"Young Entrepreneur of the Year" and VaioPak Group founder Joe Fogel has built a packaging empire out of a simple idea.
Joe Fogel, managing director at VaioPak Group, started his career as an estate agent. But spotting a stale business niche that could do with “a lot more enthusiasm”, he switched from selling houses to selling branded paper cups. His success since has earnt him recognition as one of the UK’s best young entrepreneurs.
Fogel, named Young Entrepreneur of the Year at the Growing Business Awards, set up VaioPak eight years ago, aged 20 and with his own savings. He based the business on the simple idea that brands could advertise on cups he provided free of charge to coffee shops. “It was literally about putting the brand in the hands of the consumer,” he says.
With large profit margins, he quickly found he had the ability to seize on his next big idea – by taking the relatively simple step of providing branded products for the coffee shops themselves. And although he “was going in blind”, with no experience of manufacturing, he found a factory in China to produce the goods – first cups, then deli packaging.
Since then, he’s followed the opportunities into printed bags, stickers, cake boxes, cinema snack packaging and, most recently, juice bottles. And he’s structured each product as a separate division of his business, to build something of a packaging empire, with a client list that includes Pret a Manger, Starbucks, Caffe Nero, Yorkshire Tea, B&Q, Tesco, Audi and Nokia, as well as the smaller independents he started with.
Not one to miss out on a trend, he’s also developed a consumer product, Instantcanvas, enabling people to print their Instagram images onto a canvas in a few simple steps.
Lean and loyal
As the business has developed, he has kept it lean: just 13 staff contributed to a £5.8m turnover in 2015 – and he’s expecting that to rise to £7.2m in 2016. “It’s a low headcount, but a loyal team,” he says.
The oldest member of staff is 34, and they all come from non-packaging backgrounds – the sales manager came from Waitrose; the sales director has an architecture degree. This has helped to maintain innovative thinking, he adds.
By partnering a printing business in Ireland nearly five years ago, Fogel has also managed to give his customers a reason to stay loyal: he has provided those that need it the option of a speedier service. Although it’s 30-40 per cent more expensive, he explains that it’s a trade-off many clients are happy to make.
And now that competition is growing in the niche that Fogel has carved for himself, he’s not afraid to stick to his guns on price. “We tried knocking our prices down before, but didn’t get any more business from it. Instead we’ve learnt we need to follow up on initial quotes quicker.”
But asked what drives his innovation, Fogel comes back with three important factors: his enjoyment of what he does; the team he has; and developing new products in collaboration with clients.
“Eight or nine years ago, you’d typically find an burnt-out salesman doing this job. But this is what you get when you spend time understanding what your clients want and developing your products with them,” says Fogel.
“Anything can be a creative industry if you want it to be.”