An Interview with Our COO - James Barber

Hi James! Firstly can you tell us what you do at BoroughBox?
I’m Chief Operating Officer here, my role is really about making sure that BoroughBox operates smoothly and efficiently, and as a team we’re doing the right things to help the company to grow and service our customers.

It’s a really varied role and I get involved in all aspects of the business, from making sure that our gifts are well packed, speaking with new producers joining our marketplace or fulfilment services, to working with our corporate partners to create the best gifts for them and then even fixing the office toilet when it breaks (I never thought I’d be able to add plumbing as a skill on my CV!).

What were you doing before you joined BoroughBox and what attracted you to the company?
I’ve worked for a few different companies, large and small - always focussed on e-commerce and online selling. 

I’ve always been interested and passionate about start-up businesses and the opportunity to join BoroughBox meant that I was not only joining a start-up with huge potential but I’d be working for a business supporting many different start-ups across the food and drink industry.

Can you remember what your interview was like? Any tough questions?
It was a few years ago now and my memory isn’t the best! I don’t think that there were any super tough questions though. Andy (BoroughBox founder and CEO) is pretty relaxed in interviews and it was more of a general chat and conversation about the possibilities that BoroughBox had.

Can you walk us through a ‘day in the life’ of James? Any morning routines before work? What does a typical day at work involve?
I’ve got a pretty simple morning routine: a shower then breakfast with a cup of tea usually accompanied by my cat trying to get my attention while I flick through the news. I cycle to work which gives me a bit of time to clear my head and get ready for the day ahead. 

When I get into the office I’ll make a coffee and check my emails, but from then on every day presents different challenges and tasks. It’s a bit of a cliche, but there is really no typical day at work for me.

What do you love about working for BoroughBox / what’s the best thing about your job?
One of my favourite things about the job is seeing food and drink producers that we work with grow and have huge success.

A brand like Manilife is a good example, they joined our fulfilment services very early in their journey when I think they were pretty much a one-man company and they’ve gone on to great things, winning big awards and getting supermarket listings. It’s great to know that we’ve played a small part in supporting companies like that.

Another great perk is the samples we get. We’re always able to try the latest food and drink (a bag of delicious marshmallows has just been around the office!).

What’s the most challenging part of your job?
Time management and prioritisation, I’ve got a never-ending list of things to do, each with a different level of importance. Making sure I’m getting the most important tasks done first is vital, as well as ensuring nothing gets forgotten.

What drives you as a COO, and what would you like to achieve in your position?
I love seeing the growth that we’ve achieved - when I joined BoroughBox the company was four people in a small office and we had around 100 producers selling on our marketplace.
We’ve now got well over 20 ‘office’ staff and around 10 in the warehouse and over 800 producers selling on our marketplace.  

I’d like to see BoroughBox become a well-known brand across the country, to be recognised as the place to go to if you want to buy great food and drink.

What do you think makes a good leader, and what lessons have you learned along the way?
There are so many different attributes to a good leader, and each will lead in a different way, I don’t think there’s one way that’s necessarily better than others. I’ve learned the importance of treating everyone in the team as an individual - everyone has a way that they like to work, and people can react to the same communication in completely different ways, so I try to take that into consideration when I’m working with the team.

Let’s talk COVID-19. Can you let us know what it was like for the business, and how the operations side of the business had to adapt?
It’s been the toughest challenge we’ve faced as a business - but we’re very lucky in that the challenge was a positive one, with everyone stuck at home when lockdown started on March 23rd our sales trebled overnight and continued to grow, the biggest challenge was keeping up with demand.

On the operational side we had to recruit a whole new warehouse team to deal with the influx of orders, training the incoming staff and maintaining standards was difficult but we’ve built a fantastic team that have done an incredible job of taking on the challenge.

We had other difficulties across the business, for example we had to source a complete new range of beers (for our most popular gifts) - with many breweries shutting down or furloughing over lockdown we had to find new ones that were still operating and could get stock to us quickly.

james warehouse

Any favourite producers/products that you can recommend?
Too many to mention them all, but a few come to mind:  
- Manilife Peanut Butter is great (Deep Roast is my fave)
Rubies in the Rubble Ketchup is 100 times better than Heinz
Nouri Vegan Truffles are super tasty - the chocolate and hazelnut flavour are like a healthy Ferrero Rocher.

What do you think are the most interesting developments happening in the food and drink industry right now?
There’s always something new and interesting in food and drink which is what makes it such a great industry to work in. 

For me, some of the most interesting products and brands are those that are creating really positive eco-credentials. Whether it’s using fruit and veg that would go to waste, like Rubies in the Rubble, or Spare Snacks, or companies using sustainable packaging like Prodigy Snacks, or those that are giving back to the environment like Love Cocoa who are planting a tree for every chocolate bar they sell.

BoroughBox is a champion for the independent sector. Why do you think it’s important that more people support independent food and drink businesses?
The independent food and drink sector is where the vast majority of innovation comes from - look at two of the biggest trends in drinks in the past decade, the boom in Craft Beer and Craft Gin both came from 100% independent producers.

The same thing happens elsewhere, independent food producers are being more eco-friendly, bringing higher quality, healthy and more interesting foods to market at a much quicker rate than large established brands. They can’t all be a success of course, but those that do can have a huge impact on what we consume and make eating and drinking a lot more interesting for everyone.

Do you have any favourite books or podcasts you’d like to recommend?
The last book I read was Shoedog - a memoir from Phil Knight who founded Nike which is a really interesting read.  

I listen to loads of podcasts, a few recent favourites: The Missing Crypto Queen (true crime), Akimbo (business / marketing), Masters of Scale (business), Dissect (music).

What are your favourite things to do when you have ‘downtime’ to unwind outside of work, and how easy is it to maintain a work-life balance?
I work fairly long hours but I’m good at switching off, so when I’m out of the office I’m properly out. To relax I like to spend time with my girlfriend Kirstee, most weekends we try to get out of London and go for a walk in the country (we’re actually in the process of moving out of London to have some countryside on our doorstep).

Has working for a food business expanded your culinary skills and if so, what do you like to cook?
I’ve always enjoyed cooking, I think working at BoroughBox has opened my eyes to a wider variety and higher quality of ingredients. I like to cook a range of stuff, nothing super complicated. My favourite has to be a sunday roast, with the works - the best part being Kirstee’s super-thick gravy.

What are the important skills you think COO’s need to have?
COOs need to be able to work across so many different aspects of a business so adaptability is really important. You need to be able to understand financial documents, communicate with a variety of stakeholders, create plans, motivate people - all demanding different skills at different times.

Any advice for anyone wanting to follow in your footsteps and have a similar role?
For every company that I’ve worked for, I’ve had a real interest in how the business operates, who does what and how everyone works together. I’ve also had quite general roles - so rather than specialising in one specific area my responsibilities have involved different areas of the business. This has helped me to really understand how companies operate and work.

Where do you see BoroughBox in five years time?
In five years time BoroughBox will be the go to company for any new food and drink brand that wants to grow. We’ll be supplying food, drink and gifts to more consumers and businesses than ever before and be widely recognised as the home of great food and drink.