Interview: Fulfil Nutrition

Vitamin and protein bar maker Fulfil Nutrition is a rising star among Irish food brands. It now has its sights set on the global market.

For Chief Executive Brian O’Sullivan, the heady rise of Fulfil Nutrition personally represents a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity. “It’s an incredible story, here’s a business that is not even three years old yet, but which is already seeing phenomenal growth. It’s a very exciting proposition.”

For a man who used to run Cadbury Ireland this is no small claim. As he adds: “When I came into the business in 2017, what immediately struck me was the potential of this brand to grow. I could see that this product was addressing a global demand, not just an Irish demand. With my experience I really feel I can now help this brand reach its full global potential.”

O’Sullivan ran Cadbury Ireland until 2012 before moving to the European head office of Cadbury owner Mondelez in Switzerland, where he was European Sales Strategy Director and also managed international customers such as Carrefour and Tesco. For family reasons he was looking for a move back to Ireland last year when he was introduced to Barry Connolly, Fulfil’s majority shareholder.

Connolly has a number of business interests, most notably Richmond Marketing, which has successfully developed brands such as Red Bull, Peroni, and Fever Tree in the Irish market, before launching Fulfil in 2016.

O’Sullivan says the potential of the Fulfil business was immediately apparent. In its first year of trading sales reached about €12m, before doubling in 2017. This year it is forecasting close to €30m revenue from the sale of 26 million bars. “The ambition is for a turnover of hundreds of millions. We want to be selling 100 million bars by 2020 alone.”

Distribution

O’Sullivan says Connolly’s distribution network has been fundamental to the company’s rapid growth with Richmond taking on distribution for Ireland, while another company controlled by Connolly has taken on distribution for the UK. “There is no doubt Barry’s network, along with delivering the proof of concept, has helped us get to our destination much quicker. The level of distribution in Ireland is incredible for such a new product, and the bars got great visibility very quickly. That gets you halfway there. But the product was also delivering something that consumers were looking for and they bought into the proposition.”

O’Sullivan says smaller, nimble players have also been able to steal a march on the industry giants in the whole nutrition bar market. “The big names in the snack market have been struggling to respond to changing consumer choices in this market. In particular it is very difficult for a company rooted in traditional Global aspirations chocolate confectionary to move their brands into different areas, such as protein and vitamin bars. To move those brands to a healthier proposition is a very difficult thing to do because consumers are trained to understand that brands are what they are. The bigger companies also have a huge number of different brands which they are supporting at the same time, so there are a lot of challenges if they start supporting new brands too.”

Sweet spot

O’Sullivan says Fulfil is hitting the sweet spot between great taste and health. “The challenge for everyone in this market is how you balance nutrition and taste as the science evolves. Our target consumer is a health-conscious, on-the-go person who is looking for a healthier snack without sacrificing taste.”

He says that another reason for Fulfil’s growth is that the brand is very inclusive. “It doesn’t alienate anyone and is as attractive to women as it is to men, indeed the split is virtually fifty-fifty. The bars aren’t just for people going down to the gym, they are for everyone.”

Serving this wide audience was one of the key reasons why the company recently launched a smaller 40g bar in the UK, as well as its original 55g bar. The new range has 15g of protein (compared with 20g in the bigger bar), less than 2g of sugar and nine vitamins. “It makes Fulfil a perfectly convenient and tasty, better-for-you snack,” adds O’Sullivan. “The needs of consumers are not all the same and we want to ensure Fulfil can fit into everyone’s day, whether they’re snacking on-the-go or training for a sporting event.”

He adds that the consumer view is changing fast and all the growth in the snack bar market is coming from protein bars. “Ten years ago it was all about taking out fat and salt from products, now it is about ‘what goodness are you giving me?’ Consumers understand the importance of protein as well as taking more sugar and salt out of their diets.”

Future growth

O’Sullivan now sees huge potential in the business well beyond Ireland. In the first instance he is looking to further embed the brand in the UK. “If you look at the UK we are probably in about 10% of the possible locations where we could be. But we are rapidly expanding our presence in the UK with the likes of Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons, and we are following the same trajectory now in the UK that we followed in Ireland. At the moment it is all about scaling up the business in the UK, but after that we will take a view on where to go next.”

The business already has a presence in up to a dozen other countries including Australia, New Zealand, and parts of the Middle East, and in the summer of 2018 also secured an investment from Irish bank AIB to help further fund its expansion.

Meanwhile, Fulfil currently outsources its manufacturing operation to two plants across Europe, however the company is looking at how it expands that operation further. “Outsourcing manufacturing allows us to avoid large scale capital investment and tap into experienced R&D capability, while also responding quickly to changing consumer needs.”

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