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My first boss: Nick Hampton, Tate & Lyle CEO

The people who helped shape business leaders

Tate & Lyle
Nick Hampton learned the art of business strategy under his influential first boss. Photo: Tate & Lyle

Nick Hampton was appointed CEO of ingredients supplier Tate & Lyle in 2018 after joining the board as CFO in 2014. He previously held a number of senior roles over his 20-year career at PepsiCo, including senior vice president and CFO, Europe. Hampton is also senior independent director at Great Portland Estates plc.

While I had studied chemistry at Oxford University, I always knew I wanted to go into business.

When I left university in the late 1980s, I wanted to get a general business education. I applied to a host of management consultant firms and ended up joining a small firm called Monitor, started by a bunch of Harvard Business School graduates who worked with a fairly famous professor called Michael Porter. The founding partner in Europe was John Wells, who ended up being my first boss for about eight years.

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I joined Monitor in part because I was intrigued by my interview with John. I pitched up and he had come back from a run in his sports gear which I thought was unusual. I loved his way of thinking and, in some ways, John was way ahead of his time. He had amazing energy and ran at 100mph in everything he did.

He was born to teach and it was like an education in business leadership and how to think about strategy. He had an incredible belief in the ability of smart people to progress their careers very quickly.

John Wells is professor of management practice at Harvard Business School. Photo: Susan Young
John Wells is professor of management practice at Harvard Business School. Photo: Susan Young (Own)

He had a clear view that if someone was smart, driven and willing to learn, they could do amazing things. John did it by putting people in a position where they had no choice, they had to step into slightly uncomfortable spaces where they would learn fast.

John, who always looked like a mad professor with his tie undone and sleeves rolled up, put me in situations I would never normally have been in, and I had amazing exposure to very senior people. You could absorb all this very quickly if you were prepared to listen and learn how businesses really get made at senior level in organisations.

During my time I always felt I was the youngest person in the room. And, as things involved, I decided it was time to do business rather than consult on it.

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John and I would have dinner every six months, to talk about the future and for him to give me feedback. In 1994 I was set to tell him I was moving on when he also said he was off to become CFO of Pepsi’s (PEP) European business. He said that if I wanted to go into big business why didn't I join him. One month later I joined this amazing company on the back of knowing John. It was an example of how relationships and chance can play quite a big role in business.

Strategy – often an intersection between common sense and execution — can be very misunderstood by people sometimes. Keeping it simple and being really clear about the nature of the advantage you want to create, in whatever business you’re working in, is a good starting point.

Tate & Lyle scientists are focused on making healthy food tastier and tasty food healthier
Tate & Lyle food scientists at one of the company’s 57 global locations

It has to be based on a unique point of difference and/or an economic advantage as well. With most businesses you either create advantage by creating a differentiated proposition for your customer or consumer, or by doing something similar at a lower cost than anyone else.

The strategy is 20% of the challenge; 80% of the challenge is execution in multiple ways: putting the right capability in place and mobilising and inspiring an organisation to succeed and deliver. It was the execution that I now wanted to go into.

I don’t think there has ever been a period where there has been more innovation in food. The acceleration has left us on a tipping point in the industry where the challenge of feeding the world sustainably is massive. Feeding twice as many mouths in the next 40 years than the previous thousand is a real challenge in the context of the climate.

Tate & Lyle provides food and beverage companies with ingredients that help to address key public health challenges. Photo: Tate & Lyle
Tate & Lyle provides food and beverage companies with ingredients that help to address key public health challenges. Photo: Tate & Lyle

John always said to me when we were hiring that "the best way to succeed in your career is to hire people better than yourself" — those who can really challenge you, bring a point of difference and allow you to learn. It’s what makes leaders successful.

We’ve now repositioned Tate & Lyle in the last five to eight years — applying some of the positions I learned under John — to be right at the centre of the future of food. Everything we do is plant based and we have this wonderful, science-based capability to replace sugar and fat and still make food taste great.

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But you have to solve the taste and value as well as health, otherwise you don’t shift people’s diets. We have placed the business right at the centre of helping to do that with our customers. We also have to address the sustainability question: how we do it more sustainably as food production increases, the climate load decreases instead of increases.

John was an ideas factory and my gift was to figure out of his 100 ideas, which five were the ones to go and do rather than think about. One of the roles I played for him was simplifying that complexity into a simple story and direction. In some ways that’s what great strategy is about — simplifying for people and being clear about what you are going to do and not going to do.

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