Fire in the Hole!
Alan ‘Big Al’ Barratt’s explosively successful Grenade brand is a true manifestation of his personality and life experiences, the journey beginning at the age of 15 when he first set foot in a gym
Written by: Tom Wadlow
“I’ve always wanted to do things differently to everyone else, and the first thing I want to say is that I’m completely unemployable.”
Thankfully, Alan Barratt is not on the hunt for employment at the moment. Desperate to leave formal education at the earliest possible opportunity, he carries no academic qualifications beyond secondary school and has almost no experience of what it is like to be interviewed for a job.
Fortunately for him, he sits on the other side of the desk.
As Founder and CEO of Grenade, one of the fastest-growing weight management, energy and lifestyle brands in the world, Barratt is the definition of an entrepreneurial livewire, as enthusiastic about all things health and fitness now as he was as a wide-eyed teenager setting foot in a gym for the very first time.
It's reflected in everything Grenade. From its award-winning Carb Killa protein bars and supplement packages to energy drinks and fitness apparel, the brand is bold, brash and explosive. The bars even look like a landmine.
Barratt explains how it ties into his long-held interest in the military, which not only represents a key line of business for Grenade, but also the inspiration for many marketing stunts, the most striking of which involved driving a tank through the streets of London.
Now 43 years young, the entrepreneur’s love affair with the health industry began around 30 years ago, an affinity which, true to form, was unique within his non-sporting family.
“I don’t come from a sporty background,” Barratt says. “My Dad was a heavy goods vehicle mechanic and was never into football, rugby or any particular sport from a participation or viewing perspective.
“I grew up in the 1980s when the likes of Schwarzenegger, Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren were on the big screen – back then these guys were a big deal. I was quite tall and skinny and pretty bright at school, even though I didn’t like it, and got the nickname Big Al as a bit of a joke.
“My friends were all into the traditional sports but it just didn’t interest me, and I wanted to put on some weight, so I took inspiration from the Schwarzeneggers and Van Dammes and talked my parents into getting me a small weights set at home, I think from Argos. It took about a year to convince them.”
Barratt, by his own admission, didn’t really know what he was doing with a set of weights at home, so when the time came to submit work experience applications, there was only one place he had in mind – a gym.
Once again this went against the grain in regard to his friendship group, who went down the more conventional office and automotive route. Barratt’s decision, however, was probably the most momentous he has made in his life, for he has never looked back.
“Most gyms rejected me without a thought, but the last one I tried got back to me, and I arrived with my parents at about 9pm one night when they were closing,” he recalls.
“I was blown away by all the equipment to the extent that I was trying to replicate bench presses on my parents’ bed. I did three weeks of work experience there and they couldn’t get rid of me – I was there every day, even at weekends, and they gave me a year of free membership. Big Al actually became Big Al!”
There is also a dose of irony to add to the story as Barratt, CEO of a global nutrition brand, was honing his love of fitness and wellness at a gym that was a stone’s throw away from Cadbury World. It was here, in Stirchley, Birmingham, that he also began to appreciate the importance of nutrition, this awareness proving invaluable in his first steps into entrepreneurship.
“That whole experience just set me up in almost every aspect of life,” Barratt continues. “For business, it was about seeing how relationships were built, the interest in health and fitness, and learning the value of getting on with people.
“I learned a huge amount, and 25 years later I am still good friends with a lot of the people who I met there. From that point onwards, at 15 or 16, I knew I wanted to do something in this field.”
Although nutrition wasn’t on the radar back then, Barratt dropped out of college to work full time at a gym in Coventry before setting up his own sports nutrition distribution business called Fusion in 1999.
Importing products from the US, the experience convinced him that there was money to be made in creating his own brand, the breakthrough moment coming in 2010 with the launch of Grenade alongside his wife Juliet, this having sold Fusion to a lifelong friend and working a year for free to ensure a smooth handover.
Getting more out of life
The ultimate end goal for Barratt? This can perhaps be summarised by a strapline that applies both personally and to his business – getting more out of life.
Barratt begins explaining the ethos by looking back on the lessons learned from his father.
“My interpretation, going back to my family, was that I had seen them work extremely hard through multiple generations, but they had little to show for it,” he says.
“We were not blessed with money when I was a kid. My friends were going abroad on holiday and we couldn’t afford it. My Dad had a car, but we only went out in it every couple of weeks – I was walking five miles to and from school a day.
“I think what has helped me was the fact I absorbed everything around me, something which I don’t think people do enough generally. Where people learn or don’t learn from their own mistakes, I was determined to learn from others’.
“This includes my Dad who, no offence to him, probably taught me how not to run a business. He worked extremely hard but didn’t monetise it enough. He was very shy and couldn’t bring himself to invoice people for the amount of work he had done.
“What I learned is that if you let somebody have something for nothing, they will continue to exploit it. Dad very often did that, because that was how he was, but he always did a great job, and that work ethic I have picked up from him has been priceless. I think it’s something that has been eroded over the past couple of generations – family values and work ethic doesn’t feel like what it used to be.”
From a personal perspective, the Fusion and Grenade ventures have allowed Barratt to get more out of life than he ever imagined.
He has been able to repay his parents, a highlight being a holiday to a newly bought house in Florida when he was just 23, Florida a place that Barratt’s father had always wanted to take him when he was growing up.
“That is my version of getting more out of life, from a personal point of view,” he says, “but it has translated into the health side of things and Grenade as well.
“From a fitness and especially sports nutrition perspective, people take it so seriously. If you’ve got friends that train, then you’re bound to know someone who lives off chicken and broccoli – if you go out, they’ve got chicken with them and are munching it every two hours.
“They look great, but a lot of the time they are just miserable. I am not knocking it because I was there myself, but when I looked my best and was doing calendar shoots, I probably felt my worst.”
Another observation Barratt made, having founded Grenade, was that virtually all sports nutrition brands focused on people who looked good, or at least were on a mission to. While he admits there is nothing wrong with that, he realised very quickly that there were more people out there.
It was something of a eureka moment, for a major factor behind the success of Grenade products has been their ability to appeal to an enormous catchment of consumers.
Yes, the company supplies serious customers such as the military and high-performance athletes with serious products, but Barratt believes that up to half of Grenade buyers are people who do not even train. Most, he says, are simply looking for a healthier alternative to chocolate, the Carb Killa bars proving to be a UK best seller.
And for the CEO, it is all about creating a brand that people want to be a part of.
“If I could get away with eating Cadbury’s chocolate every day, I would,” Barratt asserts. “But I can’t eat that many calories and consume that much sugar – it just isn’t good for you. The idea was to create something that tastes just as good, but is better for you, and we want to capture all those people who have fallen away from chocolate in search of a product that is healthier.”
Barratt goes on to cite statistics from Tesco, figures which reveal that consumers who purchase Grenade bars actually consume more chocolate than those who don’t.
“Mars did us a massive favour by creating the Snickers protein bar, and they’ve just done the same with M&M’s,” he adds.
“They’re more expensive, have less protein, contain more sugar and don’t taste like their parent brands, so people try it and are naturally pulled towards our segment of the market. We’ve spoken to big confectionery brands and they are adamant that sugar is still the future. To me, sugar is the enemy of public health.”
Barratt is not trying to say that he invented health or protein bars with Grenade. Rather, they are promoting what the CEO terms achievable health through good quality, nutritional products which serve as a more realistic swap than simply trading confectionery for fruit and veg.
Once more this thinking stems from Barratt’s own experiences, this time with dieting, a routine he never got along with.
“I love eating chocolate and I love eating curry, so if I want to eat a chocolate bar or a curry then I won’t stop myself,” he adds. “I spent a lot of time trying to stick to diets, and I just couldn’t do it.”
The key point being made is that you can still live a healthy life without the need to stick religiously to a diet, the concept of healthy living brought into the spotlight in a big way throughout the course of 2020 in no small part due to the outbreak of coronavirus.
In the UK, months of lockdown measures have led to millions of workers either being placed on a government-backed furlough scheme or working from home. Such a prolonged period of isolation from colleagues, friends and family, although carried out in the interest of public health, has other consequences.
“The issue of mental and physical health is not going away, and this year has certainly shown that,” says Barratt. “But what the lockdown period has actually shown is that being healthy can be cheap and accessible. You can go out for a walk for free, cycling is at record levels, and people are being more ambitious with cooking at home.”
Grenade has played its part in the national effort as well, donating stacks of care packages to frontline health service workers.
And like almost every business, Grenade too has had to adapt to ensure employees are kept safe during what would have been a year of prolonged 10th birthday celebrations. Barratt, determined to mark the occasion properly, says the company will party when the time is right in 2021.
“It’s been a strange year but a really good one at the same time,” he reflects. “The lockdown months March to June saw our best ever sales, and some places we have struggled to keep in stock.
“For instance, our Ration Pack vitamin supplements have done incredibly well in the Middle East, and we’re working extremely hard to keep up with demand. We’ve probably sold more of those this year than in the previous six combined, such is the emphasis on health in that market at the moment.
“While I wouldn’t say I have enjoyed this year, I have enjoyed negotiating the challenges it has presented. It has felt like being in a startup again where agility and sharp reactions are critical. You have to see opportunity in times of adversity – it’s the only way we’ll all emerge from this.”
And opportunity is exactly what Barratt and his private equity partner Lion Capital see in the years ahead.
They are both firm believers that a billion-dollar company is on the horizon, with markets such as the US ripe for targeting with the same enthusiasm and verve that has brought so much traction in the UK.
But what of the CEO himself? As the conversation comes to an end, Barratt’s answer is emphatic.
“This is the last job I will ever have,” he says. “My passions and work ethic will not change. Do I want to spend the next 20 years sat behind a desk, though? No.
“There needs to be a balance of working hard and reaping the reward, so I like the idea of travelling around the world, meeting entrepreneurs, telling the Grenade story and growing our brand awareness.
“I’m 43 and have a lot of energy left. We’ll catch up again in another 10 years and who knows by then – maybe we’ll be up in a space station having a meeting.”
It wouldn’t be a surprise, not least because Barratt has just acquired a grenade-shaped hot air balloon.