Innocent's Karen Callaghan on a smooth operation with a taste of chaos

15 June 2011 -


Innocent Drinks’ people director Karen Callaghan believes great firms find the perfect fusion of order and chaos, while doing the basics better

Ben Walker

It all seems a bit contrary. Karen Callaghan is standing amid the psychedelic chaos of Innocent’s Fruit Towers HQ, leaning against a forest-green astroturf wall that is pockmarked by cartoon-style daisies – extolling the virtues of simplicity. “Whenever people ask me about being innovative, I just say we do the simple things, better,” says Callaghan, Innocent Drinks’ people director, reflecting on the company’s SMART objectives (ie, goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely). “If your people don’t know what success looks like, how can they be successful? And simplicity in conversation: we always say why wouldn’t we just tell the truth? If it’s important to people, we will share it! It’s very simple.”

Yet simplicity is not the word that springs to mind when I look around. There’s clutter and chaos everywhere: the walls are covered in vividly coloured handwritten notes; someone has hung up bunting designed in the manner of country-kitchen tea towels; and, if you swing your head up, there’s a menagerie of plastic farmyard animals staring down at you. Contrary maybe, but the contradiction is beneficial, says Callaghan. “My dissertation is on complexity theory,” she says, referring to the MSc she’s studying towards. “The theory says that complex systems are at their best when they are on the edge of chaos. We need process and structure; but also flexibility and space in the system. A system can go both ways. Too much process, and it becomes too static and can’t adapt; too chaotic, and it becomes inefficient. The Holy Grail is to get the right amount of process and chaos.”

Here, they manage just that, every day. Innocent’s products are loved by their customers – they have become a British success story in a time when there have been too few of them. And they keep creating great new products, never seeming to run out of ideas for delicious flavours. Given their achievements as a firm, I start to think that Callaghan might be on to something when she says order and chaos are actually great bedfellows, opposites that can be made to complement each other. Certainly, working in such an untamed environment must stimulate the little grey cells. “It can be an energising workplace,” she says. “It was never planned. It’s the staff that have filled it up with all this stuff. That is what’s given it its organic feel. What you hear is just the hub of conversation; it’s just people meeting, doing their work. It certainly sounds like it’s on the edge of chaos!”

Process paradox

The noise; the crackpot décor; and Innocent’s cuddly, kindergarten-style branding contrive to give people an impression of the company that doesn’t really hold water – or, indeed, kiwi juice. “We are very entrepreneurial, but also very process-orientated,” says Callaghan. “That’s often a surprise to people.”

While Innocent lacks the staid, clinical feel of many big food and drink brands, its values are thoroughly business-like, corporate even. Innocent is not in the business of seeking out the weirdest and most outré people Britain has to offer. In fact, everyone seems very nice, bright – and normal. “We have to be careful that people don’t think it’s about being mad or wacky or about being an extrovert,” says Callaghan. “Whether you are a geek, or you want to wear the wacky T-shirts, then go for it. But I’m more concerned about people being good at their jobs – so we sweat the recruitment process. We try to identify the difference between good and great candidates, and say, ‘let’s look for that’.”

Callaghan shows me some software that keeps a live record of all Innocent employees’ targets and how they are measuring up against them. “We have 95% compliance on employees’ objectives,” she says, “and the 5% we don’t have is probably because someone forgot to post them up. Lots of companies say that their internal processes and their people reflect their espoused values. But I genuinely believe that ours do. When recruiting, we ask whether the people we meet are going to enrich the culture and strengthen our values. Is the company going to be better with them on board?”

Money motive

Innocent strives to be all the things the public might reasonably associate with a brand that runs hippyish music festivals in London parks: it tries to be environmentally proactive, it advocates fair trade with its suppliers. But its focus is the same as every successful business – commerciality. “Our values are not that soft, fluffy or ephemeral,” says Callaghan. “But they capture the things we are, the things we care about, the things that make us successful. Not just the things we aspire to, which is why, I think, that they resonate well with the team.”

The commerciality of the business was highlighted last year when its directors sold a majority stake to Coca Cola. The soft-drinks behemoth now controls 58% of Innocent, but Callaghan is not worried. In fact, she seems quite keen on the products of the new mother company – and spends some of the interview sipping a Diet Coke. “I drink it with pride!” she says. Did she always drink it in the office? “Well, when I first joined I might have been a bit more self-conscious about it – given most of us here are pretty into health. But I also drink a lot of Innocent smoothies, as you might expect!”

There’s no pretence with Callaghan. She’s slightly troubled by the photographer’s assistant preening her hair – “too bouncy, I don’t really do polished” – and I get the feeling that the whole company is like this: what you see is what you get. Another of Innocent’s brand values is ‘be natural’, and, incredibly, given that I’m a journalist, everybody I meet is. “Think about our product,” says Callaghan. “It’s an unadulterated, natural product.” The same should go for Innocent’s people, she says: “Be professional – but bring yourself to work! Bring the best version of yourself.”

It’s a compelling confection, but can it last? As Innocent gets bigger, so must it handle change. Not only has Coca-Cola taken over, but the company is leaving its Fruit Towers HQ, tucked away in Hammersmith, and moving to the sparkling Portobello Dock on the other side of west London. “It’s an exciting move for us,” says Callaghan. “Here at Fruit Towers, we basically work in a big shed. I’m not sure it was ever intended to be an office, so we are taking the things that work best for us, and bringing more of the things we have had less of here – like natural light. It’s going to be different, and I’m intrigued about how it’s going to work, being over five floors in a gleaming building. With the move, we don’t want to just replicate what we’ve got here, every company has to evolve and develop. But we’ll miss this place, with all its silliness – sorry, fun.”

It will be fascinating to visit the new place in a year or so. Nothing will ever recreate Fruit Towers’ glorified warehouse, but you feel that the creative chaos will seep into Portobello Dock pretty rapidly. “We’ll create another one,” she says. “I doubt that we will be taking the same astroturf to Portobello Docks, but we will be grassing up some of the new office. We’ll take the feeling with us.”

And with that it’s time for Callaghan to head back into the silliness. Just one more thing, she says: “‘Smoothie operators’, please don’t use that headline” – she’s seen it too many times. I was thinking “simple tastes”, I say. “No,” she smiles: “Simple pleasures.

“We like to mix it up, so people don’t sit with their teams and the founders sit with everyone else. So I sit surrounded by IT developers. I didn’t know the first thing about IT, I still don’t, but I have become more interested in what they do. Mixing it up makes people more independent in their thinking, given that we don’t necessarily rely on a teammate sitting next to us”


2006 People director – Innocent Drinks

2002 Head of graduate recruitment and development / diversity & inclusion – Standard Chartered Bank

2000 People strategy & HRM consultant – Andersen

1997 Various HRM roles – United Biscuits

Education MSc, People & Organisation Development (2011), University of Sussex; BSc Hons, Chemistry, 1st class (1997), University of Leeds

Richard Reed, Innocent co-founder:

Why we have to manage our staff’s energy

“Trying to ensure that an informal, friendly, socially aware business is also a commercially successful one is not as difficult as you might imagine. In fact, I’d argue that it’s easier than in a staid business. The great thing about Innocent is that the team is so engaged with our healthy product, the values and the mission we are on, that we all naturally give more than a little bit extra, which is a key part of what has made us successful.

“Our engagement levels are higher than they have been for five years. And this engagement has caused the business to flourish. Everyone’s set on improving their bit of Innocent – quality rises, innovation increases, accounts are won. Ideas come from all parts of the company rather than being restricted to a few, leading to a surge of commercial creativity.

“If anything, we have such high levels of engagement that we need to make sure people aren’t taking on too much. Our best people will half-kill themselves in doing a top-notch job, so it’s important they manage their energy levels, too, and don’t burn out. As a board, we try to set the standard by continually refocusing the business on a small set of clear priorities every month, and actively managing workload hotspots around the company. “Ultimately, our team is engaged because they get to do what they’re best at; like the people they work with; and personally connect with Innocent’s purpose. One should never underestimate a group of people who believe in what they’re doing.”

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