As CEO of Nichols Plc, the company that makes Vimto, Marnie Millard fizzes with enthusiasm almost as much as the product she produces.
She may be the Big Boss but she still gets a little moment of delight when she sees someone buy the family favourite. “I sometimes go and tell them what I do,” says Marnie who has been CEO of Nichols, makers of soft drink Vimto, since 2013.
“I drive my husband mad because whenever I walk in to a supermarket I start asking ‘Where’s the Vimto? Where’s the Vimto?’
“The other day I was on a delayed train that had come to stop when I saw a bottle by the side of the track. It was litter - which was bad - but I still thought ‘we made that!’ I love my job.”
Nichols, headquartered in Newton Le Willows - half way between Manchester and Liverpool - has had a very good year.
In the year to 31 December the company saw pre-tax profits jump by 8.9% to £28m.Total revenues stood at £109.3m, with UK sales totalling £84.8m, and international sales rising by 3.9%. Invented by Noel Nichols in 1908 as a ‘Vim tonic,’ the exact recipe for Vimto is known to only five people in the world but includes a mix of three fruit juices — grape, blackcurrant and raspberry — along with a mysterious blend of 23 fruit essences, herbs and spices.
“I don’t know the recipe!” says Marnie with a laugh. “I thought about having a safe on the wall in reception here with ‘Secret Recipe’ written on it — but maybe that’s not a good idea.”
Her glass-walled office looks out on her team and along one wall are shelves stacked with all the different Vimto products, and a beautiful glass trophy for being named as one of the UK’s most inspiring women.
Cheerful and down to earth, Marnie was born and brought up in Peterborough, and is both a mum and grandmother. Her hairdresser mum and mechanical engineer dad still live in the same house she was brought up in.
“They taught me very important values like working hard and always being truthful and honest,” says Marnie. Describing herself as ‘never the brightest’ she loved school and was ‘gobsmacked’ when her peers voted for her to be head girl. “I really couldn’t fathom out why they had chosen me.”
She did ‘OK’ in her O and A levels but opted not to go to university.“I was neither really bright or really rich so I didn’t go to university and started work in customer service at a computer supply company.
“I’ll always remember that the marketing director looked liked Liza Minnelli. She was always really well dressed and had bright red lipstick and bright red shoes. She was passionate about marketing and I thought I’d like to do that.”
Marnie went to night school two nights a week for three years passing her certificate and then diploma in marketing. Different roles followed and after taking time out to have two children she realised that the world of work was moving on fast and it was time to get back to the fray.
Even though it was a long way from where she lived in Yorkshire she went for an interview as a national account executive at Macaw soft drinks in Nelson.
“I was late - I hate being late - but the receptionist put me at such ease. When I walked out I thought ‘I really want to work here. How can I make it work?’.”
The family sold their house and moved to Huddersfield the week before Christmas. “I look back on it now and think that was a bit bonkers — but it was the right thing to do.”
Macaw created own brand drinks for many of the major supermarkets and over the next five years she learned the trade inside out and became very good at it. “I suppose I was the face of Macaw. I loved going out to meet customers and doing deals.”
Her ‘career defining’ moment came when she saw candidates for marketing director arriving for interview and plucked up the courage to ask the boss why she hadn’t been considered for the role. She was tried out on a 6 month basis and stayed in the role for 11 years.
“It had never crossed their minds that I wanted such a big role with a young family,” says Marnie.
“I look back at that and think it took a lot of courage to ask. It’s something I’ve tried to instil in my kids. Courage above all.
“I always say your brain is a muscle. All the people that I meet, the travel, the experiences with people, they all help build your confidence.”
Roles at Refresco International and Gerber Soft Drinks followed — and she joined Nichols as MD in 2012, moving up to CEO the following year. I was really excited about how I could make a difference here. The potential for growth is still quite huge.
“I enjoy the people side, I get energy from other people.”
She restructured the management team and describes them all as having settled in ‘brilliantly’ with a clear focus on the task ahead and sights set firmly on growth.
International sales are rising and Vimto’s two core export markets - Africa and the Middle East - are both performing well with very different sales propositions.
“In Africa it’s all about refreshment and enjoyment and I’m humbled that people spend their money on a can of Vimto after a hard day’s work.
“I went to see the team at a bottling plant in Senegal and they called me Madame Vimto!”
The company’s partnership with the Middle East goes back 90 years where they sell a double strength product compared to the UK version.
She gets a bottle from her office shelf which has Marnie spelled out in tiny crystals — part of a personalisation promotion in Dubai which reached more than seven million people on social media. 35 million bottles of Vimto are sold in the Middle East each year, with a substantial sales spike during the holy month of Ramadan.
“It’s a very important relationship for us,” says Marnie. “Vimto is the drink of choice during Ramadan and the special time when families come together.”
And as a high profile, very successful woman what is her advice to women on how to succeed in business? “Always have self belief and courage in your capabilities. I absolutely believe in getting the right person for the job but sometimes female talent needs nurturing more. Often that self belief just isn’t there.
“ And always be true to yourself.”
Tackling the sugar issue
The thorny issue of sugar and its contribution to obesity, particularly in children, is a key one for the drinks industry. Nichols has been working hard to reduce the amount of sugar in its products. Since 2012 they have reduced the sugar content of their product portfolio by 1,118 tonnes. And total sugar usage is dropping by 8% year on year.
No Added Sugar products in their squash range now account for 46% of all purchases, and 41% of their Vimto still range in the UK. “We take our responsibility towards the issue of obesity and sugar consumption very seriously,” says Marnie.
“Our marketing strategy has revolved around promoting No Added Sugar choices in order
to achieve our aims of overall sugar reduction across our range of products.”