Today, with mixed emotions, I am announcing that I will be stepping down as CEO.
This September marks ten years since my first contact with Belu as a marketing consultant, and next April will mark ten years of tenure as Belu’s CEO.
It has been an incredible decade, and I can’t thank our partners and customers enough for their belief and ongoing support throughout that time. It seems like yesterday that we had the initial plan to remodel and relaunch the business in an attempt to trade our way out of the position of debt, £1.9m at its worst. Words cannot explain how proud I am of all that Belu has achieved to date.
At the beginning of my tenure, I’d never heard of the term Social Enterprise, it was very much an emerging movement. Yet here we are, widely acknowledged as one of the most successful Social Enterprise brands in the UK, and a story referenced widely to inspire others on the idea of fully integrating solving the world’s problems into your business model. We’re even a business case study taught by the University of Oxford and Said Business School.
Our proudest achievements
The plan from my early days was always to put environmental progress first, in a belief that we could influence the drinks industry through our actions more effectively than any campaigning. The proof point is that we would trade profitably at the same time, making a business case to ‘inspire others to better’. As a result, our initial ambitions for profit when we relaunched in 2011 were small, we hoped we would pass £100k per year to WaterAid
. Last year alone we were able to pass over £1m in profit, bringing our total to just over £4m.
We have absolutely delivered on our environmental ambitions. We were the first to market using at least 50% recycled plastic in all our bottles in 2012. We acquired the public recognition of Greenpeace for our work, and it has taken over 5 years for some to catch up, and many still haven’t. However, rising consumer pressure post-Blue Planet is, at last, seeing demand for recycled plastic growing versus virgin material. We were also one of the very first in the UK to trial 50% recycled plastic, and from this Winter, all our plastic lines will be made from 100% recycled plastic – ‘bottles made completely from bottles’. Whilst the world remains confused by the media and is trialling switching to cans and cartons, unless the single-use need can be removed completely, 100% recycled plastic is the lowest footprint option that can be part of a circular economy.
In the glass sector, we convened and led designers, manufacturers and brokers to work with us to challenge the status quo, significantly light-weighting through smart design and delivering the lightest weight bottles available for water. And the added credentials of being made in the UK, with each contributing a small royalty to WaterAid – this is our ethical glass model. From 2020 we will launch a further improved version, demonstrating we’ve pushed the boundaries even further driving innovation in our sector and staying committed to UK-made glass at a time when importing is on the increase creating further unnecessary CO2 emissions.
The future for Belu is also in filtration
Three and a half years ago, we began figuring out how water filtration and refillable bottles might become part of the Belu model. In 2017 and 2018 we prioritised using filtration to pivot our business model to become less dependent on single-use formats, and again living our environmental values. The Belu Filter Initiative offers filtration systems without charge to outlets using refillable bottles and together we transform lives when the customer contributes a voluntary £1 for their chilled still or sparkling water. We’re also providing systems delivering hot and cold filtered water in UK offices. With our new collaboration with Brita, this has huge growth potential for Belu as we seek to deliver an end to end water offering to our market.
Living those values whilst accurately measuring, reporting and continually reducing our carbon footprint to the Independent British Standard, has meant although we are a relatively small business, we’ve had the confidence and the data to really punch above our weight as a brand. We’ve delivered results that a small and extremely lean team
can be immensely proud of.
A pioneering partnership
In the nine years of reporting to date, the business has so far passed over £4 million to WaterAid, £1 million of that in the last year
, transforming over 270,000 lives through access to clean water. This is a partnership model that works, and both parties are hugely aware of the potential its sets out for the third sector. What we also know through our carbon data that it currently takes 89kg of CO2e emissions to transform one life, and having this data inspires us to improve our environmental footprint further. Having the data, the positive results and this transparent and confident story have been the key to the growth of our awareness and results. People think the story is inspiring.
This has been the craziest and the best job I could ever have hoped to accidentally find myself in (but that’s a whole another story). From flying with our Prime Minister to celebrate our national day in Milan to communicate the story of Social Enterprise to the Italian Prime Minister, to speaking alongside Paul Polman at the launch of ‘The Future of the Corporation’. And from opening the London Stock Exchange, to seeing WaterAid’s amazing work first hand in both India and Madagascar. I could never have imagined the story that has unfolded over the last decade, yet we have shelves bursting with awards to evidence it, including two Queens Awards, for Sustainable Development in 2017, and for Innovation in 2019
My reasons for leaving
Resigning from my role has been a really difficult decision to come to. It has in fact been over a year in the making, as I have become increasingly focused on two things. Firstly, for Belu to be a truly sustainable business model it must to be able to thrive without me. I have been considering that in each decision we have made over the last year in strategy, hiring, structure and operating model and as a result there has never been a better time to hire the new CEO.
Secondly, the current team could run the business without me. The team are bright, skilled, experienced and purpose-driven. Each having joined Belu with impressive careers behind them as we’ve steadily grown the team, and as they have identified the need for purpose in their work. I have no doubt that the new CEO will have all the experience and support they need around them to make a huge success of the next decade of Belu.
From a personal perspective, it is also the right time for me to take a break. The role is one that takes an enormous amount of energy and resilience. It has been the most rewarding role of my career, but also the toughest. Each year has got better and the thought of leaving is incredibly hard, but now it’s time for me to prioritise family and myself for a while and it’s the right time for the business and team too.
This role is a superb opportunity for someone to use all the skills and experience they have acquired so far to make a huge difference in the world and find purpose.
Looking to the future
I plan to carry on with my board role for Social Enterprise UK
and have been recently asked to take on the role of Vice-Chair for brand, membership and marketing. Our movement must lead the way to define what the future of business must look like if we are to navigate the many issues we face in society today. I am thrilled that I will be able to invest more energy in helping us achieve that.
And of course, I will forever remain a committed ambassador for Belu. For now, my energies remain firmly focussed on carrying out my role to the best of my abilities, and in working with the board and our search partner to find my successor.
To find out more detail on the CEO position, and to apply for the role, please visit the job advert on Starfish Search
Thank you once again to everyone who has been part of our #BeluWaterStories so far. The story would not exist without you.
Karen Lynch, CEO of Belu Water