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At the time, Bee Health was a small visitor centre near Scarborough that sold some simple bee products. Today, it is one of the UK’s biggest vitamins, minerals and supplements manufacturers, producing a range of products for some of the world’s biggest health brands. It employs 350 people at a purpose-built 85,000 sq ft manufacturing facility.

Jan, who was named the 1994 Veuve Clicquot Businesswoman of the Year, says: “Right from day one we needed to be innovative to even contemplate the transition. We had to rethink how we would develop and grow, create new products and manufacturing methods, seize new opportunities and find new markets.

“We targeted opportunities that we shouldn’t even have been contemplating. A good example of this was trying to find a distributer in Japan for our Propolis Bee products twenty years ago. It wasn’t easy due to the cultural differences particularly when Japan wasn’t used to dealing with women in business and took two years to build the relationship and get a contract in place. This has been hugely successful and profitable ever since. We live in a fast-changing, global world and you cannot afford to rest on your laurels. If you do, you will lose.”

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Despite transforming the thinking of Bee Health and driving through incredible growth, Jan says successful innovation is about going back to the basics of business.
She says: “Innovation is about good business planning – set out your aims, objectives and create a plan. When you get your mind set on what will work, tackle it in bite-sized pieces.”
Innovation usually needs investment and balancing risk and reward can be challenging. However, Jan says that by going back to basics and developing a business plan and budget, the business is always prepared.

She says: “For example, over the last couple of years we have installed a soft gel plant for liquid supplements and vitamins. We decided to invest because it was an obvious growth area – the tablets are easier to take and are popular.

“We knew this was something we needed to do so we sat down and created a separate business plan. We worked out all the costings, machinery, labour, new materials, etc. We tried to cover every angle.

“We then cracked on with it, but it wasn’t without challenges. We found that each batch of gelatine had a different melting point and getting it to the correct viscosity was more akin to an art than a science. Like all innovative ideas, it was a huge learning curve and we didn’t hit the business plan in the time frame. However, we’d also considered the worst case scenario and knew we could still fund it without damaging the existing business.

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“We’d seen an opportunity but had planned properly and knew the impact on funding and the wider business if it failed. It was a risk but we were the first in the UK to do it and we now produce millions of soft gel capsules a week.”

Jan adds that customers are critical in shaping innovation and adds you must be able to respond quickly. She explains: “The secret to our success was reacting quickly to market demands. We cut our lead times to make sure we can now manufacture on demand. Shopping habits have transformed and that means retailers have to move very quickly – we made sure we could deliver.

“We are also constantly monitoring trends for the next big thing. For example, we spotted that coconut was going to become huge and we quickly developed a range of products using the ingredient. We then helped our customers to prepare for consumer demand.”

Jan’s top tips for innovation

  • Innovation should always start with an inspirational idea followed by a business plan – what are you aiming for, can you afford it, what are the upsides and downsides?
  • Culture is key – get everyone in the business on board. Share the ethos and get everyone to understand the aims of the business.
  • Watch for the trends – constantly look at the outside world and make sure you are looking globally. What do your customers want? What are your competitors doing? What are the emerging trends?
  • Try to predict for the future – Forecast what will happen and then plan for it and react quickly if necessary.