I’m on my way to visit Kent Crisps and get lost on the business park within the last few yards, so call the office for directions. New company owner Laura Bounds answers the phone and talks me in, proving she’s not someone to hide behind a host of frontline staff.
A few moments later, I enter the building and Laura is at the door to welcome me – a tall, slim figure dressed in floral top, black trousers and boots, hand outstretched below a broad smile. I learn that Kent Crisps consists of just six people, so everyone has to be a team player.
We talk in the boardroom on the first floor and I quickly sense Laura’s passion for her chosen subject, the Kent food industry. Her quickfire speech and excited arm movements confirm this. Here is a woman in her element.
So how did this Canterbury grammar pupil become boss of a rapidly growing company at the age of just 31 – and how does she feel to be possibly the youngest female in charge of a UK-based snack business?
“It’s been crazy,” she says, her hands emphasising the point. “It took nine tough months of negotiation to buy the company and now I can’t wait to put my plans into operation.”
Her route to the business came via a traditional education – a village school near Canterbury, where her mum was a teacher, followed by five years at a mixed grammar, which she left after GCSEs to take up an HND course in public service at Canterbury College. She had aspirations to join the police force, because she was fascinated by criminology, but instead went to Worcester University to study public service management, following this with an MA in sociology.
After her studies, Laura returned to the family home near Sandwich to work on her dissertation and took a job as an admin assistant for a construction company. It was here she first got a feel for marketing and decided she wanted to get a “proper” job in the sector. She found one with a food company and spent a summer working in Cyprus.
“I just loved it. I had a fire in my belly to do something and I wanted someone to take notice,” she says. “I have a passion for food and produce in my veins.”
On her return to the UK, Laura found a job as retail manager for a food wholesaler and began to develop contacts within the industry via Produced in Kent, a trade organisation promoting and supporting companies in the county. Through this, she became an ambassador for Kentish brands. She joined Kent Crisps as a sales executive in 2013 and after a management take-over by AMC Foods in 2014 became its commercial director. Under the new regime, the company saw a 52 per cent growth in turnover and won several awards in 2016 – including Taste of Kent’s Food Producer of the Year and Ambient Product of the Year for its lemon rapeseed oil. It also underwent a rebrand and launched several new flavours including Biddenden Cider – marking a partnership with the drinks producer.
Last year was good for Laura, too. She was a finalist in the Kent Food and Farming Entrepreneur of the Year competition and was asked to be a keynote speaker at a Department of International Trade event for companies new to the export market.
With the deal over Kent Crisps finally settled and taking effect from spring 2017, Laura is raring to go with her ideas on how to expand the company she now owns. She has secured a deal with several airlines to serve Kent Crisps on board their flights, is working on partnerships with other outlets and is intent on entering at least four new export markets within the next 18 months “to create a global brand and promote Kent as a destination for visitors”. She is already well advanced on negotiations with the United Arab Emirates and Russia.
The company is also launching a range of mayonnaise, after the successful introduction of its range of salad dressings using Kentish ingredients, to further fly the flag for the UK and the county in particular. I ask how the spectre of Brexit has affected her business and she says: “It has certainly impacted on our costs, including seasoning and packaging, but we have our sights set on countries outside Europe, so hope to ride the wave.”
How does Laura view herself as a manager? “Definitely hands-on. I’ve done all jobs within the company, from sales to wrapping and I think staff respect that. We’re a very small team and we’re like a family.”
Laura does admit she has found delegation of tasks difficult, but is trying to let go and trust her colleagues. Her strong work ethic is obvious, but she assures me she feels less stressed now that she owns the company because “I’m in control of my destiny”.
Snacks are very much a male-dominated industry, says Laura and the competition can be aggressive, but the will to be the best and to promote the county’s food and drink drives her on to higher levels.
Where does she see herself in five years? “I want to increase investment in the rapeseed oil business, maintain a market share and continue to build the reputation of our products and those of other companies involved in Produced in Kent,” she says.
When she’s not devoting herself fully to the day job, Laura enjoys leisure time with husband Jamie and socialising with friends. She tells me she keeps her work and home life-balance in control and finds it easy to switch off.
She’s very close to her parents and says they are standing by for grandparent duties when the time comes. This is one extremely organised young woman!