Wednesday 1 September 2010 6:00
Five years ago, Fraser Doherty and Iain Clark were in the same year at school in Edinburgh. Iain trained as a journalist while Fraser founded SuperJam. Here the old mates catch up.
Fraser Doherty is back where it all began. In his family home in west Edinburgh, Doherty sits in the living room next to the kitchen where, as an ambitious 14-year-old, he honed his jam-making skills from his grandmother’s secret recipe. I can see he has changed a great deal in those intervening years. We talk about the whirlwind past seven years which have taken him from selling his homemade preserve in the neighbourhood to supplying the biggest supermarket in the world.
“It’s been an amazing adventure,” says Doherty, whose company, SuperJam, currently provides jam to more than 1,000 supermarkets and independent retailers across the UK. Sweetened using only grape juice, his 100% fruit jam has gone from his “tiny kitchen” into the National Museum of Scotland as “an iconic Scottish brand” alongside Baxters soups, Irn-Bru and the Tunnock’s Tea Cake. Doherty’s brain for business was clear from a young age. I know because I was there to witness his early entrepreneurial flourishes. We were both pupils at the Royal High School in Edinburgh and I recall Fraser buying chocolate bars in the local Davidson’s Mains supermarket, re-wrap them with his own quirky printed packaging and them sell them to classmates during the lunch break. Even then I had a sneaking admiration for his acumen.
However, as soon as he gained his Highers, Fraser seized the opportunity to get out of school and attempt to turn his jam-making hobby into a career. We both went our separate ways, and I didn’t see him again for a few years. So why did he pursue an interest in jam-making? “Sales of jam have been in decline for the past couple of decades, mostly because it’s really unhealthy,” he says.
“It’s usually about 70% or 80% sugar so I figured if I could try and come up with a healthier way of making jam we could maybe reverse that decline.” Although the 21-year-old has now sold more than two million jars of jam throughout the country, the process of winning his first major customer was a challenge. He entered the business world armed with nothing but a naïve confidence and the determination to succeed.
“My age sometimes made it difficult for people to take me seriously,” he says. “Not just because I was so young but because I didn’t have any money or experience and it was probably hard for them to see how I was going to be able to turn this idea of making 100% fruit jam into a product that they could actually sell.” After scouring the country for factories to mass-produce his jam, while working with a small design company who created a quirky comic-strip packaging for his jars, Doherty attended a Meet The Buyer day atWaitrose, which he describes as “the X-Factor for selling groceries to supermarkets.” His first pitch to Waitrose was immediately rejected as being “ridiculous”.
“That was the point where a lot of people said that we’d give up and it wasn’t going to work,” he says. However, he returned to the bubbling cooking pan in the kitchen and started again from scratch, eventually coming up with a product Waitrose was willing to sell. Although he has been a lone operator through most of his seven years in the business world, Doherty has benefited from various types of support as a young entrepreneur.
“I’ve been amazed by the amount of support there is for young people who want to start up their own businesses in Scotland,” he says. A £5,000 loan from the Princes Trust gave him a starting point at the beginning of his business career, of which the young Scot is hugely grateful.
“Without a charity like that, young people can’t really go and borrow money from a bank or anything so having that loan was great,” he says. “I think young people maybe watch the Dragon’s Den or something and imagine that business is really ruthless and everybody is out for themselves. There would definitely be people like that out there but I’ve found in Scotland that there’s a real business community and there are people who are willing to spend time giving advice to young people.” An Edinburgh businessman who heard about Doherty through an article in a local newspaper, contacted the young entrepreneur and offered his support and advice while SuperJam was starting up as a business.
“He had set up companies supplying supermarkets and he just taught me all about how supermarkets work,” he says.
“I‘ve learned a lot from him.” Doherty admits he admires businesses such as Anita Roddick’s The Body Shop, or Innocent Drinks, “businesses which, as well has having a good product and doing good business, do good”.
“I wouldn’t like to get up every day and setting up a business which wasn’t trying to make a positive change in the world.” His admiration for “do-good” businesses has seeped into Doherty’s own company. Last year he set up the SuperJam Tea Parties, a charity which aims to give back to his grandmother’s generation. After research in the UK, Doherty decided to set up social events for elderly people across the country, during which they could enjoy his jam, scones and live music and dancing. He says: “We started having tea parties in community centres and schools and offices, completely free to come along to with live music and dancing.
In the past year we’ve held about 100 tea parties with the biggest ones having about 600 people at them, so we’ve had thousands of people along having a great time. It feels really good to do and I’m quite ambitious to see it grow.” Apart from the £5,000 loan, Doherty’s business has been completely self-funded. During the early stages of his business career, the young Scot did a deal with the factory he was working with which meant that they put up all of the working capital for the jars, fruitand the credit terms for the supermarket.
“It was probably about £100,000 that I didn’t have to borrow from the bank,” says Doherty. Alongside developing SuperJam, he has spent the past 12 months writing The SuperJam Cookbook which hit the shelves in August of this year, filled with numerous SuperJam recipes for jam as well as puddings. He has also, in collaboration with an application developer, created an iPhone application which contains various recipes from the book.
“We’re probably the first jam company in the world to have an iPhone app,” he laughs. At the moment, jam is the main focus of his business. “I don’t think there’s much else that I could be doing that could be more fun for me,” he says. He hopes to expand into marmalades and other healthy fruit spreads but Doherty believes there is “a lot of potential” in jam.
“We currently sell about 1% of the jam made in the UK,” he says. “I think we could maybe get to up to about 4% or 5% in the next few years; I think there’s a long way to go just focusing on jam.” When reflecting on his rise in the business world, Doherty seems genuinely surprised at where his determination to succeed has taken him. He says: “I look back at that last seven years and I’m amazed that it’s happened – and I can’t really imagine what might happen in the next seven years.” The business has taken him from the family kitchen and into supermarkets across the country but he is not planning to stop here.
Currently in talks with supermarkets across the Atlantic, he says: “Seeing the products in the United States would be amazing.” That won’t be easy; even Gordon Baxter, the famous jam and soup entrepreneur from Fochabers, found it virtually impossible to break into a US market which already had shelves heaving with every conceivable product.
So, selling Scottish jam to the Americans will be Doherty’s biggest challenge. And he’ll need to be determined. Meeting Fraser again was a pleasure, and I wondered if perhaps it was me who could have chosen the wrong trade, although it does take all sorts in this world, and jam-making is not for me.