Stefan Barden

You are right to believe in yourself. You are right to take responsibility for your own life. Everyone underestimates their true potential.”


Stefan is a highly successful businessman and entrepreneur, a former FTSE 250 CEO as well as being a CEO of high growth start-ups, most recently Wiggle, now the world’s largest online pure-play. He is currently an advisor and confidant to a portfolio of 5 companies ranging from start-ups through £5m to £500m in turnover. Stefan is also an investor, though never in companies that he advises as he says: “The best advice has to be given in good faith with no attachment to the outcome. This is difficult to do if you are an investor; there is too much room for misunderstanding and conflicts of interest”. In his spare time, he is a sportsman who competes in triathlons, a passion he shares with his wife of 30 years.

Where did the idea for Victus Advisory come from?

It evolved.

I worked very hard in a varied and deeply rewarding career. I worked internationally on big projects both for McKinsey and for international companies like Unilever, and Heinz before becoming a FTSE 250 CEO at age 44. Working away from home for days and even weeks at a time, my wife and I always planned that I’d retire at 50 which I did. I had been a General Manager/ Managing Director since my time at Iceland Foods some 23 years ago, and over the years had developed a coaching management style and experienced many different business situations that allowed me to give informal advice to friends and acquaintances, and then to management teams in some of their investments.

I set up Victus Advisory quite some time ago to put this on a formal footing and decided to change for my time relatively soon after, mainly to ensure that my time was being used as productively as possible. I found it interesting and rewarding and when I actually did ‘retire’ as planned in 2012 aged 50, I quickly picked up a portfolio of companies to advise.

In 2013 Bridgepoint, the private equity group, asked me to return to a full-time role to take Wiggle, today the UK’s leading on-line cycling retailer, through a major transformation. The task was to transform the company and take it from being one in a pack of seven European players to clear market leader; which I did. With Bridgepoint’s agreement and support, I kept two advisory roles during this time.

Wiggle’s transformation complete, I and now finally and permanently back to supporting start-up companies, I have learnt two things about myself:
1) Keeping a portfolio approach to my business life is very rewarding; 5 is about right for me.
2) I prefer to support Founders/ CEO run businesses rather than provide governance to FTSE listed companies.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

As an advisor and supporter to busy Entrepreneurs no two days are the same. I am always there for them and they know that they can call me at any time of the day or night. Evenings tend to be a favorite for calls – after they have completed their day jobs.

I tend to allow a day or two a month for each business that I support, as any more than that and I’m no longer an advisor but more of an executive. Albeit I have been known to stand in for a role whilst a hiring process is taking place – not least to reduce the urgency of making a hire and hence perhaps making a poor one.

I do a lot of sport, and if possible try to arrange meetings for the afternoon so that I can do something energetic most days before 10:00 am. As a Triathlete who swims, runs and cycles, it is generally easy to find a place that does at least one of these. I’m quite happy to have meetings through till 20:00 or longer, especially if I did some sport that morning and if I can still get the last Tube home!

How do you bring ideas to life?

Ideas are brought to life through their Brand.

I love growing companies. To do this one needs to identify a consumer need and a solution. Sometimes the need comes before the solution, and other times vice versa. Both the need and the solution then must be communicated to the market and this is done through encapsulating them in the Brand.

Over the years my teams have won many marketing awards, from Campaign’s Advertiser of the Year when I was at Heinz, through to crucial Brand Identify and Packaging Awards when I was at Northern Foods: Physically products generally need to stand out on crowded supermarket shelves. Creating a compelling brand and giving it an identity (shape, colours, even sound and smell) and then finally developing a communications campaign which resonates with the target customer is deeply rewarding.

What’s one trend that excites you?

Business start-ups!

In 2016 there were 660,000 start-ups registered in the UK, bringing the total number of U.K. businesses to 5.6 million, up from 3.5 million in only 2000. In London, the entrepreneurial capital of the UK, there are now 15.2 businesses for every 100 adults. (Source: House of Commons briefing paper 06152)

This trend really, really excites me as it has never been easier to start one’s own company and be an entrepreneur. There has never been a more supportive environment.

• There have never been so many products and services needed and which can be acquired. Society has never been richer and there has never been more disposable income to spend on things (however well one thinks it is distributed or not). This is creating ever new markets for products and especially services. The creation of small businesses to satisfy consumer demand (B2C models) in turn creates opportunities for other businesses to support them (creating B2B models). This will only continue! Fantastic!

• It has never been easier to raise money. Though I always recommend trying to build a business model which is self-funding, if not initially as soon as possible, most businesses will need some capital if only to give young founders and their families a basic income whilst they get their company off the ground. The UK government is being immensely supportive with its SEIS and EIS tax breaks for investors and this helps release the large amounts of locked up wealth in the economy. The UK Government is also an indirect investor in many start-ups by investing in Venture Capital and Seed Investment funds which then invest in start-ups proper.

• Businesses can now be built on a variable cost basis; the need for large one-off investments is much reduced. For example, I.T. can be bought on a variable basis from companies like Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure. Apps are often bought on a licence by seat or usage basis. Companies can even now hire great talent on a factional basis, even for senior executive roles such as the CFO or CIO.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Find great mentors!

I have achieved far more that the high goals that I set myself when I was in my 20s and more than I believed I was capable of. My advice to my younger self would be: “You are right to believe in yourself. You are right to take responsibility for your own life. Everyone underestimates their true potential.”

If my advice were to change one thing it would be: “You will have many mentors, but you could always have more and you should be even more proactive in cultivating them: You can never have too many!”

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

Mmm! I’m not sure whether people agree with this or not, but I get the impression from the media that the following is a minority view: “Don’t take a side in an argument if you can’t explain the opposing view in the protagonist’s own words which you have also take time to reflect on”.

I find so much of the polemics of the day to be talking at cross-purposes with the combatants not listening to (and certainly not understanding) the opposing view point to theirs.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Be crystal clear how you are supporting your customer.

For example, I currently support CEO/founders ‘realise their dreams’. Every day and before every encounter with them (in person, on the phone, by email or text) I think to myself ‘how can I best help?’ and often ask them that question directly.

I would encourage all entrepreneurs to think about their own customers in the same way. Every day I believe that they should have a clear picture of their target customers in their mind and be thinking ‘How am I helping them?’, and when they have an answer, answer the corollary question: ‘Am I helping them better than anyone else can?’

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

Build strong brands!

Always start with your consumer and ensure that you understand what connects your business positively to society: This your ‘noble purpose’. This is the foundation that everything in your business will be built upon and it is the heart of your Brand. Without this foundation every business will (eventually) crumble.

I only work with businesses that want to be No.1 in their market. I believe that no business can get to be No.1 without this clarity about its connection with society.

To give some examples:

• At Wiggle, our noble purpose was ‘to inspire everyone, everywhere and every-day to experience the joy of sport’. Once this clarity was within the organisation we went from being one of seven European players to a clear no.1 within three years.

• At Northern Foods, our noble purpose was ‘to improve the health of society by creating every-day, better-for-you food, which is more nutritious and cheaper every-year’. This purpose helped bring the acquired factories and cultures together within the Northern Foods Group umbrella and led to an industry leading 20 quarters of sales and profit growth.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Hiring people that don’t fit with the team culture.

The failures that I reflect on most are the hiring ones. Twice in my 35 years I have hired people for senior roles which turned out poorly for the individual and the company – the hires were several years apart and within a pool of perhaps 50 hires that I’ve made at that level over my career.

Both times the issue was about cultural fit which I take responsibility for as I was trying to ‘increase the gene pool’ of the teams at the time. Both times the hire and I had discussed the challenge and opportunity for the company and the individual to bring in new experiences and thoughts, and I had talked it through and got buy-in from the executive teams. However, the wider company wasn’t conducive to these two new hire and they became frustrated, company performance was impacted and we parted ways.

My key learning is that culture change must be constantly worked on and is slow. New hires can help, but most change must come from within.

What is the one business idea that you are willing to give away?

I definitely think that there is a market for a high-touch, high-experience, paid membership cycle club around the wealthy suburbs of London, UK. If there are any professional cyclists who would like to set one up, do get in touch with me and I can share some plans for free! I’d love to do this, but don’t have the time to make it a priority!

What is the best £100 you recently spent? What and why?

I hope it will turn out to be one of the investments that I’ve made in U.K. start-ups! Fingers-crossed!

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive? How do you use it?

I’ve seen much change in my time, from early email through to the panoply of apps available today, several of which I’m supporting by helping the teams bring them to market. I’m sure that analysis would show that the answer is email, an electronic calendar and (socially for me at least) WhatsApp.

However, being a sports nut, my favourite is Strava. I love their tag-line ‘If it’s not on Strava it didn’t happen’: Great marketing as that line connects deeply with their target user like myself!

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Without hesitation, I would recommend “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen R. Covey. Implementing the seven recommendations in this book helps create balanced and mature individuals who can become strong team players and then leaders. I share this recommendation with all my teams.

What is your favourite quote?

If you allow a quote to be a poem, then my favourite is ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling, closely followed by ‘Invictus’ by William Henley. I would encourage everyone to read these poems and think deeply about the ideas conveyed within them.

If we stick to quotes only, then I like many. One that is top of my mind is “You can’t choose your potential, but you can choose to fulfil it!” (Theodore Roosevelt)

I’m a great believer in the art of the possibility, the need to take personal responsibility for one’s own growth, and that one’s potential is far greater than most people, and certainly you, realise.

Stefan Barder on LinkedIn: