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Career interview: David Irwin, Urban Legend Doughnuts discusses his Consumer Goods role

14th July 2022

David Erwin gives us an insight into his knowledge and experience within a Consumer Goods Role for Urban Legend Doughnuts.

David Irwin spent a varied career in Consumer Goods working for Unilever, Bacardi, Innocent and Graze before taking a role as Managing Director at Believe in Science; home of the under 150 calorie doughnuts brand Urban Legend. David kindly gave us his time to talk through his impressive career working across food giants and start-ups, his experience of working for a disruptor in the ‘health’ category and how his version of success has evolved over the years. Thank you, David!

David, tell us more about Believe in Science – it’s the home of Urban Legend doughnuts, isn’t it?

It is! Put simply, we make healthy doughnuts. Our product has half the calories, half the sugar and half the fat of a traditional doughnut. We’re turning the notion of the traditional doughnut on its head. An ‘urban legend’ may be a myth, but we believe healthier treats that also taste good shouldn’t be a mythical concept. We achieve this using different ingredients and a very scientific method and process.

I’ve spent a lot of my career selling people healthy products at Graze and Innocent and it’s difficult to tempt customers away from the treats they like. But we believe tasty, popular treat food can be made healthier by the power of science.

Beyond the doughnuts we have exciting expansion and innovation plans. The bakery sector hasn’t seen a lot of innovation as it’s been dominated by volume and own-label manufacturers for many years. So, watch this space!

You’re currently in a category disruptor – do you prefer working in that area of your  Consumer Goods Role? You’ve seen both sides of the coin with tenures at Unilever, Innocent, Bacardi and Graze.  

I’m glad my career has enabled me to tread both paths. In a start-up you have more control over your own destiny and a chance to rip up the ‘rule book’ more than you do in a large established business. A big Consumer Goods role will teach you so much, though. I have 25 years’ experience in this sector, and I’ve still got the energy and enthusiasm to want to change things and make a difference, so this suits me now.

How did you get into your Consumer Goods Role?

I took Psychology & English at University. As part of my work experience after University, I landed at a Consumer manufacturing business called SHS; they produced a lot of own-label and they were in the midst of launching WKD in Northern Ireland. I was working in Marketing for them without much direction when I clocked there were employees given cars with their jobs which blew my mind and impressed me at the time! Then i ended up moving to England to be a National Account Manager for them and I have fond memories of driving around the middle of England with my white Peugeot 406 and an atlas (this was before SatNav in the car) trying to find Cash & Carry’s in Leicester, Norwich, Coventry etc. I enjoyed it and I discovered I like meeting people and being target focussed. In those days you could do well in national accounts with a good attitude and bit of direction. I was mainly seduced by the company car though!

Attitudes towards company cars have changed a lot in recent years haven’t they! Along with roles in national accounts. What advice would you give yourself if you could go back to 2002?

In 2002 I was at Unilever in national accounts, probably working on Tesco. My advice would be not to be quite so impatient; I wanted everything straight away at that stage of life, but I could’ve trusted more that things would work out. I’d also say to be more confident in my abilities and take a few more risks. At Unilever there was a hierarchal structure with a clear path of progression, so I didn’t need to plan too much, but it all comes naturally once you figure out what you’re good at. Unilever was a great learning experience, working alongside some very intelligent people and learnt a lot in a supportive environment.

I wasn’t particularly unhappy there, but when working across so many categories it can be hard to focus and prioritise and drive real growth. I moved to Innocent, which was one brand, one product in one category and a faster pace. In those days the 3 founders were running the Innocent business which I found empowering in terms of the speed of decision making and the sense of energy and dynamism. Innocent was doubling growth every year so there was great momentum.

It’s exciting to hone your skills in that high growth environment, isn’t it? Did you take a structured path to where you are now, or have you taken a few side steps to get there?

Honestly, I went with what felt right at the time. I was attracted to the high-growth environment at Innocent, and it was a different type of company. That ‘west coast’ tech feel was a big influence at the time, and I enjoyed that side of it. The calibre of people there was incredible. There were a lot of people from non-consumer backgrounds such as consulting or investment banking who were incredibly clever and challenging. There was a lot of ‘why do we do it like this?’ a constant challenge to preconceptions and standard ways of working.

I left Innocent after a couple of years and moved to Bacardi. At Unilever I’d been a cog in the wheel, then at Innocent I was running the Grocery division quite quickly. Bacardi was a relatively small company but also a huge global brand stable with some very well-known brands like Grey Goose, Jack Daniels, Bacardi etc. Alcohol is a fascinating category in the brand-building sense. Coming from Innocent I thought I was a big deal with all my Grocery experience but the Marketing team at Bacardi were more focused on on-trade and speaking to Soho House rather than me and the multiples! It’s a completely different customer strategy and that challenged me in new ways.

Alcohol is a huge category and so interesting in terms of Marketing and our culture, isn’t it?

Yes, customers really identify with their brands and feel their drinking brand says a lot about them; there are Grey Goose drinkers, Ciroc drinkers – the badge really means something to customers. Then the way different products work is interesting too – they may just ask for a ‘vodka and coke’ in a bar, but when it comes to bourbon, they’ll always specify Jack Daniels. How those brands go to market and build is fascinating. I had a great time at Bacardi and learnt a lot.

So now you’re in the health category – are you enjoying that?

Without wanting to sound too earnest, it’s great to be working in a category making a difference to our health. From a mission perspective it’s good to be involved in this space and doing something to help society and the challenges we face. I also have two young kids, so healthy snacking has become relevant to me in my life. So yes, I am.

How has your perception of success changed as your career has developed?

Career Development within a consumer goods role

When I started out, I was more ego-driven, eager to prove what I could do and who I was. The next stage was succeeding through others, delivering results through others, and getting your buzz from seeing other people grow and develop. Now it’s more about how I’m able to make an impact and take some responsibility.

Looking back, I’ve never started with a business from the ground up. Graze and Innocent were in their earlier days but were already in high growth. Here at Believe in Science I’m the first ‘David’ which is saying something; when there aren’t any other ‘Davids’ you know you’ve joined a business right at the beginning of the journey!

This is true! Thanks so much for your insight and time, David!

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