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My first boss: Charlie Bigham, ready-to-cook food empire founder

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My first boss: Charlie Bigham, ready-to-cook food empire founder
Charlie Bigham, founder of the eponymously named ready-to-cook food empire.

Inspired by his travels and love of cooking, Charlie Bigham’s set up shop in 1996. Over 25 years on, the food industry tycoon’s company saw revenues increase nearly 30% to a record £104.4m in 2020/21 thanks to new customers trying the brand’s meals and puddings during lockdown.

Using quality ingredients, Bigham’s selection of prepared dishes now has over 60 meals, including its bestsellers Chicken Tikka Masala, Lasagne, and Fish Pie. In 2020, Bigham’s became B Corp certified, won Food Brand of the Year at The Grocer Gold Awards 2021 and was voted Best Workplace in 2022.

As a naive 22-year-old in my first proper job, I was meant to be advising banks about strategy, but really I was learning the importance of food, temperature and taste.

I had started working for management consultancy firm Accenture (formerly Andersen Consulting). Fresh with an English literature degree under my belt, I was sent off to the City of London where I worked in the financial services sector, supposedly to tell banks how to run their business and organise them properly.

I had been drafted in to work under a Turkish chap called Faik. He was poised, elegant and completely unflappable. He was respectful and listened, despite the pretty stressful environment of banking back in the 90s. I never saw him lose his cool and it has been a nice lesson to take away over the last 26 years. I have since dealt with several crises and it’s important, if you’re the boss and everyone is looking at you, to keep your head. It gives huge confidence to those around you.

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Faik also had impeccable taste in food. He was insistent that we had a pause for lunch and, usually, dinner every day. He abhorred chilled sandwiches (in Turkey, Ekmek bread is on a pinnacle and freshly baked in every village) and if I came back with something that had been near a fridge, it would go in the bin.

This has also served me quite well over the years. Everything we do at work is about making delicious food but sometimes we don’t appreciate the importance of heat and temperature in food. As Faik identified, it is key to eat the right food at the right temperature. This was reinforced years later when I was working with Julian Metcalfe, founder of Pret a Manger and Itsu, who explained that the sushi he served was always at the right temperature, and would rather throw it in the bin after two hours than serve it below 5C, the food safety rules.

Outdoor rest area terrace. Charlie Bigham Food Factory, Glastonbury, United Kingdom. Architect: Feilden Fowles, 2018. (Photo by: View Pictures/Peter Cook/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
The Charlie Bigham Food Factory is based in Glastonbury, Somerset. Photo: Getty. (View Pictures via Getty Images)

At Charlie Bigham’s, all our meals are cooked in the oven or on hobs. When our lasagne goes in, there is some magic that starts to happen which takes on all these extra flavours, as opposed to microwave cooking which heats from the inside out and is terrible with temperature.

I saw Faik a few years later when I passed through Istanbul with my wife in our camper van before we set up the business. We had an extraordinary, understated meal overlooking the Bosphorus and unfortunately we lost touch after that.

Yet, I won’t forget what an encouraging boss he was, one who dished out lots of praise. As you get older, you have this opportunity to influence people who are at the start of their career. I don’t think we give out enough ‘well dones’ to employees either. All the while, we have this new pandemic of working from home. It’s great – and we see this as a flexible, modern employer – but what I’ve noticed is that younger people coming into this business are spending less time with the seasoned and experienced people and they are missing out.

It’s important to be honest and transparent in business. With our business, we tell everybody what’s happening in our weekly office team, as well as in a monthly company-wide meeting for our 750 staff.

A limited edition Charlie Bigham Cock & Bull pie created by Bigham for Valentine's Day.
A limited edition Charlie Bigham Cock & Bull pie created by Bigham for Valentine's Day - one of hundreds of prepared meals the company has created since 1996 (PA)

At the moment, we are sitting on a level of uncertainty I haven’t seen in this sustained way for some time. It’s important to remain calm – we hear the doom and gloom around energy, inflation and recession – and not to talk our way into a crisis, but to be balanced and adaptable.

I was fortunate back then to work in the organisation I did at Accenture, one of the world’s great consultancy companies. What I say mostly to my children’s friends – obviously your own children don’t want to take advice from you! – who are starting out in their careers, is that it doesn't matter what your first job is but, if you can, try and join someone who is very good at what they do. If you can expose yourself to excellence, it will stand you in great stead early on.

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They had a fantastic appraisal process which they did religiously every six months. Appraisals are important at Charlie Bigham’s too, as the feedback loop is invaluable and building people’s careers is core to who we are.

Faik wasn’t my only great boss but I saw a company at the top of their game, which had thought and worked out how to get the best from their employees.

I hope that Faik would say today that he knew I had it in me to make it. Even if he didn’t mean it, he would still say it as it would just be a lovely thing to say.

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