Changing directions and discovering new niches

“Every seven years I reinvent myself,” says multi-award-winning serial entrepreneur turned eco-campaigner Sian Sutherland. If there has been a theme to her varied career, it has been about discovering new niches, and about the need for ‘deep soul more than deep pockets’ when it comes to building brands. Right now she’s putting her experience to work in a mission to save the planet from plastic packaging — seeking to change public perceptions and industrial practices in the way she once sought to win consumer loyalty in the restaurant trade and the cosmetics market.

Sian Sutherland started her working life in the advertising business, then decided in her mid-twenties to reinvent herself as a restaurateur — with “zero experience, which I suppose has been a pattern in my life”. The model she had in mind was L’Escargot in Greek Street in its heyday under Nick Lander, the favourite eaterie of London’s advertising crowd and in Sian’s view ‘the epitome of a perfect restaurant’. Sutherlands in nearby Lexington Street, Soho, opened in 1987, aimed high (employing at its peak nine chefs for just 45 covers) and attracted critical acclaim, including a Michelin star. Most importantly for its creator, it was “a place where you felt at ease, a place where people might propose to each other”.

Driving the company bus
But the recession of the early 1990s was cruel both for the restaurant and its core business clientele, and Sutherlands closed in July 1992. Sian went on to develop a sideline in film production but chiefly she returned to her earlier career path in marketing and brand creation, in partnership with Kathy Miller. They built a client portfolio that included the likes of cosmetics maker Elida Fabergé, Marks & Spencer, Waitrose and Taylor’s Port but Sian’s own experience of pregnancy and early motherhood in those years gave her an increasing interest in beauty products for expectant mothers — and her next self-reinvention, in 2005, was as the entrepreneur behind the Mama Mio pregnancy skincare range.

Within seven years the products were selling into 14 countries. When recession inevitably came round again in 2008, the business opened and closed in New York within a year, but Sian relished the rollercoaster challenge because “it took us back to behaving like entrepreneurs rather than managers.” Their bounce-back included another new product line, branded Mio, that was all about ‘fit skin for life’. In an interview in 2015, Sian observed that her job was really “to drive the company bus”, whatever road conditions they might encounter. “That means knowing where the business is going, how we are going to get there and most importantly making sure everyone is on the bus and feels a big part of the journey.”

The Damascene moment
2015 was also the year in which the two brands were bought by The Hut Group, a fast-expanding northern-based online retailer, and Sian — ‘not being a big company person’ — took the opportunity to exit. That didn’t make her rich enough to retire but it did give her breathing space for her next reinvention, and her ‘Road to Damascus’ moment came at a film screening in November 2016 with Sir David Attenborough for the Plastic Oceans Foundation, at which the global peril of plastic pollution came vividly alive for her. “I was as far from an eco-warrior as you could imagine, but suddenly I’m thinking, I’ve spent ten years pumping out plastic bottles for cosmetics packaging. What have we done?”

Selling social change
So her latest venture is A Plastic Planet — a non-profit campaigning venture rather than a charity, she explains, that’s selling social change the way she once sold skin products. Working with co-founder and documentary film-maker Frederikke Magnussen, Sian has put her accumulated marketing and media-handling skills into a call for ‘plastic-free aisles’ in supermarkets.

Their first breakthroughs came earlier this year, with an expression of support from Prime Minister Theresa May and news from Holland, where the 74-store Ekoplaza chain has introduced plastic-free aisles — which don’t mean just loose groceries, but goods that are packaged in the kind of non-harmful non-plastic materials to which retailers and suppliers are belatedly giving their attention. The next step is to create a ‘trust mark’ for businesses that seriously commit to plastic reduction, and the campaign has begun to attract grant funding and corporate support (including an investment from the Julius Baer Foundation). It’s a movement that — with a huge boost from David Attenborough, of course — has certainly caught the public’s imagination, and a campaign that with deep soul more than deep pockets, might just change the shopping world.  

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