With his passion for organic produce, Jonathan Hook was the natural choice to head Neal’s Yard Remedies. He tells Jennifer Creevy why the retailer has a strong future

Neal’s Yard Remedies managing director Jonathan Hook is turning his three young children into budding retailers. In an attempt to teach them the value of money, Hook has given his children the responsibility of looking after his eight chickens.

The children are allowed to sell the eggs at the local market and keep the profits, but they must use some of the money to pay for chicken food and keep the hen house clean. “They really love it,” says Hook. “My son has aspirations for a car, but that may be a way off yet,” he jokes.

However, while the chicken task that Hook has set his children shows that he has retail in his blood, it also highlights his passion for organic fare. Having grown up on a farm, he boasts an organic vegetable patch and, while he is keen to point out that family life is “not quite an episode of The Good Life”, he does admit to making organic jam.

Hook’s interest in organic produce is what drew him to organic skincare and supplements retailer Neal’s Yard Remedies. With a degree in environmental biology and a childhood passion for butterflies and moths, it’s difficult to imagine Hook working for any other retailer. And yet he only joined Neal’s Yard Remedies in January, having spent the bulk of his career at mobile phone giant Carphone Warehouse. It may not have been a sector that appealed immediately, but Hook says it provided “a fantastic grounding”.

He says: “I was at Carphone from early on, when it was a small company and experienced its momentous growth. Charles Dunstone [Carphone Warehouse chief executive] is an inspiration to work for and I learned so much while I was there.”

Hook hopes to use the experience he gained at Carphone Warehouse to expand Neal’s Yard Remedies. The latter – founded in 1981 by entrepreneur Romy Fraser, who was awarded an OBE for services to health recently – has 31 stores, but there are plans to expand to 50 by 2010. “Neal’s Yard is a hidden gem,” says Hook. “It’s a retailer with strong values and loyal customers. There are so many opportunities to grow the brand.”

Hook was brought in by Peter Kindersley, the entrepreneur behind publisher Dorling Kindersley, who bought Neal’s Yard in 2005. “Peter is the driving force of the business, both in terms of store numbers and new products,” says Hook. “He too has a real passion for the business and understands the product, as he has an organic farm.”

It is the products as well as the staff that keep customers coming back to Neal’s Yard, says Hook. Organic products are sourced from around the world and the stores are stocked with weird and wonderful merchandise. Shoppers can buy Frankincense Hydrating Cream, Organic Orange Flower Facial Oil and White Tea Eye Gel, to name but a few.

About 80 per cent of Neal’s Yard store staff are trained in natural medicine and Hook says this expertise gives the retailer an edge over competitors. “Our staff take the time to find out customers’ needs and the in-depth conversations that happen on the shopfloor are incredible.”

Alongside retail, Neal’s Yard operates therapy rooms and a school that runs courses, such as aromatherapy and homeopathy, several times a year. “The therapy and education really give the stores a strong heritage and there is crossover too, with many of our therapists becoming store managers,” he says.

Hook is eager for Neal’s Yard to expand and believes it has a healthy future, despite the difficult climate. “There is an emotive reason why people buy health and beauty products and, while we are not as cheap as some, we are seeing some customers shopping with us who used to buy very expensive products,” he says. “We believe our level of customer service and depth of product range is impossible to replicate.”

Because Hook has found his dream job, he will be working hard to make it even more successful. And, in a few years’ time, we may well see one of his chicken-farming children taking the reins of an organic retailer too.

Natural talent

Family: married, with three children

Age: 39

Lives: Haddenham, Buckinghamshire

Interests: butterflies, moths, photography and wine

CAREER HISTORY

2008-present: managing director of Neal’s Yard Remedies

2007: director of channel management at Orange

1995-2006: Carphone Warehouse, latterly managing director of UK Retail

1988-93: store assistant and then store manager at Oddbins