We meet a Cambridge MBA alumnus juggling it all in the retail sector.
Rupert Pick (MBA 2008) co-founded Hot Pickle with his fellow classmate Patrick Hammond (MBA 2008) in 2009; a plan hatched over a coffee in the heart of the Business School. Rupert, having been the Marmite brand manager, persuaded Unilever to entrust him with the licensing rights and vision of creating the world’s first Marmite store. Five months after graduating, London’s Regent Street welcomed Marmite, with tea drinking mannequins and walls adorned with declarations of Love and Hate.
Today Hot Pickle is a successful Experiential and Retail Innovation agency based in London, UK and Charlotte, North Carolina, USA. We asked Rupert about about his experience of running a hands-on business during a global pandemic and what he sees in the future of retail.
How big a challenge was the pandemic to your business?
Thinking back to my MBA days, Hot Pickle during the pandemic would make for an interesting case study! Coming into 2020, we had just seen our strongest ever year of business. In thinking about the business plan for the next year, contingencies for a global pandemic were not on the list nor had we anticipated that within 2 months we would lose 80% of our revenue.
Our business is all about physical experiences. By its very nature, an experiential marketing agency cannot work if people are stuck behind screens. At the time we had a staff of about twenty, with very few having the technical skills to switch to creating virtual experiences.
We were fortunate in that we had a couple of large long term infrastructure projects already underway, starting with the Guinness micro-brewery and culture hub in London’s Covent Garden. We were working to a significant time horizon and the plans of a large company like Diageo, aren’t likely to be capsized by a pandemic.
But that apart, we went very quickly from a position of instinctively knowing where the business was headed into pure survival mode. Fortunately, we had always run a tight ship so there was some cash in the bank, but I had no idea how long we could survive. We dug deep into the numbers and worked out how much money we were prepared to lose before we were forced to shut up shop.
It was a very challenging time, but exciting as well. We had never before delved into how every single penny was spent. It was like going back to the start of the business, scrapping for crumbs off the table.
Our aim from the start was to keep as many people employed in the business as we could and also become involved in the charitable work around the pandemic. We went back to basics, looking at what we were good at, including project management and logistics. We had lots of brand contacts and we leveraged them to create a business unit within the business, UnPickle.
Through contacts at Unilever, we were able to repurpose the supply chains so that essential items could be distributed to 38 different organisations, ranging from hospitals (including the Nightingales) to a range of charities. Unpickle was my proudest achievement: it allowed us to keep more of the team in work and we were making a positive contribution in a particularly tough time.
You set up the mission-led business Work for Good in 2016 – how is that going?
The idea for the mission-led business, or profit with purpose business, came when I was inspired to donate the fees raised from a client workshop to the amazing staff at the Evelina London Children’s Hospital, who care for our daughter Ottie. I realised the impact businesses could make if it was easier to fundraise through their sales.
Work for Good is an online platform which connects businesses to their chosen charities and helps resolve any legal and tax impediments to the giving process. During the pandemic charity was on everyone’s minds and the idea flourished – we put through £1.1 million in donations last year and are looking to raise £1.5 million this year.
Work for Good is a mission driven business, we take a small percentage of the donations to cover costs, but we are a long way from being self-sustainable and rely on philanthropically minded ‘investors’ to fund the organisation. My aim is to reach £10 million in annual donations, at which point we would be self-sustainable.
Are you optimistic about the future of retail?
Shopping is an entertainment activity and the isolation of the COVID-19 era has left people even keener to be able to visit retail outlets. Disruptive events are also times when the most interesting things can happen, and visionary retailers were poised to take advantage. People learnt during COVID-19 times that online shopping was great for some products, but they missed shopping in the physical environment, the touch and feel, the browsing experience.
The weaker retail businesses may have shut down, but that has created space in the high street for the emergence of really great retail experiences. We are seeing the re-emergence of provincial towns as destinations in their own right and a smaller footprint of stores, but with a much more engaging offer.
The demand for experiential marketing services is booming and last October at Hot Pickle we celebrated our best year in the last 6 years, so we survived and more!
What lessons did you learn from the pandemic?
My MBA had already taught me the power of networking, but the pandemic reinforced the importance of reaching out in hard times. It was especially difficult personally as my wife, who is a doctor, was diagnosed with breast cancer. She received great treatment despite all the restrictions, but she became very ill during the chemotherapy. We have three delightful young children, including Ottie, who was born 10 weeks premature, with two rare genetic conditions that affect both her bones and her heart. The COVID-19 restrictions in the UK meant getting support from family and friends was very difficult. At the same time the business was collapsing.
I learned to call on people with a bit of experience, who could give me a grounding and the faith that things would turn out alright. It is important to talk and ask for help.