Belfast Telegraph

Editor Jo Fairley on the secrets of her sweet success

She has known tragedy and triumph, losing best friend Paula Yates to drugs, but achieving huge professional success. Now, Jo Fairley, the UK's youngest ever magazine editor, author of The Beauty Bible and founder of the Green and Black's chocolate empire, will tell our Woman of the Year guests how she hit the top.

By Maureen Coleman

When journalist Jo Fairley nibbled some dark chocolate she found on her husband Craig Sams' desk, she had no idea that those few tasty squares would change both their lives and help sow the seeds for a multi-million pound business.

Nebraska-born Craig - described by his wife as an "old hippy" - had a natural food company called Whole Earth Foods and had been sent some cocoa beans from a supplier. Using those beans, Craig had a sample made of the world's first organic chocolate, but his company couldn't launch the product because of its strict no-sugar policy.

So Jo had a brainwave. Her ability to sniff out a good story told her that the organic angle was a seller. Not only that, but the product was the most delicious chocolate she'd ever tried. Armed with £20,000 savings from the flat she'd sold prior to moving in with Craig, she bought her first batch of cocoa beans and along with her husband set up a new chocolate brand, Green & Black's.

That was in 1991, the same year Jo and Sam were married, and since then they've continued to taste sweet success. In May 2005, Green & Black's was sold to Cadbury for an undisclosed sum (rumoured to be around £20m). Five years later Cadbury was taken over by Kraft Foods. All Green & Black's chocolate, along with Cadbury's Dairy Milk, is now certified by the Fairtrade Foundation. And Jo, who still writes and is author of a series of best-selling books on health and beauty, including the world-wide smash The Beauty Bible, has since gone on to launch leading website www.beautybible.com with friend Sarah Stacey, an award-winning organic bakery, Judges Bakery, an 11-room boutique wellbeing centre in her home town of Hastings in Kent, and the first Perfume Society for those with a passion for scent. Phew. So how does she do it all and stay sane?

"I just work bloody hard, frankly," she laughs. "This was my first full weekend off this year, so I'm not shy of a bit of hard work. I don't know any successful business person who has not put in more hours than they ever expected to. That's the bottom line.

"And I go to yoga three mornings a week, if I possibly can. When I set up the wellbeing centre in Hastings, my indulgence was to organise an 8am yoga class especially for me. Luckily other people wanted to do it. I also meditate using the Headspace app on my phone (also used by actresses Emma Watson and Gwyneth Paltrow). I find it really good for relaxing me. It stops me feeling overwhelmed."

Jo (58) never set out to be a businesswoman. She never set out to be a journalist either, despite being hugely successful in both fields.

"When I was at school I wanted to be a secretary and that's what I became," she says. "I applied to be a secretary in the features department of a new magazine called Woman's World and basically worked my way up from there. I never anticipated being a journalist. My father was a journalist and he discouraged us from following in his footsteps. He had to travel a lot and spent time away from his family, and he didn't think it was a family-friendly profession to go into.

"In fact, four out of five of us have done writing in some way, so his attempts to stop us failed."

Jo did so well in journalism she soon found herself editing the teen magazine Look Now. At 23 years of age, she was the youngest magazine editor in the UK, before moving on to the more grown-up fashion publication, Honey. Looking back, she thinks it was her enthusiasm for the job and her keen eye for trends that saw her climb the career ladder so quickly.

"I always had my finger on the pulse," she says. "For some reason I was able to put my finger in the air and feel trends coming and that was obviously relevant. My boss decided to put someone in charge of the magazine who was part of the target market and who didn't have to second guess what the readers might want to know about, because she was one of them."

Running a magazine gave her some business experience, which was to come in handy later when she co-founded Green & Black's with Craig.

"I had never done business before, only in that I edited magazines and I suppose that's a bit like running a business," she says. "You've got a budget, you have to be commercial. It is like running a business, but at the end of the day, it's not your money. Mind you, your head is still very much on the line. You learn many of those lessons when you edit a magazine but when I started running Green & Black's, I wasn't aware at the time of just how much business experience editing a magazine had given me."

In the same year that Jo and Craig launched Green & Black's, the couple also tied the knot. Jo had known Craig's family from the age of 18, when they'd been introduced through mutual friends. The pair went out together for two years before they got married. It's fair to say 1991 was a pretty stand-out year for them both.

"Yeh, that was a pretty good year," Jo agrees. "Launching a brand is a bit like getting married in a funny way. You have a million things to do but thankfully, most of them only need doing once.

"What attracted me to Craig is that he's terribly handsome, he doesn't think like anybody else in the world, he's very clever and he makes me laugh. It's all of those things."

Jo is step-mum to Craig's two grown-up children, Rima and Karim, who have four children between them. She also has an adopted daughter called Lily, who's about to have a baby.

"We're a strange patchwork family," she laughs. "It's all very modern."

The couple's adopted daughter Lily was a close friend of Peaches Geldof, who died last year at her home from a heroin overdose. The 25-year-old mum-of-two was the second daughter of Sir Bob Geldof and the late television presenter Paula Yates, who also died of a heroin overdose in 2000.

Paula had been Jo's best friend back in the 1990s and it was actually the businesswoman and journalist who discovered her body at her London home. Jo had called the house three times and was told by four-year-old Tiger Lily, daughter of Paula and the late Michael Hutchence, that her mummy was asleep. An anxious Jo rushed round to Paula's house, and when she saw the 41-year-old's naked body, she knew straight away she was dead.

"It's just awful, it's Shakespearean in its awfulness," she says. "Peaches Geldof was a much loved, crazy girl. She was slightly bonkers as a child, never predictable. She was always a little firecracker and she just burned out very young.

"I kept in touch with all the girls over the years (Fifi Trixibelle, Peaches, Pixie and Tiger Lily). We were very close, we still are. In fact, I got them all together for Christmas at Peaches' house in 2013. It's the only time the four sisters were ever together with all the kids. I'm so glad we did it.

"My Lily was Peaches' best friend so it was like history repeating itself when she died. Lily lost her best friend and I lost mine."

How would she describe Paula?

"She was hilarious," she says. "She was the funniest person I ever met. She was quick as a flash and hilarious, just a very good friend, very loving, kind and generous.

"I have lots of good friends and every one is different, but I do miss Paula and I do think about her. I try and remember her when I can. I've still got various presents that she gave me over the years, paintings she bought me and when I look at them, I think of her."

One of her other close friends is journalist Sarah Stacey, with whom she founded the global bestseller The Beauty Bible. Both women were working as beauty editors at the time and struck up a bond at product launches around London. As Sarah was being bombarded with questions all the time about anti-ageing creams, cleansers, mascaras and manicures, she asked Jo what she thought of publishing a joint book. The Beauty Bible was launched in 1996 and spawned a series of successful follow-ups. In 2001 they launched the Beauty Bible website and both women still write for the Mail on Sunday's You magazine, as well as for many newspapers and magazines in the UK and worldwide.

Jo was working as a freelance journalist at the time of Green & Black's launch. She says she had no idea it would become such a huge-selling brand and might even have been put off at the start if she'd known what was ahead.

"You don't know on day one that something's going to be a massive success," she says. "In fact, if you did, it would be very scary and you might not want to put one foot in front of the other.

"We started with an order for two tonnes of chocolate and then built up from there. It's the same with any business really, you basically put one foot in front of another and just do it. You just roll up your sleeves and do it.

"I knew all about a good PR angle. I knew how to write a press release, having been on the receiving end of hundreds of thousands of press releases before. Let's face it, it would have been a pretty sorry state of affairs if I hadn't been able to write a Press release. Then I accompanied it with lots and lots of chocolate to get it noticed, went through my contact books, got in touch with every journalist and restaurateur I'd ever met and got it out there. I networked. That's what you've got to do."

Jo thinks there's a number of reasons why Green & Black's is so successful. "It's a combination of a fantastic, high-quality product and a great design, underpinned by organic and fairtrade values at the very core of what we do. Those values may not necessarily be the reason people buy it, that's mostly down to the fact it's delicious. But there is that extra feelgood factor of the fairtrade aspect and the fact it's organic.

"And there has been the knock-on effect for the countries we work with. It's transformed the fortunes of farmers in places, particularly in Belize. Over the last 20 odd years we've seen secondary school education in those villages go from zero to over 80%."

Her greatest achievement to date came at a farewell dinner for the outgoing CEO of Cadbury, when he thanked both Jo and Craig for showing the company the way with fairtrade. (Cadbury made Dairy Milk fairtrade after the success of Green & Black's).

"We helped to show Cadbury that doing good could be good for business," she says. "Yes it was a good thing to do but it worked in every way. Kitkat and Maltesers have also gone fairtrade. The benefits of that for farmers around the world is enormous. That's what I want my legacy to be."

I wonder if she's ever tempted to taste other types of chocolate that aren't Green & Black's.

"If I'm on a train and I have no Green & Black's on me, and, you know, I fancy a little something, I'm not adverse to buying a Twix," she says.

"But it's all in the name of research, of course."

  • Jo Fairley will be the after-dinner guest speaker at the Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year Awards in March at the Ramada Plaza Hotel

Book your ticket to hear Jo speak...

Award-winning author and co-founder of Green & Black's chocolate Jo Fairley will be the after-dinner speaker at this year's Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year Awards, in association with the OUTLET, at the Ramada Plaza Hotel on Thursday, March 19. Jo, who co-wrote the bestselling book series The Beauty Bible, will give an insight into how to create, launch and grow a brand. Along with husband Craig Sams, she started Green & Black's with just £20,000 of her savings, and has grown it into a brand worth £100m worldwide in less than 20 years.

Tickets for the awards ceremony cost £60 plus vat and include a pre-dinner drinks reception, four-course meal, wine on the table, entertainment and a goody bag to take home. Payments can be made by credit or debit card. Simply contact Michael or Heather on (our Front Counter) 028 9026 4003, Monday to Friday 9am-5pm. Tables of 10 are also available at £600 plus vat.

Last year's Woman of the Year award was won by a woman who made a huge difference in 2014, the late and much loved Una Crudden, who tirelessly campaigned to raise awareness of Ovarian Cancer.

Previous overall winners include Kate Richardson, a young rower who took on the Atlantic to raise funds to tackle human trafficking, and Nuala Kerr who showed great courage when she challenged the terrorists who killed her 25-year-old policeman son Ronan in 2011.

This fabulous black tie and awards presentation brings together and rewards the very best of Northern Ireland across nine different categories including Woman of the Year in Education, Woman of the Year in the Voluntary Sector, Sportswoman of the Year, Mum of the Year, Inspirational Woman of the Year, Businesswoman of the Year, Woman of the Year in Hair, Beauty and Fashion and Woman of the Year in the Arts.

If you know someone who deserves to be nominated in one of the above categories, simply enter them now at www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/WOTY.

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