Plan Bee not only manages hives for the likes of Aldi, Kellogg’s and L’Oreal but also produces a range of products including honey and mead, and educates the public about the importance of pollinators. Founder Warren Bader tells Peter Ranscombe how he balances people, planet and profit.
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There’s a buzz in the office at Plan Bee. Despite being tucked away in a quiet corner of an industrial estate in Wishaw near Glasgow, the nine members of staff are busy managing clients from Aberdeen in the north to Cornwall in the south – indeed, cracking a joke about the site being a “hive” of activity wouldn’t be too far off the mark.
At the centre of the dance is Warren Bader, a music industry veteran who launched Plan Bee in 2011. Originally from Cape Town, Bader left South Africa in 1999 to further his career as a producer in London, before spreading his wings for a similar role in Scotland in 2002.
Along the way, he worked with stars including Boyzone and Tina Turner. But what prompted him to swap the static hiss of the recording studio for the busy buzz of the beehive? “The company I worked for went spectacularly tits-up,” explains Bader, 55. “I was at a certain age, so finding work up here was tough, but by that point I’d already got myself an allotment to help relieve the stress of work.
“I was growing heritage fruit trees and came to the realisation about the importance of pollination. That’s what led me to decide that I wanted to train to become a beekeeper and I fell in love with the bees.
“It wasn’t so much the honey, it was the bees. They’re so totemic, they’re so symbolic of industry and hard work – the whole way the beehive works is for the benefit of the colony, not of the individual, and so there are a lot of lessons that we as human beings can learn from that.
“The question was then ‘How can I make money from honey?’. That was the very difficult part of it all. I was driving along one day, wondering how I could do it and I suddenly realised I should be ‘selling biodiversity’ – renting out the beehives to companies so we could generate more income.”
Around the same time that Bader was taking his first steps to set up Plan Bee, Jim Duffy was launching Entrepreneurial Spark, which has grown to become the world’s largest free business accelerator programme. “I remember the Friday that they launched Entrepreneurial Spark – I pursued Jim Duffy, I wanted a place on the programme,” Bader remembers. “The format hadn’t been proved at that point, but I wanted to be a part of it.”
Bader and his larval Plan Bee business were accepted into the E-Spark incubator or “hatchery” when it opened in Glasgow in January 2012. Patricia Barclay, founder of specialist life sciences law firm Bonaccord, became his mentor and an early champion for the business.
“Patricia just ‘got it’ straight away,” Bader says. “She understood that we weren’t just trying to rent out beehives and make honey, but also educate companies and the wider public about the importance of bees and other pollinators and about protecting the environment.”
Barclay introduced Plan Bee to Kelvin Capital, the Glasgow-based business angel syndicate, which together with the Scottish Investment Bank (SIB) – the investment arm of Scottish Enterprise – invested a total of £130,000 in the business in 2013 through the Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme (SEIS). The following year, the company raised a further £175,500, with Kelvin and SIB contributing a combined £70,000 and the remainder coming from 177 investors through the Crowdcube crowdfunding website.
“It was a complicated transaction,” Bader says. “To keep the costs down, we had to complete the deal in a single day, with the right amounts of money being in the right bank accounts at the right time.
“There were four legal teams involved – mine, Kelvin’s, the SIB’s and Crowdcube’s. I don’t think people realise how complicated these deals can get sometimes.
“Crowdfunding was great for us because it allowed us to access investment from outside Scotland and it also created ambassadors for our company and the work we do. The business angel scene in Scotland is thriving, but there’s only so much money available, especially compared with places like London.”
Plan Bee is now gearing up to raise between £250,000 and £300,000 through a further crowdfunding campaign. “The money will allow us to move into proper premises, hire more staff, get more bees and buy the equipment for our own meadery,” explains Bader.
Beehive Brae, the company’s sister business, was launched in 2014 and currently makes mead and honey beer at other people’s premises. Bader wants to bring production in-house so it can form part of a shop window for the firm. “I want to stay in Lanarkshire if I can,” he says. “When we started out, we won a competition run by North Lanarkshire Council and our prize was a free 50 square metre industrial unit for a year, which was an amazing boost for us.
“It would be great to find a peri-urban site. Perhaps a farm that’s still close to the motorway network. We want people to be able to visit us and see the bees and learn more about what they do.”
While his heart may be firmly settled in Lanarkshire, Bader’s business has spread its wings from its Central Belt origins. Brett Adshead, an experienced beekeeper and urban farmer, is based in Sussex and manages hives from Cornwall to the Midlands. Bader still gets out to manage the other sites, but is hiring staff to help him look after the bees, freeing him up to concentrate on this year’s fundraising round.
From the earliest days, Plan Bee has worked with high-profile clients, which rent hives as part of their corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes. Customers range from household names like Aldi, Kellogg’s and L’Oreal through to Glasgow Housing Association, Scotia Gas Networks and Low Carbon, a renewable energy developer that owns solar farms, complete with wild flower meadows planted under the struts supporting the panels.
“Our first customer was Clyde Munro Dental Group, which was great because if you can convince dentists about the benefits of bees and honey then you can convince anyone,” laughs Bader. “Clyde Munro had about six practices when we started working with them, but we’ve been able to grow with them and they now have around 13 practices.
“Another early client that’s stayed with us is Highland Spring. Like Patricia, they got it straight away and understood what we were trying to do.
“One of our customers south of the Border is Flowerworld in Derby, which is owned by Morrisons and which supplies all the cut flower bouquets to its supermarkets. That’s obviously a nice connection between the bees and the flowers.
“Our work with Aldi is also important because it’s not just about selling our honey or our beer through its stores. It also allows us to speak to Aldi’s buyers about the way they source their fruit and vegetables, making sure that their growers don’t use any neonicotinoids, which are chemicals that kill insects.
“Another more unusual client is James M Brown, which is based in Stoke-on-Trent and is the largest manufacturer of cadmium pigments in the world. Working with a company like that making pigments and colourants is really important because it shows how we can have a wider influence on sustainability that goes beyond beehives.”
As well as managing the bees and producing the honey, Plan Bee also carries out community engagement and education projects on behalf of its clients. As the public has become more aware of the decline of honey bees and bumble bees, companies have become more interested in Bader’s work. “We work in some very deprived areas, where people don’t know about the problems affecting bees,” he says. “Being able to give people their first taste of real honey is amazing too.
“People are becoming much more interested in where their food comes from. We saw a step-change in interest following the horsemeat scandal – it wasn’t that people were concerned with horsemeat as such, they were more concerned that they were being lied to on the packet.”