Ex-City lawyer now Mr Organic
Carlo Buckley left his job as a corporate assistant at Baker & McKenzie to import and trade organic ingredients for food manufacturers. While doing this he met his current business partners and this year they launched Mr Organic, a brand of organic food products which you can buy from a range of stores.
mtl: Hi Carlo, please can you tell us first about being a lawyer.
Carlo: I studied Biological Sciences at the University of Bristol and graduated in 2001. I had never intended to do law and only found out by chance that you could do a conversion, so in my final year I applied for training contracts and was offered one at Baker & McKenzie. I found law school quite interesting and generally enjoyed the first three months of each seat. However, towards the latter stages of each seat the novelty wore off as reality kicked in each time, so even then I had doubts about doing law in the long term.
After my training contract I qualified into the corporate department, where I did private company M&A and restructurings. I thought that qualifying into a more specialist area would limit my options going forward and felt that corporate law was the most “commercial” of the four seats that I had chosen.
Post qualification I stayed for 18 months, during which time I planned my exit as despite doing well I knew then that I definitely didn’t see my future in practice. Although a solicitor’s role is obviously a very necessary part of business, I found that the mindset of having to facilitate and document a transaction and essentially minimise risk was not really my strength. I definitely found the commercial side of transactions more appealing than advising on the legal aspects.
While I was an assistant, I was inspired by many of the Moretolaw interviews. I wanted to build my own successful business that could make a difference in some way. I had always had ideas about businesses that I could try and thought about progressing these while I was still a lawyer. I came close to setting up a private hire car company using electric vehicles but it fell through at the last minute. It got to the point where I needed to actually leave law to get some clarity and space to think. I had been trained to think in a certain way and was working very hard, so I needed to get some perspective on other opportunities...
mtl: What did you do when you left law?
Carlo: I went to work for a company that supplies ingredients to food manufacturers all over the world. I had always been interested in food and the Chairman of the company was a family friend and had a position available at the time so I thought why not?! More specifically, I worked in their organic division importing and trading organic ingredients. This really opened up my eyes to life outside law and the vast opportunities within the food industry. It also gave me the opportunity to use my language skills and make the most of my Italian. I had hoped that this would be possible working at an international law firm but it never really materialised.
During my time at Uren Food Group, I spent a lot of time developing business with Italian producers and started to quickly create a niche within the business for this market. As my business ideas until then had been mostly green, I found the organic food industry naturally interesting. I had learnt about the benefits of organic farming at university so I took the opportunity, with the intention of seeing how it went and where it led. As it happens, the job has brought me to where I am now, as I met my current business partners while working there.
mtl: What do you do now and how have you learnt the ropes?
Carlo: I am half Italian and my previous job took me on regular trips to Italy. On a visit to Rome to find new suppliers, I met a producer who had historically supplied the company I worked for with bulk organic tomato products for manufacturers. In addition to industrial products, Valerio produces retail products for some of the biggest organic brands in Europe but had always wanted to have more influence in developing, promoting and growing the organic market. Together with Kostas, who designed the branding and product labels, he had already developed the Mr Organic brand. They needed someone to take the project on, prepare the brand for launch and run the UK company – and that that is where I came in.
Earlier this year we launched Mr. Organic in the UK and our range currently consists of organic products such as tinned tomatoes, pasta sources, tinned beans and pulses and extra-virgin olive oil. Many people that try our tomato ketchup say that it is the best they have ever tasted, which is a very nice compliment! We manufacture most of the products ourselves at my partner’s factory just south of Rome in Italy and work very closely with our other production partners.
We currently supply independent food retailers and health food shops throughout the UK and Ireland as we have a network of wholesalers distributing our products. However, our biggest retail customer is Abel & Cole and in October we also launched the brand in Germany too. We hope to be launching in the USA and Canada during 2010.
Our aim is to be the first mainstream organic brand and to be found in every kitchen cupboard…we like to set our targets high! Unfortunately, I think that there is a lot of confusion among the general public about organic food and the benefits that organic can bring to both people’s health and the environment. In addition and partially due to this lack of understanding, consumers are put off by the high premiums associated with organic products.
Mr. Organic is trying to do something different to other brands and I am confident that we will get there over time. We want to be a holistic company that has a beneficial impact on society as a whole. We are involved in several charities and projects and are committed to converting more and more land to organic farming.
Our first project is a farm near our factory that trains and employs disabled people to work there. It’s a really amazing place and the health benefits to the people that work there are incredible…but this is a whole separate story of its own! We are currently providing the farm with the expertise to convert all 175 hectares to organic and once they have done so, we will use their products in our pots and jars. As the company grows we will get involved in more and more projects from education to conservation and beyond.
I am the managing director of the company and being still relatively small I essentially carry out a multitude of roles within the business from sales to accounting and other administration. Basically I deal with everything from when the products arrive in the UK. I have benefited hugely from having been a transactional lawyer as I am used to a high work rate and I know how to structure, plan and prioritise work. Juggling many balls at the same time and working hard are critical skills to have for any person looking to start and run any new business.
Most of what I do I have learnt on the job, as although my previous role was within the organic food industry, it involved selling ingredients and I knew nothing about the retail market. Again, having a background in law has been really useful as it gives me confidence and on the technical side I can handle contracts and speak with a degree of authority about them. People also look at you in a different and more positive light because of your professional background. If I talk to people in any sector, having a professional qualification and having worked in the City gives me credibility. In addition, during my time in practice I spent a lot of time working with very successful business people. In a funny kind of way this rubs off on you and I have found that I learnt a lot from just being with those people.
mtl: Given your recent experience, do you have any advice for our readers?
Carlo: I think that the decision to leave law is difficult because of the time and effort you have invested in your education and on the job. I think that for many people, leaving feels like they would be wasting all of that hard work and the further down the line you get, the harder it is to leave. It is certainly not a waste to have a background in law – quite the opposite. I also think that it is hard to choose a life-long career path at the age of 18 or even 21. I have always believed that you must try and keep as many doors in front of you open and give yourself as many options as possible. A legal career certainly does that.
I wasn’t married and I had no children when I left Baker & McKenzie, so I had only myself to look after, which helped. I can imagine that when the money gets really good and you have a family to support then it would be harder to leave. However, if you are not happy in law then look seriously at other options as there is a huge world of opportunity out there. I feel incredibly lucky to really enjoy what I do but in a way you make your own luck and you have to take some difficult decisions and risks, albeit calculated ones.
Although lawyers are paid very well, money really isn’t everything. If you are successful, money will come later but it is vitally important to enjoy what you do. After all, this brings the best out of you as a person but also professionally. I think people are often very loyal to their firms having been sponsored by them through law school. A part of me definitely felt that I was letting the firm down, but really you are only letting yourself down if you don’t make tough decisions. I am certainly much happier for having done something different.
mtl: Thanks Carlo – we look forward to seeing Mr. Organic on supermarket shelves soon!
Click here to see the Mr. Organic website.
1998 – 2001
Biological Sciences, Bristol
2001 – 2002
2002 – 2003
LPC, College of Law, London
2003 – 2005
Training contract, Baker & McKenzie
2005 – 2007
Corporate assistant, Baker & McKenzie
2005 – 2007
Corporate assistant, Baker & McKenzie
2007 – 2009
Trade of organic ingredients
Launched Mr Organic in the UK and Germany