What does it take to create a successful company: intelligence, money, luck or knowledge? What if we add another layer of complexity – being a foreigner in Africa? British entrepreneur Anthony Pile teaches us 10 lessons through his experience of creating a £50-million business empire across Africa from scratch.
Over 17 years, Anthony Pile has grown a small Ghana-based fresh-cut fruit factory of 36 workers into a multinational group with over £50-million in annual turnover, operating in Ghana, Egypt, South Africa, Brazil and the UK, supplying at least twelve large European supermarket chains. How did he succeed? Ten insightful lessons on entrepreneurship can be drawn from his experience.
Upon launching his own company in order to impact the world in his unique way, Pile may sympathize with the saying, “if you don’t want to change the world, don’t start a company.”
While working as Managing Director for a British fresh-cut fruit company, Pile developed the idea to deliver a better product by processing fruit in the country of origin rather than the country where the finished product was to be sold. Convinced that adding value at the source is a win-win situation both for consumers, who can benefit from better quality products, and for local communities through job creation, skills development and technology transfer, Pile, 50 years old, set off for Ghana and founded Blue Skies.
Pile is a strong advocate of global exchange and a fierce fighter against “buy local” claims. He believes that the world in which we are living is becoming increasingly integrated, and that consumers can help more people on a wider scale by supporting production from the poorest families in Africa. The boundaries between “local” and “foreign” are no longer as clear as they were a century ago, as even local communities are becoming increasingly diversified. With this in mind Anthony optimistically proposes that “the world should be different, and many borders and boundaries should no longer exist.”
13-years of army experience left a strong mark on Pile, and he holds a few basic though powerful principles of leadership.
- Everybody is socially equal;
- A team needs a leader who demonstrates clear thinking, good organization capacity, competency and integrity;
- A leader should eat only after every man and woman in his or her team has food;
- You need to trust and respect everybody in your team, and to work for the best interest of the whole team rather than for individuals;
- When the team is in trouble, don’t argue, as you know others will watch your back and you will do the same.
As an expert in the African agro-food industry, Anthony has atypically never been a fan of current hot topics such as fair trade, bio, sustainability or Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), but his sense of responsibility towards staff, farmers (suppliers), consumers and the environment was deeply rooted when founding Blue Skies.
Early in 1998, long before the growing interest of the general public and media in these issues, he already developed his model for sustainable business, “Joint Effort Enterprise” (JEE). Ever since, a set of principles around three core values – diversity, respect and profit – have largely influenced the formation of the company’s culture, and Blue Skies has been recognized by a number of international award bodies for its responsible relationships with farmers, its respect for the environment and more largely, its social impact.
Many companies may claim to have such values as innovation, teamwork and integrity, but fewer actually turn their values into concrete action; Blue Skies falls into the latter category.
Having travelled to nearly 60 countries, Pile firmly believes in diversity and open-mindedness, and under his influence, diversity and respect are recognized everywhere in his company: those who work there are called “people” rather than “employees,” they greet each other with smile whenever they meet, managers are not given prioritized parking spots, the company counts in total over 20 nationalities…
In contrast to companies which think of incessantly diversifying their offerings, Blue Skies has focused on its original mission: producing high quality fresh-cut fruits. The company has stuck to a small, selected range of sourced fruits: pineapple, papaya, coconut and mango remain their main categories, and even its later geographical expansion was aimed only to strengthen and expand its supply of these core offerings.
In Pile’s view, consumers ask themselves two simple questions before making a purchase decision: 1) Do I like it? And, 2) How much is it? For the main target group of Blue Skies, the middle-class, if the product is of a high enough quality, they will buy it.
6. Drive & 7. Perseverance
This veteran soldier has learned another invaluable lesson from his military experience: if you have a very clear idea of what you want to do, then go ahead and push hard at it.
Facing the face the opposition of his previous employer, who rejected the Brit’s vision of adding value at the source, Pile made the decision to go it alone; lacking sufficient financial resources to build the factory, he borrowed money from friends; in need of in-depth knowledge about the local market, he set out to find local partners. Challenges and difficulties never broke his determination, and in his mind, “being an entrepreneur is not about starting a business, but dealing with problems and keeping going.”
A big issue that investors and entrepreneurs often encounter in a foreign environment is to find trustworthy local business partners, and this British in Ghana has achieved a great success in his own professional life, having founded Blue Skies with prominent Ghanaian investor, Seth Dei.
According to Pile, “You have to be very careful, travel and meet different people. Don’t trust an investor simply because they appear friendly; rather take the time to get to know your potential partner(s) commercially as well as socially.” Dei confirmed this during an interview in recalling the first meeting with his future associate: “He went to the embassy to make enquiries about local investors, the embassy gave him my name, so he came to meet me and explained to me his ideas, and I liked them very much and decided to invest.”
9. Passion & 10. Ambition
At the age of 68, Pile is still very active and considered by his staff as “the driving force of the company.” Although Blue Skies adopts the strategy of giving great autonomy to local management teams, he travels frequently from one factory to another, remaining highly influential to the company’s overall strategy.
As a passionate advocate for Africa, Pile sees opportunity for great development potential and rapid progress, and he has a very clear vision for the future of Blue Skies: to continue to develop the company’s culture, build its branding, and eventually change the relationship between retailers and its suppliers and promote a more responsible way of consumption in the whole society.
This strong ambition is what drives this British entrepreneur, exemplifying one of the main characteristics of successful people – passion for their goals.
What great ambition! That’s perhaps what drives Anthony to keep going, and probably one of the main characteristics of successful people is they are passionate for what they want to achieve.
Jeanne Yizhen Yin
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