He’s sold 40 million-plus scoops of Italian-made gelato in the UK. Steve Dyson samples a few of Joe Delucci’s flavours with owner Richard Pierce.
Imagine the scene: the owner of an ice cream brand asks if I want to try his gelato, and of course I say “yes”.
“Which flavour?” asks Richard Pierce, whose Joe Delucci’s company has sold more than 40 million scoops of the Italian-made treat to the UK, and counting.
“Well, they all sound lovely,” I reply. And before you can say mint chocolate chip, a waiter in The Farm pub, Solihull, gracefully arrives with a huge tray containing 12 large scoops of gelato.
Rum and raisin, toffee, fruits of the forest, chocolate, lemon, banana, mascarpone, mango… I can’t remember all the flavours, and with both hands holding spoons I can’t be expected to take notes for this part of the interview.
But I can remember the face of a female diner as she jealously stares at my feast, not believing the sight before her eyes. And I remember my favourite, coconut, a choice that delights Pierce: “I just love it that you like that flavour. It’s one of our best-sellers.”
Oh, eating gelato is such fun. But it’s not always been a laugh running a business for Pierce. In the 2008 financial crash, when his Joe Delucci’s brand was made up of two American-Italian restaurants, he had to sell his posh detached home and swish new Range Rover to pay his bills.
But we’re rushing ahead, because to tell the story of the rise and fall and rise again of Pierce the entrepreneur, we need to start at the beginning. Born in Birmingham in 1969, Pierce grew up in Stourbridge, Hall Green and then Solihull, before leaving school in the mid-1980s when he recalls the jobs market was “horrendous”.
Nevertheless, he left school on a Thursday and started work on the Saturday, on the old Youth Training Scheme (YTS) for a travel company. “It was a case of doing anything,” recalls Pierce, whose early job-hopping included spells at various Birmingham hotels before becoming a bar tender at TGI Fridays.
He then spent nine months living in New York before setting up a security equipment business with an old school friend, which saw him “out all hours, all over the country”. The partnership didn’t last, but Pierce learned a lot about how passionate and labour-intensive owning your own business was.
At this point he was in his early-20s, and struggling to find a job, so he thought he’d try selling cars after hearing that one or two pals had done well in this sector.
“I started at Renault in Shirley, having never sold a car before,” Pierce remembers. “A chap there had held the sales record for nine years. I beat him in the first month, and every month thereafter.” Selling cars came naturally to Pierce, who approached the job in his own way: “I talked to customers and got to know what they wanted. But I wasn’t prepared to sell anything to anyone unless I thought it was right for them.”
After becoming top salesman at Renault, Pierce was head-hunted, first by a prestige car dealership, then by a Nissan dealership. But he was already starting to think: “I’m not going to sell cars for the rest of my life.”
Pierce’s developing personal mantra was “You’ve got to keep on challenging yourself”, something he first applied at TGIs when he determinedly memorised 300 cocktail recipes.
“I was good at selling cars, but I was asking myself: ‘How do I get to see more? What’s out there?’ I decided I needed to be in a community of successful people to see what the formula for success was.”
Pierce applied for a top sales job at Porsche in Little Aston, near Sutton Coldfield, pitching himself against far more experienced salesmen from the likes of Aston Martin and Ferrari dealerships. He says: “Two bosses at the interview said: ‘Why should we pick you?’ I told them I could sell more cars by being genuine and authentic. I wrote them a cheque for £1,000 each, challenging them to take me on for nothing for three months so I could show them what I was capable of.”
Fortunately, the Porsche bosses didn’t cash Pierce’s cheque, but they did take him on, and within three months he was the top salesman out of 99 across the marque’s UK dealerships.
“The whole point was to be involved day-to-day with the kind of people I could learn from about what made them successful,” Pierce explains. “As I got to know them, I’d just politely ask how things worked.
“There were nouveau rich, some nice, some horrible. Old rich, some arrogant but others lovely people overflowing with grace and humility. An eclectic mix of people with the ability to buy Porsches.
“And if I didn’t think the car was right for them, I’d be honest and tell them. Some would come in saying they were thinking of buying a Ferrari instead, the kind of wavering person that some salesmen wouldn’t waste their time with.
“But I’d say: ‘Try them all out,’ and I’d ask them the right questions. ‘Who’s going to be driving the car? How many miles will you do? What does the car mean to you?’ And on a few occasions when I really thought they’d prefer another brand, I’d even set up a test drive for them too.
“They would tell other people: ‘That guy gives you the best advice ever. He won’t sell you a car you don’t want.’ And I built relationships, educating myself about their success.”
After Porsche, Pierce launched his own car sales firm called Lapworths, a niche personal service for high-worth individuals, where they didn’t even have to leave their home or business to try cars out. It was a booming success for seven-plus years, making Pierce his first serious money, which he ploughed into opening a couple of American-Italian restaurants in the West Midlands, under his new Joe Delucci’s brand.
“This swallowed a huge chunk of cash,” Pierce says. “It was a great concept – steak and pasta, quality products, authentic sauces. But it was at the wrong time: a sudden recession and then mad cow disease, which put everyone off steaks.”
The financial environment dramatically changed. He had to close the restaurants, selling his house and car to make ends meet. “I lost my £1.2m house in Hatton, near Warwick, and I had to take my Range Rover back to the dealership,” he remembers. “The house was the worst thing – it had stables, paddock, gated drive, but it had to go. I was more disappointed for my Mum than anything, because she was so proud of what I’d got, although she’ll tell you she’s never stopped being proud.”
Despite the collapse of the restaurants, the Joe Delucci’s name survived. Pierce and his then business partner, Nigel Langstone, had discovered a gelato made by Menodiciotto, an Italian manufacturer, a product so delicious they had started diversifying into it as a separate business.
“It overlapped with our restaurants, as we quickly had other restaurants asking for it,” Pierce recalls. “And then we tried our own ice cream parlour in Leamington Spa in 2006, which was a success. But the 2008 recession was an enormous roller-coaster, emotionally and financially.”
When Pierce says “emotional roller-coaster” he means it. Today, he’s settled down with a long-term partner and two young children. But back then his personal life suffered, leaving him with a grown-up son from a previous relationship.
“Let’s just say that the pressures of business, the ups and downs of the recession, didn’t particularly help my complex personal life,” Pierce says grimly. “The sacrifices have been huge. Everyone around you is affected, including yourself. But you never give up, never give in.”
Fast-forward nearly ten years and Pierce is now 100% owner of the gelato-focused Joe Delucci’s company, every week importing up to 20 tonnes of the Turin-made product to the UK. The company has three divisions. The first is retail kiosks, with around 20 in upmarket shopping malls across the country. The second is wholesale, supplying Nando’s restaurants, various hotel chains, gastro pubs, bistros, cafés and ice cream parlours. The third is grocery, with Joe Delucci’s now sold in 600 Tesco stores.
Joe Delucci’s annual revenues are more than £6m, with 130 staff nationwide. Around 15 are based at its head office in Lighthorne, near Gaydon in Warwickshire, where the company also has a huge, drive-in freezer to store its ice cream.
It’s not a bad turnaround for Pierce, who puts his success down to remembering principles from his car days: “I don’t sell anything people don’t want. As an indulgent refrigerated treat, Joe Delucci’s gelato is the healthiest ice cream you can get.
“The fruit flavours are non-dairy, fat free, with huge amounts of natural ingredients. Even the more-indulgent flavours are lower in fat, which makes for a healthier way of eating ice cream. It’s what people want.”
Pierce also has a clear strategic vision to expand his wholesale and grocery divisions. The current business began with its own retail kiosks, once making 80% of revenues. Now the kiosks make 64% and are plateauing, whereas wholesale is now 25%, growing by 40% a year, and grocery is 10%, growing by 20%.
Pierce has recently appointed a managing director called Vickie Milligan, who has a wealth of experience from 25 years in the fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) sector, including various senior roles at Coca-Cola.
“I’m just the owner,” Pierce says, “and I’ve brought Vickie in to steady the ship as we grow. It’s all well and good owning a plane, but if you’re only capable flying it at 25,000 feet and someone else can fly it at 50,000 feet, why wouldn’t you? Egos are not needed in business.”
Pierce’s plan is to double revenues in the next five years, possibly expanding abroad and perhaps even launching manufacturing sites to cope with demand. He says: “Who’s challenging the likes of Häagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerrys? There’s no reason why the go-to gelato in the UK and Europe can’t be Joe Delucci’s.”
It’s at this stage that Pierce invites me to plunge into 12 flavours of Joe Delucci’s, and as my eyes close in pleasure at the tastes, he explains why he feels his gelato is the best.
“We’re on the crest of a gelato wave, with loads of different brands. But our supplier’s method of making it in smaller batches and blowing less air, which is called overrun, makes it special. Our gelato’s anything from 30% to 50% air. It has to have that proportion because of the chemical structure of the flavours and ingredients.
“Cheap ice cream is made with inferior products, artificial flavours and preservatives. They don’t use whole fresh fruit. And they blow anything from 70% to 100% overrun… to them, it’s all about making money.
“Joe Delucci’s is how it’s always been made, how ice cream should be. Everything else is a bastardised version. Ours tastes clean, whereas inferior products need a glass of water afterwards because of the oily, tacky taste.
“Inferior products have anything from 16% to 30% fat, whereas ours is 0% in fat, and between 7% and 11% in indulgent flavours like toffee and vanilla. Gelato is not a sorbet, which has more water for an even cleaner taste. Ours tastes creamier because it’s a denser product, with less air, and you feel like you’re biting into fruit.”
And as I try to force myself to stop eating the most luscious ice cream I’ve ever tasted, I find myself furiously nodding and agreeing.