Cracking the world of business 

November 30, 2017

From television manufacturing to IT installation, sausage-making and now supplying tableware to the most renowned eateries in the UK, Valda Goodfellow has lead a colourful but, ultimately, successful and inspirational career. She talks to Alison Cowie

Valda Goodfellow’s career may have spanned manufacturing, food production, IT, business support and hospitality, but in every role, she’s demonstrated tenacity, brilliant strategic thinking and a unique ability to seek out transformative business opportunities.

Valda, who is from County Durham, currently runs Goodfellow & Goodfellow Ltd (G&G) with her husband, Paul, which provides luxury tableware to five-star hotels and renowned chefs.

Clients includes The Gordon Ramsey Group, Jason Atherton’s The Social Group, The Ritz London, The Dorchester, The Lanesborough and The Goring Hotel, as well as local Michelin-starred chefs, Kenny Atkinson of House of Tides and James Close of The Raby Hunt restaurant

Last month, Valda’s business prowess with G&G was recognised when she was named a finalist of the North East Business Executive of the Year 2017. It’s quite an accomplishment as G&G only established in 2012, but its managing director remains modest.

“You never run your business to achieve accolades,” Valda says. “You run it to be a good business. If the accolades come, that’s lovely and they are a great source of pride for the team, but they should always be a by-product of a successful company.”

Valda began her career in the 1970s at television manufacturer Rediffusion, where she became the company’s first female production controller by her early 20s.

Around the same time, Valda began to recognise the growing influence of computers in the workplace and she took it upon herself to install the first computerised system at the factory.

“I was 22 years old at the time and I did it as a project for my work manager’s course,” she reveals. “I had one week’s training and a set of manuals to work from, but managed to install the system – and found it a lot less difficult than everyone said it would be.”

Valda left Rediffusion to establish her own consultancy, where she would go into companies to install IT systems.

“You really had to understand how each company worked in order to create a system that was right for them,” she reflects.

Valda joined a chemical company to run its computer service department before returning to IT and business consulting after having her first child.

She became a personal business advisor with Business Link Teesside before being poached as operations director for the premium sausage company, Mr Lazenby’s, in 1996.

Within days, Valda – who was also tasked with heading production – discovered the company was operating dangerously in the red. Three weeks later the BSE crisis hit the meat industry.

Valda chose a bold strategy to attract the attention of the major supermarkets’ buyers.

“I sent a fax to all the head offices that said ‘do you practice safe sex? Then buy safe sausages’. At the time, all the buyers were under 30 and I knew they’d read something that had the word ‘sex’ in it.”

Mr Lazenby’s was able to take advantage of the rise in demand for pork products as beef sales slumped and it soon restored its margins.

Valda became managing director within a year and the company began producing Prince Charles’ Duchy Original Sausages. Mr Lazenby’s was sold to Cranswick PLC in 1998.

Valda returned to business consulting where she was introduced to her future husband, Paul.

At the time, Paul was running a small family-run business, Continental Chef Supplies Ltd, based in South Hetton in County Durham, but it was going through challenging times as the market was being flooded with cheap stainless steel imports.

“The company couldn’t compete by buying container loads of stainless steel products from China because there wasn’t enough money in the business,” Valda explains.

Valda joined Continental Chef Supplies Ltd full time in 2001 and worked with Paul to change the company’s strategic focus from kitchen supplies to tableware.

This inspired change of direction transformed the fortunes of the business and, in 2008, it was sold to Bunzl Speciality Businesses PLC.

For the next three years, Valda continued as MD of Bunzl’s Speciality Business Division while Paul remained as a director. In May 2011 the couple decided it was time for a break.

“We left the company but we didn’t know what we were going to do,” says Valda. “We took the opportunity for some time out from any form of business to think about what would really interest us.”

After a well-earned rest and much discussion, Paul and Valda concluded their heart remained in tableware and in January 2012, established Goodfellow & Goodfellow Ltd.

Looking back, Valda says “someone should have slapped me at that point!” as the beginning proved very difficult.

Despite Paul and Valda’s considerable experience, the pair had to start from scratch in a hugely competitive market. Contractually, they were also unable to contact any of their old customers for an allotted period.

But Valda and Paul persisted and positioned G&G at the very top end of the hospitality market, opening a London showroom to showcase their beautifully made tableware and glassware that they sourced from artisan producers and renowned brands from around the UK and abroad.

Valda was also quick to recognise the impact social media could make on establishing their fledgling business.

“Even before we started G&G, I noticed that chefs were using Twitter but that it was a social thing; it was about people, not the business,” she reflects.

“I said to my husband – who’d never used a computer before – that the future was going to be in engaging with all the chefs that he had personal connections with from his career in the industry. He’s since become exceptionally good at social media.”

G&G Ltd now combines industry blogs and recommendations with beautiful photos of food set in its dishes, which is shared on the company’s website and social media channels such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Despite a difficult start, Goodfellow & Goodfellow Ltd’s savvy positioning and digital marketing strategy has paid off and the business – which now employs a workforce of 29 across its London showroom and Peterlee-based warehouse – was recently named as one of the 50 fastest growing businesses in the North East.

“We’ve recently hit a milestone that in five years in business, we’ve achieved the turnover that the previous business took 25 years to achieve. It’s unbelievable that we’ve achieved that from a standing start,” Valda adds.

While much of G&G’s business is London centric, due to its high concentration of premium restaurants and hotels, Valda and Paul remained committed to the North East.

“We do spend a lot of time travelling to the capital but we’ll always be a northern company,” says Valda. “We live here and have made money here, so we want to reinvest that back into the area.”

The husband and wife team are now looking to the future and recently completed a new three-year strategy for G&G, where they hope to double turnover and enter new international markets while maintaining their exceptionally high standard of personal service.

In addition, the company is on the verge of launching its first domestic range of tableware.

“We get a lot of requests from people who dine in restaurants and have asked the waiting staff where they got their tableware from,” says Valda. “We said to ourselves if the demand is there why not cater for that?”

Longer term, Valda – a self-confessed “manufacturing girl at heart” –harbours a desire for the company to produce its own tableware, but remains realistic about the prospect.

“Manufacturing our own products would be phenomenal and it’s a burning ambition I have,” she says. “But because our range of tableware requires lots of different sorts of processes, we’ll never be able to set up one type of production to satisfy demand and will always need to source products from elsewhere.

“At one point, though, I hope we can have some manufacturing capability in one form or another.”

Given Valda’s dynamic entrepreneurial spirit, you wouldn’t bet against her.

Goodfellow & Goodfellow Ltd