March 5, 2019
John Paul Gardner and Andy Dixon first met in the boxing ring, which has led to a business partnership that’s delivered knock-out results on the global stage.
John Paul, a former bodybuilder and MMA fighter, established a diving centre in North Tyneside in 1997 before moving into sports nutrition after a disappointing retail experience.
“I wanted to buy a protein supplement to help with my gym training and so I went to a local sports nutrition shop. I had a pocket full of money but it was probably the worst shopping experience I’d ever had,” he explains.
John Paul returned to this Whitley Bay business and announced it was to start selling sports supplements. Within months, it had become a mecca for gym-goers and bodybuilders.
After their sparring sessions, John Paul asked Andy – who was working for Sports Direct at the time – if he would join his expanding enterprise. Andy agreed and was appointed sales director.
Keen to diversify the business further, John Paul and Andy acquired the European license of Bad Boy from its American owner and started selling a range of specialist gym and fighting equipment, clothing and supplements for men and women.
Despite building Bad Boy into a hugely successful brand in Europe, Andy and John Paul decided to give back the license agreement to concentrate on new business idea.
Recognising the growing popularity for protein- rich snacks, enterprising Andy and John Paul started to create their own healthy, protein-fuelled flapjack.
“At the time, the protein-rich snacks on the market didn’t taste very nice and we felt we could do better,” says John Paul.
The pair instructed a factory in Wales to develop tasty flapjacks that boasted enticing flavours such as strawberry cheesecake and cherry Bakewell as well as all the health and energy benefits the market demanded.
“The benefits of oats are well documented,” says Andy. “They’re heart-healthy, provide slow release energy, and are good any time of the day. Add in high protein – which aids recovery – and it’s a great combination.”
In a departure from other protein-rich snacks on the market, which unashamedly targeted the dedicated gym-goers, John Paul and Andy decided to create a brand for their flapjacks that would appeal to a broader audience.
During 2016, John and Andy attended several fitness trade shows in Germany, India, and London, where their Oatein flapjacks proved an instant hit.
“We ‘got on our bikes’ the old-fashioned way and promoted our brand. This was at a lot of expense but we knew it was the only way we could infiltrate the market,” says Andy.
The strategy worked and within six months of launch, Oatein had a presence in 35 countries.
“What really hindered us in the first year was that we were getting more orders that we could make,” John Paul reflects.
In the past two-and-a-half-years, Oatein’s product range has grown to include brownies, cookies, low-sugar bars, protein powders and spreads, and the company’s international presence has swelled to an impressive 55 countries.
For John Paul and Andy, the phenomenal global success of their oat and protein-rich snacks has meant tackling a mountain of paperwork – but it’s a challenge that they take in their stride.
“Every country has its own regulations and just when you think you’ve seen and done everything, another country will present its stack of rules,” says Andy.
“You have to comply with every one of them, so we just get our head down and work it out,” John Paul adds.
With exports accounting for 90 per cent of Oatein’s business, the founders were keen to build their market share in the UK – which is currently dominated by the like of Grenade, followed by SCI-MX and Boots-owned PhD – and therefore decided to apply for BBC’s Dragons’ Den. Their aim was to seek investment in return for a five per cent share of the business.
While the thought of facing the dragons would have most quaking, John Paul and Andy say they enjoyed their experience in the den – putting this down to knowing their business inside-out and being fully prepared for any questions.
“We had chemistry with all of the dragons,” John Paul says. “It was quite evident they liked us and they liked what we’d done. They recognised that we’d worked hard and called us the ‘Geordie Grafters’. It never felt as though we were on the back foot.”
The founders of Oatein eventually settled on a £50,000 invest from Peter Jones for 25 per cent of their business with a five per cent optional buyback. The investment, John Paul says, will mainly be used to market Oatein in the UK.
Since the episode aired on January 27, Oatein has been inundated with enquiries from potential customers and suppliers.
“By 9pm on the Sunday night, we’d had 30,000 hits on our website,” Andy reports.
Several major retailers in the UK have also been in touch and Oatein’s founders reveal they’re on the verge of signing a number of significant deals in the coming weeks.
“Something we did learn from the Dragons’ Den, was how big the vegan and gluten-free market is,” says Andy. “We’ve therefore developed a new product that’s vegan, gluten-free, zero-sugar and has no palm sugar.
“It’s going to launch in eight weeks and we’re expecting it to be a huge seller.”
While Oatein seems on course to significantly expand its profile in the UK, the founders maintain this won’t be at the expense of their international customers.
John Paul and Andy reveal they are targeting ten new global markets by the end of the year, including Qatar, Mexico, Turkey, the US, Canada, China, Slovenia and Tunisia.
Longer term, John Paul and Andy know that further rounds of investment will be needed to upscale the company, but they are in no rush to get private equity firms involved just yet.
Instead, the ‘Geordie Grafters’ are content on enjoying the exposure created by their Dragons’ Den appearance and are focused on building the Oatein – at home and abroad – in their own way.
Andy concludes: “We’ve always had the mindset of whatever’s put in front of us, we’ll overcome. That’s held us in good stead so far.”