Chris Hayton left college to start a life with the Royal Air Force when he was just 17. Working first as a weapons technician on Harrier Jump Jets and Tornadoes, his skills led him to a career teaching aerospace engineering with the European Centre for Aerospace Training.
Fast-forward a little over 20 years, and the 44-year-old newlywed is ready to navigate a new slipstream with his own Riverford Organic veg box delivery business. Matt Pigott interviews.
I left school, started college and decided to join the Air Force when I was 17. I went to a careers information office for advice, and looked into the different employment options. At the time, you could apply for all sorts of positions with the RAF, from admin work to becoming a pilot. I wanted to work directly on the aircraft.
I worked with the RAF on weapons systems covering everything from nuclear missiles to the Mauser BK-27, a 27mm cannon fitted to Tornadoes for air-to-air or air-to-ground firing. I've also worked on laser-guided bombs and electronic counter measures. Basically, I was responsible for the smooth running of the weapons-related hardware and electronic computer systems - so, quite a switch from doing that, to teaching and then to running a veg box delivery business!
I'd done about 22 years of employed service and had reached the stage with the RAF where I could take my pension. I did three years lecturing after leaving the RAF but I had become disillusioned with teaching. And the fact that I had turned 40 also gave impetus to the decision making process. I realised that, if I didn't make a career change at that point, it would become increasingly difficult for me to do so as I got older.
So I went through the thought process that I believe a lot of people in the forces go through: ‘do I remain in the service until I'm 55 or 60 - at which point it's a lot more difficult to start a new career - or leave to start something new. I decided to buy a franchise with Zoe, who was my fiancé then, and is now my wife, and start a new life with my own business.
No, there was no epiphany, no Jerry McGuire moment! The change happened in stages. My mum has a very green philosophy, and is mindful of the environment. As a youngster, I didn't pay much attention to what she said, but now that I've had children myself, I realise that her concerns about the world we live in were valid. I've got a 15-year-old son and a 10-year-old daughter, and they've changed my outlook on life.
As a Riverford franchisee, I'm doing something I feel genuinely good about, and I'll get to spend more time with my kids. I'll also be able to offer them the opportunity to work with me and earn a bit of money - helping with leafleting for example, or coming on the delivery rounds. These are things I could never have done for them as an employee.
As an RAF weapons engineer and a teacher, I had a fixed income and a limited role. I'd always wanted to start my own business, but having been in employment for such a long time, the prospect was daunting. Buying a franchise seemed to me a much safer option because, while you're starting a business, you're doing it with support. With Riverford Organic, so much of the hard work has already been taken care of by the franchisor: the idea for the business, the branding, the marketing, the logistics - the core business itself - have already been implemented and proven to be successful. Riverford Organic has grown over 20 years, has around 50,000 customers, and has given me the opportunity to do something I could never have done on my own.
Right now we're working hard to drive our new business forward and, just two weeks into operating, we've gone from having no customers to having more than 20. If we keep growing at this average, we'll have 500 customers by then end of year one.
We did look at a number of other franchises, including some that I think would have been more profitable. But we really believe in what Riverford stands for, especially it's adherence to a strong code of ethics. We felt much more comfortable investing in a business that isn't just about pounds and profit, but represents something with wider concerns including animal welfare and the environment. With Riverford, Zoe and I have achieved a decent balance between remuneration and lifestyle - which is what we wanted.
We have an area sales development manager who is always on hand when we need clarification on anything to do with the business. With his support, along with advice from other franchisees, we've decided to do as many shows as we can, and also some leafleting, which seem to be the best ways to get new customers on board. We're also planning to do open van sessions, where people come to look at our produce and find out more about the delivery service.
On top of that, we'll do some local press and talk to other organisations in the area, such as Slimming World, Women's Institute, nurseries, primary schools, churches - anywhere we think people will be receptive to the idea of farm-fresh, organic produce delivered to their door. We'll also use social media to engage with our customers. The aim is to get as much exposure as possible at the local level.
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