At 27, Craig Benton has a machine that makes him pound notes – but it was quite a challenge to put all the cogs together. Mike Hughes meets the director of the London Deli Company.
My meeting with Craig Benton takes place in a small, but very smart boardroom at Murton, near York, with London Deli goodies on the table in front of us. But what surrounds us is proof of the speed at which this young entrepreneur is moving.
The main floor of his new warehouse below is largely empty, apart from a few pallets of crisps, biscuits and preserves and Benton himself is still building the reception area, so there are planks of wood and power tools dotted around and the broadband team have been out today, but need to return on another day. But the kettle is up and running.
His smartly-branded deli products are already best-sellers in the Middle East, where shops are snapping up the London skyline and Union Jack packaging and it has recently become a best-seller at its only retail outlet so far - Harrods.
The warehouse is part of his Luminar Distribution company and will help propel the products – and his reputation - even further afield. “I’ve always had an entrepreneurial approach from my days being brought up in Buttercrambe and at Huntington school in York,” he tells me.
“My drama teacher got me working on the lighting systems in the school theatre and I started learning about design. I used to have an office space behind the stage at school where the teachers would come and sit with me during breaks.
“Then the school developed connections with the Theatre Royal and I started doing some work with them – all while I was at school.”
But then, just as his interests were forming and enthusiasm growing, the world changed dramatically for this inquisitive teenager. On Monday 5 January – he still can’t remember the year – his body “went bang” and he was struck down with ME Glandular Fever, which left him ill in bed - and with little spirit for life for more than two years.
What followed would have tested the fortitude of the most resilient entrepreneur. “They said it was probably because I was doing too much, which really made me think about how money-driven I was, and how I wanted to make sure I put down a really solid foundation for my children.
“So I needed to move forward and do something bloody good, but by that time I was pretty much a recluse with the illness and it took a long time. But the NHS put me in touch with a therapist called Patrick O’Connor – who I will never forget.”
O’Connor worked with Benton and encouraged him to start living a full life again and make the most of his skills. Benton started on this track by helping set up a radio station called Pock FM (after nearby Pocklington) with help from his contacts at the Theatre Royal.
From that success Luminar Events was born, helping the likes of private schools set up
major events. It is a challenge - but one worth sticking with - to try to keep up with this chain of events. Any one of them could have been the core of this story, but it is the timeline that has created Craig Benton.
The little bit of that, the chance to do this, the meeting here, the help from this person... on reflection, they all needed each other to be waiting in line and if he hadn’t been persistent and endlessly confident, they would have remained separate and of much less use.
Next came work with a nursing home group – and the invaluable experience of setting up a central supply point near York to service it. “I was there for five years and there wasn’t a single job there that I didn’t do at one stage,” he says. “As the group grew we realised that we were buying from all over, so why not create one point and have better purchasing power.”
That principle was expanded in the food part of the nursing home group, as he invited in other companies and offered them good food deals, making deliveries from the provider more cost-effective and giving him a greater say in delivery schedules.
When the company was sold and he was made redundant he tried to pull together a CV, but trying to persuade companies to take him on made one thing very clear. He didn’t want to work for other people, he wanted to be other people’s boss.
“I used to go out to see friends in the Middle East for about three months a year, and recognised the potential for exporting there, so I set up Luminar Distribution in 2011 and was going to lots of the companies I had worked with before, doing some really good deals and setting up an exports plan.
“But soon the lightbulb went on again and I thought ‘this is crazy’. Why am I running around the globe for other people when I could create my own brand, specifically for the market, that exports well, has a good shelf life and travels well.
“Arabs are absolutely besotted by London and what it stands for, so I set up what was then the London Jam Company.” He scraped together around £8,000 to cover packaging and design work and the London Deli Company took shape. The name changed because he realised the potential for growing the brand.
Now the network of companies he has worked with over the last few years are coming to him as an established expert and he is considering deals to provide white-label goods as well as his own lines. London Deli Company handles all its own distribution in-house, allowing Luminar to wait in the wings before starting to look at Middle East contracts for other coveted British brands like Kit Kat.
With the Middle East market queuing up for quality, highly-branded preserves, confectionery, biscuits and crisps, and Harrods giving him more space on the shelves, surely he has cracked it? After all, he now runs five companies – there is a Craig Benton consultancy company he looks after, the London Deli Company, Luminar Distribution, Lork Developments (which looks after building developments between London and York) and an upcoming children’s brand for which he has very high hopes.
Add to that a new focus on shrinking the products so they can be used on airlines; increasing sales by mail order; and the birth of the London Deli Bear to boost merchandising. “The problem is – I love working,” admits Benton. “I come into my office and I do sales, I do design, I go off to business meetings – which is a jolly for me because I get to meet new people - and it has all created this brand.
“When I first started setting up, it was very personal to me. It was my baby and I created it and was very protective of it, but it was only quite recently that I have learned you can’t make business too personal.
“At the end of the day this is a machine with lots of cogs that makes me pound notes. I was always recluctant to give any of my company away, but we need money to make money,
so I have even let someone have a small chunk of it, bringing our entire investment to around £100,000.
“For me it is also about spreading the risk and putting lots of eggs in lots of baskets.” He says he knows his limits, particularly after the illness, but shows no signs of reaching it yet.
He is so busy that it is impossible to predict where he will be in a few years’ time. He is taking helicopter lessons and is keeping his eyes open for the right property in the area to cut down on the commuting, but who knows where such confidence and such connections could lead?
For Benton, the fact that he doesn’t know the answer himself is part of the fun.