How a failed hippy is making healthy profits

Profile of Bill Jordan, the failed hippy who went on to establish one of the country's best-known cereal brands.

Bill Jordan is, by his own admission, a failed hippy. In 1967, aged 18, he left home to travel the world, and ended up near Oakland in California, staying with friends, drumming with bands, and generally having a good time. It was while living the West Coast lifestyle that he made the discovery that would make his fortune. "Granola a sort of baked muesli was a very popular American food," he says. "I thought it was absolutely brilliant stuff. We were brought up on cornflakes, but this was a complete food it had oats in it, nuts, and fruit and seeds."

His family had been running a flourmill in Biggleswade in Bedfordshire since 1855. So when he returned to the UK in 1972, it seemed the perfect place to start his campaign to introduce granola to the British palate. Jordan's father, who made flour and ground horse feed, thought he was crazy. "He said it was like trying to sell horse food to humans," says Jordan.

Even so, he was allowed to build an oven at the back of the mill and, after his brother David returned from Canada the following year, the two got stuck into making the cereal, rolling and baking wholegrain oats, then adding the honey, to make their first product, Crunchy G'. With no funding behind them, they had to ensure they at least broke even, which meant "we had to sell as much as we made during the week", he says. "We sold it at agricultural shows and we had stands in places like the Ideal Home Exhibition in London. When we weren't at agricultural shows, we drove the old Transit van to health food shops. We were literally selling it for cash as we produced it."

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

Their market grew rapidly after fruit distributor Geest agreed to start a health food distribution business with them.

"John van Geest was keen on natural foods, and I guess as a vegetable man he could see parallels."

After a few years they were selling into 1,500 health food stores, and the supermarkets began to take note. By the end of the 1970s, both Waitrose and Safeway's were keen to stock their cereals. It was a good thing, too by the 1980s the family mill business "was in real trouble we were selling white flour for nothing. And the animal feed business was going down the plughole, because animals weren't being kept in the east of England. So the only way we could go was to paddle our own canoe and develop our business."

With demand growing for healthy convenience food, they launched a cereal bar in 1980. Within two years, they were making three million of them a week. In 1985, keen to build on the firm's healthy image, Jordan pioneered Conservation Grade farming, and now the firm only sources raw materials from these farms, one of which is Jordan's. "You can grow commercially, but by using different management techniques you can encourage wildlife. The business model does work."

It certainly has for him. Today, Jordans is one of the most established brands in breakfast cereals, and this year the company is expected to make a £70m turnover. Maybe he's not such a failed hippy after all.

Jody Clarke

Jody studied at the University of Limerick and she has been a senior writer for MoneyWeek for more than 15 years. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example in her time she has dug into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.