My first million: Justine Cather, Burnt Sugar

Although warned that she was spending too much on fancy packaging for her high-end confectionary, it was Justine Cather's brightly coloured boxes of sweets that caught the eye of a Harvey Nichols buyer.

With a father who works for BP and a husband in the army, 39-year-old Justine Cather has spent most of her life on the road. So when she returned to Britain in 1999, to the small village of Beverley in East Yorkshire, it felt like time to settle down and get cracking on the business she had long dreamt of building. And it was to her mother she looked for inspiration. "She made lots, or traditional sweets, in a shop in Lyme Regis, in a quaint, Tudor-style shop on the high street. She made the sweets from her kitchen, expanded the business a little, but didn't want to go national."

Cather, though, saw real potential. "Her customers really appreciated the fact that the sweets she was making were well made. They were saying, we can't get this when we go home after our holiday'." She realised "there could be a market for this if we did it on a big enough scale and supplied shops around the country".

Cather secured a £5,000 loan from the bank, almost all of which went on packaging. Her mother would make fudge from her home in Dorset, while Cather would get it packed in Yorkshire. But "being quite nave in business I didn't really think about the cost". At about 75p a box, the packaging ate into her profit margin. "I remember talking to another sweet manufacturer at the time, and he said I never pay more than 5p'."

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

However, as it happened, her fancy packaging worked wonders at that year's IFE food and drink trade fair in London. Cather stacked her boxes high on her tiny stand. "Because it was really colourful and different from anyone else's sweets, it stood out. I remember this very well-dressed man walking past the stand who just stopped and stared."

He turned out to be the buyer for Harvey Nichols, who hadn't seen anything like Cather's products before in the UK. To get top premium sweets, he had always had to look to France and Italy. The encounter led to her first big order and more deals with big-name delis, such as Valvona & Crolla in Edinburgh. "It was all down to that trade show. They all noticed me. It really gave me the confidence to carry on."

An order from Waitrose for a pallet a month followed; Cather even managed to convince the supermarket to waive the ticketing' fee they normally charged suppliers to put produce on the shelves. But by 2001 her mother was unable to keep supplying Burnt Sugar with fudge, so Cather went 50/50 with a local baker in Yorkshire to set up a 1,500 sq ft production unit. He brought in someone from his own bakery to help her make the fudge, who works for her to this day.

As the baker was more focused on cost than marketing, which is where Cather now wanted to set her sights, she bought him out for £30,000 in 2003, when the business was turning over £250,000 a year. She then took on a sales director in 2006, sales have now doubled from £500,000 to £1m. That's 700kg to 800kg of sweets a day. "Now it feels we can do it, we can go forward. It feels satisfying, especially as it's taken us so long to get here."

Jody Clarke

Jody studied at the University of Limerick and was a senior writer for MoneyWeek. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example digging 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.