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Navigators of Change: disrupting dairy with Sarah Smart

Navigators of Change: disrupting dairy with Sarah Smart

Instinctif Partners is producing a series of audio, visual and written content talking to people and companies who are the forefront of navigating change.


This week, our own Jeremy Durrant spoke to native New Zealander Sarah Smart, CEO of The Collective, on building a brand with purpose and why she relocated to other side of the world during the pandemic.

  • A reminder each week to “Walk The Floor” – being together in person while others go remote
  • Becoming a B Corp and putting culture before strategy is a big part of her changemaking agenda
  • With exciting new dairy products in the pipeline, Sarah is driving change in the company through an emphasis on purpose and bringing more women into leadership roles

For many of us, the challenges of the past few years of the pandemic may have led to numerous “WTF” moments.

For Sarah Smart, head of rapidly growing premium dairy disruptors, The Collective, rather than a question, those three letters represented a weekly diary prompt: a reminder of the importance of engaging with disparate colleagues and to virtually “Walk the Floor”.

We are chatting about leadership during lockdown – a task made that much more complex when you are trying to engage UK-based colleagues from across the other side of the world.

Initially founded by two entrepreneurial chefs in New Zealand, The Collective are the self-proclaimed “shaker uppers” of the dairy category via their gourmet live yoghurts, unsweetened yoghurt, kids’ “suckies” and kefir products. They have scaled quickly to become market leaders in their home country and are now stocked in over 6,000 stores with a growing 2.5% share of the £1.7bn retail dairy market.

Culture eats strategy at The Collective

Sarah officially assumed the role of General Manager UK and Europe in March 2020, having run the New Zealand arm of the business previously.

She said: “One of my main priorities at the start was to reset the strategy and the culture. We had clear guidelines of what we wanted to achieve, and it is brilliant to have that transparency for everyone to follow. But I have always believed that culture eats strategy for breakfast so it’s critically important as well. One of my key strengths in my career has always been around face-to-face communications with colleagues, building relationships and being there to repeat messages and to drive that culture really at the grassroots level.

“Covid hit and I had a realisation that due to virtual working I’d lost all my usual tools to do what I do best. I was working in the middle of the night on a screen with the UK team, trying to build a culture and to drive performance.

“It wasn’t easy, but I just had to find other tools and I realised that very quickly. Colleagues would laugh but I had a WTF entry in my diary every week reminding me to walk the floor. I needed to talk to people and go and get insights. I didn’t have that ability to do that even in my office in New Zealand because I was working on the other side of the world trying to build a team. So instead, I used other tech tools. I had to be careful not to interrupt people too much while they were working behind a screen at home, but I needed to generate those conversations and get those insights and connections when you couldn’t just walk over to their desk.”

Sarah Smart’s emphasis on values

Sarah has had to navigate her fair share of change in the past few years since taking up overall leadership, not least because she decided to move to the UK with her husband and family in the middle of the pandemic. This wasn’t her first working visit to these shores, as she had previously spent six years from 2007 in the marketing team at Innocent Drinks – a period which she recognises has helped shape her later career.

“I’ve always been drawn to organisations that place an emphasis on values and purpose. At Innocent I started on a contract for six weeks to launch a brand and ended up staying there for six years.

“When I started, there were about 40 of us sitting on bean bags. There was a real entrepreneurial spirit, and it didn’t work for some people as there was a lack of process at times, but it was a really dynamic environment which quickly scaled. It taught me to be curious and to ask questions endlessly which I tell my team today. I sometimes look back at conversations I had 15 years ago and think, oh wow that still resonates with similar situations today.”

As a newly arrived leader of a food business in the UK, the Innocent alumni network has also proved fruitful for Sarah.

“So many of my colleagues have gone on to lead incredible businesses around the UK that I’m connecting with them now and we talk about all the templates and models that we still use from our times with Innocent. It was one of those brilliant places; I was very fortunate to be there and I made the most of it.”

People, planet and product

So, what have been the main achievements since she took the helm at The Collective? A focus on purpose and values is evident as the company became B Corp certified in 2021 and is committed to continuously striving to do better across its three Ps: people, planet, and profit.

Sarah says: “I am really proud that we are evolving our UK business to be a true consumer-led brand. Prior to that, having started with chefs, we have been incredible at developing great tasting products that are really exciting eating experiences. However,

we haven’t necessarily talked to consumers about the brand. It’s a big shift. We have hugely loyal consumers as well as a great conversion rate of new customers who are hearing about the brand and continue to purchase after they have tried our delicious yoghurt.

“At the same time, we are a purpose business. We’ve really been driven by our B Corp journey, particularly the last 18 months since we have become accredited and it’s really special. There are fewer than 800 B Corps in the UK and it is very hard to get that accreditation, particularly being a dairy business.”

The process is all part of an overall aim to be carbon-neutral by 2025. A key milestone was achieved last year with the production of the UK’s first carbon-neutral dairy yoghurt. But what has been the feedback from customers and other important audiences?

“We know it really resonates with customers, as they reach out and tell us. The really massive thing is when I’ve had people in the industry who I value as some of the best leaders in that space contacting me and my team to ask how we managed the B Corp status. I think we are making a step change here and influencing the industry.

“It has also impacted from a talent perspective. The majority of people we interview now for new roles say they only apply because we have the B Corp status. These are talented, smart, capable people who are wanting to work in the SME challenger brand space in a scale-up, but only want to work with brands that live with purpose. So, for us it has been great as part of our overall employer message.”

So, what next in Sarah Smart’s journey of dairy disruption?

“Well, I can’t say too much as my colleagues will kill me, but we do want to make sure we keep bringing innovation that’s shaking the dairy industry up. We’re a premium brand and we are not going to bring out “me too” products. Kids is our biggest growth area of business, and you’ll see a lot of innovation coming out in that space. For adults, we also have one of the most exciting innovations coming up that I have tried in four years in the business. It’s amazing and I can’t stop eating all the samples.”

Away from work, Sarah spends time with family and is a self-confessed Peloton devotee, having taken it up during lockdown. She also likes to listen to Steven Bartlett’s Diary of a CEO podcast. But what inspires her professionally?

“I am passionate about women being in leadership roles. When in New Zealand I was fortunate enough to take on a governance role on a board – I was the only female. I saw the dynamics and the diversity of bringing a female voice and a different way of thinking to that environment and being able to add so much value.

“So, what motivates and inspires me are the women that I meet with on a day-to-day basis within my network that are breaking barriers, who are too often the only female voice in their settings. I’m lucky to be surrounded by amazing women – indeed three-quarters of The Collective management team is female but I want to champion and support more into leadership positions.”

Sarah admits to admiring the kinder, more human and caring leadership that is often found in purpose-led organisations as opposed to the assertive approach of old. Seems like another Smart move.

Read Jeremy Durrant’s interview with Kamal Ahmed of The News Movement

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