Building An Industry: Roman Jewell Of Fix & Fogg
How To Build An Industry: Roman Jewell Of Fix & Fogg
Interview & Photography by Zayyar Win Thein
Zayyar: Thanks for taking the time out for this interview Roman. For those who may not know your background, could you give us a brief introduction into what you do?
Roman: I’m the Co-Founder and CEO of Fix & Fogg. We’re a nut butter manufacturer based in Wellington. Fix & Fogg started in late 2013 in the kitchen of a lawn bowls club and we have now grown to 21 staff. We manufacture all our products in central Wellington and sell our products in New Zealand and a few other countries such as Singapore, Australia, the Philippines and the USA.
Zayyar: How did you personally become interested in first business, then peanut butter?
Roman: I kind of fell into our business. My wife and I started selling jars of peanut butter at farmers’ markets around Wellington 5 years ago. There was so much local demand for what we were making that it made sense to jump into it full-time and turn our hobby into a proper venture.
Zayyar: While growing up did you ever think you’d start your own company? Let alone a nut butter company?
Roman: I’ve always been interested business broadly and have a background in commercial law… but running a small food business is completely different (and much more challenging). Things like cashflow, recruiting staff, setting a clear strategy and new product development are tricky concepts to embrace and manage properly.
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Zayyar: So let's connect the dots here, how does one go from being a lawyer into running a nut butter company? What’s the origin story and why did you pursue it?
Roman: Yeah there’s a bit of a leap there… jumping out of an office job into a food business wasn’t the easiest transition. Both Andrea and I had wanted to ‘make’ something for quite some time - we just didn’t know what it was. I actually tried a bunch of different things like brewing beer, making cheese, pottery before we stumbled on peanut butter. We love peanut butter so it seemed only natural to give it a go.
Zayyar: Can you tell us where the name Fix and Fogg came from?
Roman: That’s a good question. Our name actually comes from two characters in a classic adventure book I was reading right before we started our business - Around the World in Eight Days by Jules Verne: Phileas Fogg and Detective Fix. The idea of embarking on a new adventure away from my day job really resonated with me, so it seemed only fitting.
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Zayyar: What were some of the hardships you had to overcome to bring the product to life?
Roman: Being a lawyer I had no experience in food, manufacturing… or running a business for that matter. But one thing that really helped me was to compartmentalise everything into small manageable chunks - a big undertaking all of a sudden seemed kind of doable. I made a simple list of everything I needed to accomplish - finding a glass jar supplier, designing a label, etc., etc., and went about trying to tick everything off as fast as I could… which in some ways is still how we operate today.
Zayyar: It’s amazing how large a company may seem on the exterior there really is a small and nimble mindset. I think this plays into this next question really well.
Why do you personally think that customers resonate with the Fix and Fogg brand? Obviously there are many competitors in the field of peanut butter and alternatives but what do you think sets you apart from the rest?
Roman: That’s a tough question and there’s probably not one defining thing but rather a combination of factors. We’ve made a firm commitment to quality and not compromising on our values.
I’ve always wanted Fix & Fogg to be a ‘force for good’, to me this means delicious and healthy for the consumers who eat our products, good for the people who work at Fix & Fogg and good for the communities around us. Working backwards from that idea and ethos has made it easy to decide on things like paying the living wage in New Zealand, donating to local charities and so much more.
Zayyar: It’s an incredible ethos to have and is something all businesses should take on board to have a sustainable model that works for consumers, employers and employees. Speaking of wages and staff when was the first moment you realise you needed to expand the business? As in hire more people to help or to purchase more tools and infrastructure?
Roman: This is always an ongoing struggle at Fix & Fogg and has been a challenge since day one. We’ve had great growth over the last 5 years which means we’re constantly hiring new people and buying equipment. I’m a big believer in controlling all aspects of the manufacturing process so that we can protect the quality of our products and ensure standards don’t slip as it’s something I’ve seen happen a lot in the industry.
Taking on our first employee had a big impact on our cashflow - which was hard at the time but in some ways was one of the best decisions we ever made because it really focused us on growth to ensure we could survive and pay our bills.
Zayyar: Over the years you’ve conquered some big feats especially being independent. What are some of the highlights that stand out for you personally?
Roman: I’m always really proud when we push the boundaries and bring new products to market like our latest Everything Butter. But I’m probably most proud of our culture - I love going to work each day because of the great bunch of people I get to work with. When things go wrong (and they often do) I’m always blown away about how we all pull together as a team to sort things out.
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Zayyar: In terms of growth its been a massive upwards trajectory for you yet well sustained, how do you balance that and can you touch on trying to not expand too far out of your means as well?
Roman: There’s always a tension with growth - it places lots of pressure on your bank balance and on people having to step up and perform new tasks. Also not all growth is necessarily ‘good growth’... and we probably started exporting a little too early before we could properly support those overseas markets.
Our growth in many ways is limited to what we can produce - we don’t have a big factory or outsource our manufacturing, so we can only make what we can make. I love growing F&F but because of these limitations we need to make sure that we never bite-off more than we can chew... and let our current customers down.
Zayyar: Growth is such an interesting concept - grow too quickly and it can be detrimental to your business and on the flip side growing to slowly can also have a negative effect on business too. It’s great that you have realised this and are balancing your output and input to maximise results.
Let’s pivot into this question - if you wanted to encourage someone who may be stuck at their desk job with a dream and passion, or is a kid aspiring to start something, what are some key pointers and tips that you’ve learnt along the way that you’d like to share?
Roman: The best thing you can do is just start - there’s nothing wrong with starting small (like I did). I’m a good example of someone that had no clue what I was doing at the start but just kept chipping away at it. Also don’t be afraid to fail (so long as it doesn’t send you broke) - it’s healthy to make mistakes, learn from them, and sharpen your game for the next thing. We’ve made a lot of errors at F&F over our time but they’ve also helped shape us into who we are today.
Zayyar: Finally what’s on the road map for Fix and Fog? Where would you love to see the brand grow in 5 years time?
Roman: I’m really focused on looking after our New Zealand customers and continuing to innovate and look after them. Overseas, I’d like to push more into America and establish some small toe-hold over there. We’ve had a lot of success selling on Amazon over the last 12 months which is putting us on the radar of some big stores in the US. I’d love to take our toast game to the folks over there. Our window at Eva Street is so unique that I think people in the US would get behind and support it.
Interview & Photography: Zayyar Win Thein