Integrity is an often-overlooked value within modern business. On the slippery cultural slope that we find ourselves on – where style and charisma are often more important than substance and backbone – many a good businessperson has fallen by the wayside whilst others with fast morals and questionable ethics sometimes seem to win the day. However, the long game of operating from a solid ethical and moral foundation is so much more rewarding and impactful than the empty (albeit shiny) world of short-term gains. Paul Banks, MD of Exeter-based catering company Fresha, is playing just such a long game. I recently met with Paul at the Fresha café on Sowton Industrial Estate to hear about his career thus far, the Fresha journey and what his plans are in both regards for the coming years.

Born fifty years ago right here in Exeter, Paul is the middle of three children and grew up in Woodbury, on the rural outskirts of the city. Born into a Christian family, Paul’s parents were actively involved in the local church and were incredibly hospitable and social. As a result, their five-bedroom house was always full of visitors, friends and, sometimes, those in need of a place to stay for a few nights.

Paul surmised, “This upbringing, aside from the religious elements, instilled in me an incredibly strong value for all things relational and social. In fact, I would say it is so intrinsically part of me that it is woven into the DNA of my personality and my personal value system.”

Paul continued to explain that, despite a happy home life in a secure family unit, school was not a pleasant place for him. He stated,

“I didn’t have a very good time at school. My personality and way of thinking just didn’t fit into the box of what school was and I was pretty bored really. In what I think was my first entrepreneurial effort, I realised that I could undercut the school tuck shop by buying stock offsite and then selling it for marginally less than they did. So I asked the local shop owner if he would introduce me to his suppliers, which he did, and I started up my own lucrative black-market tuck shop on the playground, making £10 per week. Let me tell you, in the early eighties, £10 per week was not bad at all for a young boy!” 

He continued,

“But, instead of encouraging this entrepreneurial spirit, or mentoring my fledgling business acumen, the school suspended me for a week. Obviously the headteacher felt that the school’s tuck shop income needed to be protected at all costs!

As Paul re-leafed the pages of this chapter of his life, I found myself pondering the power that we as adults have over children to either affirm their skills and breathe life onto their dreams or to dampen or dent them. Quite the responsibility when you think about it…

Paul continued onto Exeter College where he studied Business, Economics and Industrial Studies. He had found his niche and he lapped up every last bit of advice, information and experience that he could. So much so, in fact, that he had carved out a very tidy business for himself during his college years buying and selling used cars. In the two years that he was at Exeter College, he bought and sold over forty cars, leaving him with £10,000 in the bank at the end of college. Not bad at all if you ask me! 

His main Economics lecturer at college was a serial investor on the Stock Market and, with some of his advice, Paul chose to invest some of this money in some stocks of his own. Fast forward to six years later and Paul was able to buy his first house with the money that he had made on the Stock Market.

Anyway, rewinding slightly, Paul had taken a summer job in Bermuda at the age of sixteen and, whilst out there, was given the opportunity to assist a church group in building a hospital in Haiti. As a last-minute addition to the group, Paul wasn’t fortunate enough to have been housed with a host family and was instead accommodated in the local orphanage in a place called Dessalines – a poor rural community of over 100,000 people a few hours outside of Port au Prince, without a single medical centre or doctor.

Paul paused and shared his tragic memories of waking up each morning and digging graves for the children who had sadly died during the previous night. He commented,

“That sort of experience never leaves you and certainly shapes who you are as a person. It was truly heart-breaking.”

Paul also has fond memories of his time in Haiti though, playing football with the locals and building a particularly strong bond with one child called Joseph who Paul went on to financially support for ten years.

After his time in Haiti, Paul was fortunate to join a couple of friends on a visit to Disneyland in Florida and he was blown away by the energy and scale of the operation – so much so that he decided that he wanted to work there. So, he wrote to them four times in two years to explain that what he lacked in experience he made up for in attitude and, eventually, just two months before his A-Level exams, Paul received a letter from Disney finally relenting and inviting him to an interview in London. He navigated what was a thorough interview process (with the Disney executives praising Paul for his persistence and dedication) and, a few weeks later, received a call to say he had got the job and needed to pack his bags ready to travel to America. He was flown out to the US, picked up at the airport and housed in Disney’s own accommodation for overseas employees.

Paul quickly moved into a specialist events and marketing role for Disney before joining the taskforce which migrated to Paris for the opening of Disneyland Paris. He watched as the project turned from a building site into a world-leading theme park and also saw the many thousands of employees slowly turning up from around the world ready for opening day. An intense eighteen months followed – battling teething problems, launching a traditionally American destination experience into the European market and also dealing with a lower-than-expected footfall.

Having done everything that he could in his role, it became obvious that it was time to move to pastures new for Paul, so he moved back to the States and started working for a charity in Denver, Colorado. This organisation placed gap year students into inner-city projects around the world and the role took Paul to sixty cities in six countries within a twelve-month period. Working in prisons, rape centres, mental health centres and substance abuse clinics, this year of charitable work was another experience which engrained the importance of conducting business with a heart and a purpose for Paul.

After a successful four-year foray into the world of finance (which Paul described as “a bit empty and soulless”), Paul segued back into a role in the charitable sector working for a Birmingham firm who wrote business plans and raised funds for inner city projects. After the four-year departure into the slightly murky world of finance, Paul had ‘come back home’ and was operating within the business world, with a purpose once more.

After a year in that role, Paul knew that he had firmly established his ethical foundation in business but he had somewhat lost his way as an aspiring entrepreneur and businessman. So, he applied to join an MBA Masters in Business Administration course at the University of Exeter, despite there only being a week before the new term began and despite Paul not having achieved a degree to qualify him to study an MBA. Nevertheless, the University agreed to allow Paul onto the course on the proviso that he would leave if he was failing to achieve the required grades.

Not to worry though as Paul achieved the single highest grade in the course’s Entrepreneurial Studies module for his start-up idea – a food truck which delivered fresh food to businesses in and around Exeter. This theoretical business was called Taste Sensation and the faculty were so impressed with his work, that they invited him back to co-teach the same module the following year – something that Paul gladly did. In a completely embryonic form, Taste Sensation was the earliest iteration of what is now known as Fresha.

And so, with some advice from his former tutor as well as another long-term friend who came onboard as a ‘silent partner’, Paul launched Fresha in 2003. With the simple belief that their food must be prepared and served all in the same day and that the business should be run with people, community and the environment in mind, Fresha launched with confidence into a market saturated with three-day shelf lives and sometimes questionable ethics.

Despite being a foodie, Paul knew that commercial cooking was a different world to dinner parties and feeding the family, so his first employee was a commercial chef who made the food each morning. Apart from that, Paul did everything else – from invoicing and customer service to food delivery and marketing. Before long, one van turned into two (meaning Paul needed another employee) and the business steadily grew, expanding into corporate catering, buffets and outside catering too. Such was the growth trajectory of Fresha that Paul started looking for permanent premises, with the dream of opening a café. 

He noticed that Marsh Barton had multiple eateries and cafés but Sowton Industrial Estate had none and, upon further investigation, found out that there was a covenant over the whole of Sowton which had been enforced when Granada Service Station was built in the 1970’s. This covenant basically stated that, if Granada were going to build the service station and invest in the local road infrastructure, then they wanted to protect their food and drink revenues by banning anyone from opening a food or drink retail outlet on the covenanted land. 

Not only that, but Paul also found out that this covenant was thirty years old, so Paul challenged the covenant and won! This cleared the way for Paul to move into his own premises so he went about searching for the right one. He found the right building in the right location and knocked on the door to ask if it was for sale. Fortunately, it had just been listed for sale and the previous owner was the person who actually opened the door when Paul came knocking. So, with no middle-men or agents involved, both parties instructed their lawyers and Paul purchased the building shortly after.

Having been given notice on their previous temporary premises, there was a tight three-month window during which Paul had to find and move into this new premises and, in what proved to be a trying time, not only did Christmas fall in the middle of this three-month time frame but Paul’s Dad (who he was very close with) sadly died of a sudden and unexpected embolism two weeks before he was due to move in. Paul reflected,

“It was all so sudden and he was more than a Dad to me – he was my best friend. It really rocked my world but, at the same time, I knew that I had a definite and immovable deadline to meet. I would say it was one of the very hardest things I have ever had to endure – both professionally and personally. By the time we moved in to the new premises, I was wiped out and emotionally wrecked.”

This tough chapter of the Fresha was, unfortunately, not to stop there. They opened their new café space – a sizeable project which required significant investment – in the second week of September 2009 and, just one week later, the world plunged into economic recession. 

Between September and December 2009 Fresha’s income dropped by one third. Paul explained, with a battle-scarred hindsight,

“We were losing money heavily and the bank put the company under special measures, asking for financial information on a monthly basis to help them decide if they were going to allow us to continue trading or to close the business. This continued for almost two years and during this time we sadly had to make staff redundant and reduce overheads where possible.”

In a moment of well-timed fortune, Paul came across a tender for a catering contract from a local NHS provider which he applied for and won. This took Fresha from a position of loss into a break-even state and steadied the ship, basically saving the company from going under. Not only that but it proved to Paul that tendering for public sector catering contracts was a sustainable growth plan alongside the other elements of his strategic plan.

And, since 2009, Fresha have indeed turned a corner. Significantly, they haven’t borrowed from a bank once since those turbulent times, making them more self-sufficient and stable. Through clever and controlled budgeting, well-timed business expansion and a successful tendering strategy, the company is now a multi-million-pound turnover business which employs over fifty people, operates across ten sites and produces over 12,000 meals per week. They have also established themselves as one of the leading education and ‘blue light’ suppliers in the region, providing catering services to schools, police, fire and ambulance services in Devon and Cornwall. And all with the company’s original ethics intact – producing sustainable, fresh, local and quality food. 

And, with a varied CV which includes serving as a Director of the Exeter Chamber of Commerce, an advisory role as a Commercial Director of Exeter Cathedral and Business Manager of recent community success story Parklife, it is clear that Paul is a man who has both earned his stripes and also served his community faithfully over a sustained period of time. 

Outside of professional life, Paul is a keen sportsman, enjoying endurance cycling events, sailing regattas and a healthy dose of adrenaline fuelled motor racing. He is also a dedicated husband and father who spends the majority of his weekends away with his family in their motorhome exploring the amazing surroundings of the South West.

Perhaps it is possible to be a good businessperson and keep your ethics intact after all…

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