Interview with Ben Greensmith, Chief Operating Officer of PROPERCORN Part 2

By Matt Dallisson, 07/03/2018

Ben Greensmith is Chief Operating Officer of PROPERCORN, the UK’s Number 1 premium ‘posh’ popcorn challenger brand. Established just 7 years ago, this multiple award winning healthy snack alternative never compromises on flavour, with unusual and exciting tastes like Sweet Coconut and Vanilla, and Fiery Worcester Sauce and Sun Dried Tomato. With over 100 million bags sold to 15+ countries, Piper Private Equity have now invested in this success to kick-start the next phase of growth.


Well placed to assist this is Ben Greensmith. With early blue-chip training from Unilever, he then went somewhere more entrepreneurial to join the now legendary Innocent Drinks, rising to become Commercial Director. Here he increased sales by +10% against a market decline of -5%, whilst delivering the highest ever NPS and Advantage Survey scores. At PROPERCORN, he leads the fight against mediocre snacks whilst championing the absolute right to enjoy something healthy…

View other parts of the interview with Ben here

What leadership characteristics do you look for when you are recruiting?

When I’m recruiting and looking to bring people into the business, what I look for and try to tease out is someone who is going to come in and make a difference. Ultimately, one of our leadership traits and behaviours that we look for is someone who leads by example because I think if you want people to basically follow you, you need to set the pace, the tone, the vision for where you want to go, and I think leading by example is a great trait to have and something that I always look for when bringing people in.

I think the other thing that is important in any leader is being… well, two things. One, is be a great communicator. There’s no point in having a plan and a vision and a view on where you want to get to if you can’t bring people along the journey with you and I am a big believer in open communication within a business. Luckily, for us, we are a small business so communication is pretty open and we talk as a team, and as a business we update regularly on where we are going, and I think that really helps.

What’s the most important skill set for successful leaders to develop?

I think the other area that I would highlight is self-awareness, so having an understanding on one of the areas you are strong in and to help coach and bring people along, but the other thing is identifying the areas where you might need a bit of support and actually it’s a good thing to lean on the team to get that experience and empower others to do it, so delegation is a big part of leadership too.

So in summary I would say what I look for in any good leader is self-awareness, a good communicator and someone who leads by example.

We’re always looking for people who can come in and make a difference so one of the standard questions for anyone coming into the business I would ask them what their single biggest contribution – the thing they are most proud of at their prior business or over the last two years – and why they are most proud of that.

I think what you get from that is a sense of what have they actively done, and we want people who can come in and make a different and affect change. But also it gives you an insight as to why they are proud of it, and it might not be the obvious answer that you think of. You get a bit of insight into the individual and some of the challenges that they faced and, therefore, how they went about affecting that change or delivering whatever it was that they delivered which I think is quite important.

And I think the other area would be, what’s the most insightful feedback you’ve had on your leadership style because that, to me, shows that they are open to feedback and, secondly I will always ask them, if that is the most insightful bit of feedback you’ve had and what have you done about it. Because it’s one thing receiving feedback, but then acting on it is really important and I think that, for me, teases out 1) whether or not they are someone who will really lead by example and 2) whether or not they have that self-awareness whilst being open to change and adaptation as well.

If you were to start from nothing with what you know now, what would you have sought more help with?

I don’t think there is a massive amount that I would change but things I might tweak a bit.

I think, from a work perspective, I genuinely believe that I have learnt from pretty much all of the mistakes that I have made along the way which has helped me, in some capacity, get to where I have got to.

That said! I think if there was one thing that I would change – and I say this to my team as well – it would probably be to take control of your own development earlier. At an early stage I was quite focused on career and getting ahead. What I have realised is that your career is probably the best part of 40 years, so it is quite a long game and there is no harm in repetition and the more you repeat something the better you get at it before you move onto the next thing.

So it is probably about the right pace in the early stages of your career and just embedding some of that learning. Overall though, without sounding too clichéd I wouldn’t change much, and I certainly wouldn’t change anything in my personal life. But adapting a little bit, seeking feedback and embracing my own development a little bit earlier would probably be my advice, to myself.


Which business achievement are you most proud of and why?

At PROPERCORN in the last four weeks, we are now the number one premium popcorn brand in the UK and Europe and I think it is certainly not down to me, as all good things, it’s a team effort. But I think, for the business to get to number one and overtake the competition, when we are a smaller, British, independently owned business, to go up against the big guys, as a challenger brand, and get to number one is pretty significant. I think it is testament to an entire business which is really working hard to make sure our products are better than anyone else’s, our packaging is better and sings more, our insight is better.

The time we have with our customers has to be better because we don’t have the luxury of lots of time with them so we have to use that time much more effectively and efficiently, and I think to do all that and to get to number one is pretty phenomenal. It is something that we, as a business, are massively, massively proud of.

I think one of the things that is important to understand is what the shopper… what the consumer wants, and we prioritise taste. I think 93% of people chose a snack with taste as the primary reason, basically. So we prioritise this, we prioritise flavour, so first-and-foremost it is the product that is really important and at the heart of everything we do.

I think the other thing that we try and do very well is we try and celebrate the small things, and understand what really makes a difference and we try to go a little bit further; as a team, as a business, in our culture, with our customers, to just surprise and delight.

So that can be anything, for example the design of the packaging and the product which helps store staff identify the packs when they are in the back of storage, but also it then helps us in terms of availability on shelf. It’s those little touches that all come together to make what I think is just a really great and interesting and fun business, and I’d like to think that that comes through in our culture as well.


View more of the interview with Ben, and other interviews with leaders here

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You might also enjoy another article I’ve published on LinkedIn called ‘What’s your story?’ which explores how the rules of engagement for leadership talent have changed…

By Matthew Dallisson, who advises people to find, attract and keep great leaders with insights drawn from over a decade in executive search and leadership consulting.