Sign up to BQ Breakfast to receive our daily news service:
Viv Parry

A new life through cakes

Monday 8 October 2012 9:00

After taking more than a decade off to raise a family, Viv Parry found a new passion in turning around a failed Leeds bakery as Peter Baber discovers.

Viv Parry is someone who could be said to have had her cake and eaten it. Which is just as well, as the company she now runs is called Exquisite Handmade Cakes. It sells upmarket cakes to the catering and food supply industries.

And she is doing very well with it too – expanding the number of units the company uses at the industrial estate off the Kirkstall Road from two when she started to six now, and taking headcount up from four to 30.

But we are not being particularly facetious when we talk about having your cake and eating it. This is a lady who by her own account has had two more than averagely good careers - one in accountancy, one running the business she runs now, and in between a ten-year period – “no woman would let you get away with calling it a break,” she says – when she was able to stay at home to bring up her three daughters.

Many, many women have strived for such a career. Few have been so successful. So how did Parry manage it? By not planning, seems to be one answer. Her decision to become a full-time mother, for example, came at the end of a long sequence of arbitrary events.

Initially training with a minor accountancy practice in the North East – a region she had only been attracted to because that was where her brother had gone to university – Parry was accepted through the hallowed doors of PricewaterhouseCoopers because of her success in passing her accountancy exams first time around.

Although she loved accountancy, and during her time at PwC worked on the Sage flotation, she decided she didn’t really want to work towards becoming a partner. She wanted to do something.

“My job had become all about servicing other people who are doing things,” she says. “So I left PwC, and eventually got an opportunity to work for a transport company that operated out of Ferryhill in County Durham. However I clearly hadn’t done my due diligence well enough, because within a year the liquidators came in.

"By that time I had made good connections with a couple of the other guys, and we decided to have a go at buying out the Leeds division of our old company. The Leeds division was profitable, and had some good solid contracts.

"It was one of those classic cases of a business expanding, and then crashing because of the expansion, but the profitable bit is still there. So our group camped out in KPMG in Leeds, putting our proposal together. We had got really far: we had legal backing from what was then Simpson Curtis and financial backing, but then at the last minute one of the guys wanted out. The rest of us thought: ‘Could you not have reflected on that a little bit sooner?’ I actually thought: ‘What do I do now?’ because after an experience like that you are really fired up to do something big. So I got married. Yes, my now ex-husband proposed to me in the middle of all that, and I said yes.”

That was in February 1991, and her first daughter appeared on the scene barely 11 months later. That was when decisions about her future career really took hold.

“At the time I was just doing temporary accouting work, and I was all lined up to get a childminder. I even took her to one for a day when she was six weeks old, but I was beside myself with worry. I rang my dad and said: ‘I don’t think I can do this.’ As wise fathers do, he said: ‘Do you have to do it?’ and I said: ‘No.’ So he said: ‘Well don’t then.’

“Because in all honesty I didn’t have to. I then stayed at home for 11 years.” One reason why she didn’t have to was because her husband had built up a very successful business as a quantity surveyor. She admits she was lucky here. But she says even then she would not have done anything differently.

“I created lots of memories for the children with play dough and going to the park. During that time I also did a couple of A-levels - that was how I kept my brain in gear. But I just wanted them to have that feeling of how they are wonderful, because that gives you confidence to step out into the world, and do whatever it is you want to do.”

That said, when she did start wanting to get back to work again when her youngest daughter went off to school, she was determined to do so, even if that led to friction both with her husband and her other lady friends she had met during her time off who were more than happy to carry on leading the ladies that lunch lifestyle and felt she should be too.

That was when the opportunity with what became Exquisite Handmade Cakes turned up. She was initially brought in just to do the bookkeeping for the bakery that used to operate on the company’s site in an industrial estate off Kirkstall Road, but quickly got into sales as well.

But once again in no time at all the company was in trouble when the investment company that was backing it pulled out. Parry was not surprised it did. It had been persuaded to invest heavily in a licensing agreement with Antony Worrall Thompson – the bakery had even taken on an extra unit at the industrial estate to cope with expected demand – but the expected sales never came.

“The trouble was they were only producing high end fruit cakes that clearly are very seasonal,” she says. “I didn’t have any major ideas on how I would develop the company, but I couldn’t see why it couldn’t be profitable if you just got rid of the awful seasonal aspect of the sales and got the right products.”

When the bakery was finally put into liquidation, and an opportunity arose to acquire the assets for £20,000, Parry took it. But once again she was in a sense lucky. You might not necessarily call being recently divorced lucky, but it had left her with some capital.

“It sounds flippant, but at the time – April 2004 - £20,000 wasn’t a massive investment, and I could afford to lose it. Nick, my ex-husband, had bought me a house which was mortgage free. I could use that as collateral to get working capital.”

She certainly didn’t squander either opportunity. She has never actually baked a cake herself on the premises, but she has done much to improve the results of those who do. To begin with it was just a case of expanding the range and moving it away from such seasonal dependency by including traybakes and other more standard cakes as well.

“We built up relationships with distributors first locally and then nationally,” she says. “At that stage we didn’t do any advertising, because my accountancy background wouldn’t allow me to spend money on that. We did all our work by word of mouth.”

But that changed when the company was approached by Kent Frozen Foods, which was looking for a new company to develop a range of individually wrapped products for them after their original supplier had gone under.

The initially disappointing sales of the product they worked on together puzzled her, so seeking some advice she was put in touch with Design Futures, the semi-commercial design agency run out of Sheffield Hallam University, and in particular to its packaging creative director John Kirkby.

“He made me realise that we had just plonked a food service style label onto what was a retail product. We had completely covered it up.”

Together they came up with new more consumer friendly design, and out of that sprang the love heart shape that is now the company’s logo. “I have a huge amount of respect for John now,” she says.

“He completely gets what I am trying to do. I don’t have to sit and explain things.” To raise the profile of the brand further last November Exquisite Handmade Cakes did its first trade show as well – thanks in part to a loan of £50,000 from Finance Yorkshire – the 100th such funding allocation the public sector grant body has made since it came into existence.

“We did the Lunch trade show down at the Old Billingsgate in London,” she says. “I said to the team at the start that all I want to do is raise brand awareness, but we got one fantastic lead from it which is how we ended up at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show. You can’t get much better branding than that.

"It is important to me that my brand is recognised by buyers and chefs, and people who are organising events. At Chelsea none of the consumers would have known where our cakes come from, but the guys doing the shelves would have done.”

That said, she has not completely ruled out the possibility of turning the business more towards the consumer. The company took part in the Leeds Loves Food event at the Corn Exchange, and she believes there is demand out there, possibly in the form of some kind of weekly online delivery service.

“A guy has been coming here every Friday since we started to buy a couple of cakes to take to his office,” she says. “There must be a market for that. With the right people on board we can do it. We are about to put some products in with Yorvale ice cream in the Museum Gardens in York. That should be a good tester.

"We have also got products on board Jet2 and Grand Central. I think an online option would work in the right hands.”

She is not so convinced about the possibility of developing branded stores – at least not in this country. Having just come back from a trade mission to America, she thinks an overseas retail option might be a more interesting idea.

“There’s a massive appetite for all things British over there,” she says. “They don’t really have what we do. There are quite a few barriers to exporting food, it is true, but it is not impossible. The main thing is that we can’t swamp the market here. We have got to keep our product high end.”

It won’t surprise anyone to hear that she is not interested in seeing her product in the major supermarkets. “I would rather kill myself than see my product in there,” she says. “They are not in the business of building relationships with suppliers. They are in the business of screwing down margins.”

But what does delight her in these new ventures is that now that her eldest daughter has reached university age and is starting out on a career, she can be there working with her, at least temporarily.

“I can’t describe what it feels like to have my own daughter sitting in a meeting that I am not part of and to know it is going wonderfully,” she says. “It is so gratifying.” It is also important, she says, because like herself at a similar age her daughter has a creative bent but is not sure what she can do with it.

“I did arty things at school and never did anything with it,” she says, “and I can see that if you do something like that and you don’t know where it is going to take you, you have not got the motivation to succeed. I very much wanted my daughter not to go through that. So here she is doing PR, she is speaking to journalists, to design people. “Any of those might be the way she ends up going in her career.”

There is another reason why this is important too. Just two years after Parry had started the business, and when the daughters were all still at school, her ex-husband suddenly died. “I will never go through anything as tough at that again,” she says.

“Initially Nick and I were sharing care, so I had a clear week. But after that I was careering from here to their school in Ilkley every afternoon, always late, always getting it in the neck, with them moaning about why I ever launched this business.

“I did get negative press from the other mothers too.” But, as you might expect, she didn’t see it all from one side. “I also knew that I wanted to keep a high standard of living for both me and them, and I wanted to take nice holidays because I believe the world is not just here, it is out there.

“And to do that you have to work.” So, having now turned 50, is she an example of a businesswoman who has had it all? She thinks not.

“I had put my career on hold – there is no way I could have gone back to one of the big accountancy firms after taking 11 years off, for example. I came back to it in a completely different way, but I am really happy with it. Quite a few delegates on this trade mission I have just been on were older women were setting up businesses late in life. They have skills, so why not?” Why not indeed.