Ex Alpro chief Sue Garfitt is not replacing a former CEO per se, because prior to onboarding at The Protein Brewery ‘there kind of wasn’t one’. The start-up was founded in 2020 by molecular scientist Wim de Laat, who has since headed up the company as founder and chief scientific officer.
Bringing Garfitt onboard is ‘clear recognition’ that The Protein Brewery is expanding. “It needed somebody to come in and…bring the business to commercialisation, operationalising it onto a bigger stage, a bigger platform,” Garfitt explained.
What factors influenced her decision to move over from Danone-owned Alpro to head up a young alternative protein start-up in The Netherlands? And how will her expertise help transition The Protein Brewery to the next stage?
‘Danone wanted me to stay’
The Protein Brewery is working to disrupt conventional protein with fungi-based alternatives. Its first ingredient, Fermotein, is made using a ‘unique combination’ of proprietary fungi and an ‘easy-to-operate’ brewing process.
Fermotein is high in protein, dietary fibre, essential fatty acids, minerals and vitamins. Compared to beef production, Fermotein uses just 1% of the land, 5% of the water, and accounts for 3% of the CO2. From a nutrition perspective, Fermotein is allergen-free.
Fermotein was developed by De Laat to replace animals in the food chain, and although he will no longer be heading up the start-up, his vision remains. Under Garfitt’s leadership, De Laat will continue to be a ‘very important’ member of the management team, and will work closely with the incoming CEO in her new role, Garfitt explained.
“He and I work pretty closely together….because I’m no molecular biologist – that’s not my background.”
The incoming CEO comes to The Protein Brewery from plant-based milk alternative brand Alpro.
Founded in 1980, the Belgian brand – owned by Vandemoortele – sold to Dean Foods in 2009 for $455m, which marketed the Silk soymilk brand in the US. In 2013, Dean Foods subsidiary WhiteWave, which managed Alpro, was spun-off as an independent company. Dean Foods’ remaining stock in WhiteWave was sold in 2013.
The following year, Garfitt joined Alpro as Commercial Director of its UK business. And two years after that, French dairy major Danone acquired WhiteWave Foods for $10.4bn.
Over her eight-year tenure at Alpro, Garfitt was promoted to the role of CEO, where she led the brand as a ‘smaller businesses within the larger corporate’ until Danone’s 2021 reorganisation strategy saw Alpro fully integrated into its business structure.
“Danone wanted me to stay, but I really was ready for a new adventure… I didn’t really want to stay in the Danone organisation and do something other than plant-based – and that role wasn’t available to me.
“I was always going to look for a new adventure. Likely it was going to be in plant-based. And here I am at The Protein Brewery.”
The move from established player to newcomer
There were obvious benefits in Alpro being purchased by Danone, Garfitt recalled. The acquisition came with access to capital, which helped increase its number of factories and allowed for continued branded investment and innovation.
“Danone is a master in fermentation technology, in yoghurt in particular because of the strength of their dairy business, and we really benefited from [that],” explained Garfitt. “We were able to draw on some of that experience.”
However, as plant-based is not Danone’s ‘number one priority’, the ex Alpro chief said she knew in order to ‘carry on the plant-based mission’ she would have to look elsewhere.
“Although plant-based is an important part of the Danone organisation, it’s not their number one priority,” she told FoodNavigator. “Their dairy business is a lot bigger and I wanted to make sure that…if I stayed on [I would be] driving the plant-based business forward, and it didn’t feel like that was going to necessarily happen in the same way. So that was one the factors [in moving on].”
The other factor, she explained, was the opportunity presented by The Protein Brewery in transforming from a ‘start-up into a scale-up’. “I knew full well that with the experience I’ve had I could… structure the business, set strategy, and work with investors.
“In the external environment, I could bring those skills to The Protein Brewery to scale it up more quickly, effectively and successfully. That was part of the attraction for me.”
The experience of scaling-up, from pre-trade to commercialisation, is a new one for the ex Alpro chief. Having worked in private equity, and then in ‘smaller’ businesses, Garfitt sees her latest move as a ‘bit of an adventure’. “I haven’t done that before in my working career.”
Key differences between multinational and start-up
Working for a multinational such as Danone is likely to be a radically different experience compared to running a start-up established less than three years ago.
To start with, Garfitt explained, The Protein Brewery has 35 employees on the books, plus a handful of external advisors. In comparison, at Alpro the CEO was managing a 1,500-strong team.
Headcount aside, one of the key differences Garfitt has noticed since onboarding at The Protein Brewery lies in the necessity of a ‘resourceful’ attitude. “You have to be a bit of a self-starter…You know there isn’t the [same] infrastructure in place, there aren’t the same [number] of people in place.
“Interestingly, it tends to make you focus on the things that make a material difference, because you don’t have the resource and you don’t have the time to focus on the other things you probably have the luxury to do in a much larger corporate organisation.”
The other big differentiator is the inherent agility start-ups are well known for. At a ‘smaller level’, decision making can be faster, we were told: “We can get into a huddle on a key decision pretty fast…
“We can make a decision on something ‘quite significant’ within 45 minutes, and that’s quite refreshing. It also enables us to move much more quickly…It’s not very layered and it’s not very hierarchical.”
Next steps for The Protein Brewery
Garfitt will lead The Protein Brewery into its next stage of growth.
The start-up recently moved into its new headquarters in Breda, the Netherlands, with a 1,500m2 demo plant – with a production capacity of ‘thousands of tons’ per year – on the way. The plant is designed to scale up the Fermotein brewing process, with first commercial-scale alternative proteins expected to roll off the production line later this year.
For collaborations with food manufacturers and ultimately, commercialisation, Garfitt plans to bring her extensive knowledge and understanding of the plant-based sector. This is significant for a biotech business such as The Protein Brewery, she explained.
Fermotein is an ingredient, but the start-up wants to ‘bring life’ to the product and not just talk about is as a raw material. “It’s an eating and drinking experience,” we were told.
The CEO’s experience in the plant-based environment also comes with a vast network of connections, she suggested, which is ‘very’ important to the start-up’s ‘accelerated growth’ strategy. In line with that strategy, scaling up is front-of-mind. “We’ll take [Fermotein] into the next stage and prove we can operationalise and commercialise,” she stressed.
“I want us to be the leaders. That’s our vision: to be the leaders in providing fermented fungal food ingredients.”