Kurt defies Lord Sugar to grow £multi-million wellness business
Four years on from the TV boardroom, former Apprentice candidate Kurt Wilson has grown his healthy shakes and nutritionist-planned meals company into a £1million-plus business. Now with a rapidly-growing customer base, from time poor office workers to celebrities and elite athletes including heavyweight Tyson Fury, the 31-year-old from Liverpool explains how being fired by Lord Sugar inspired his success …
It took a caravan and a self-confessed sales disaster to get Kurt Wilson fired from the nation’s most famous boardroom.
But Lord Sugar’s trademark dismissal, back in 2013, didn’t send him retreating to the relative safety of a regular day job like so many Apprentice candidates before him. If anything, it gave him a renewed determination to grow his own business, Fuel Station, minus the winner’s £250,000 and any mentoring by the man at the helm.
Not, he says, because he wanted to prove that Lord Sugar had made a mistake; there was never any sense of the revenge success.
“I don’t think I’d have ever won, even if I’d been the best person,” he reflects. “They picked me for the show because I was a fit that they were looking for in that group of 16. Maybe I was the northerner they wanted, or the Scouser, I don’t know. Whatever it was I think I was what they were missing.
“I wasn’t a sales person though, I was open and honest about that from the start, so when I had to sell a caravan at the NEC I made a couple of blunders to say the least. I probably still would. Was Lord Sugar right to fire me? Yeah,” he smiles, “in that situation I’d have probably fired me as well.”
So he walked away without the investment or any words of wisdom from the abrasive billionaire. “Not one conversation even,” he reveals.
What his experience on the series did give him was the impetus to come back home to Liverpool and refocus on his healthy shakes business.
“I saw the other contestants and realised that they weren’t that good either,” he says honestly. “I made mistakes but I could see where I went wrong and I knew I could learn from that. I knew that the other people on the show weren’t that far ahead of us, or weren’t ahead at all, and that gave me a bit of extra confidence.
“Plus, I didn’t want to just be someone who’d been on a TV show, not won, then done nothing and gone back to his job.”
Instead, Kurt channelled his energies into the business, initially called Fuel Shakes, which he’d started with his older brother Jay just six months earlier.
The pair took the first steps into entrepreneurship when Kurt was 25, after their own sibling rivalry highlighted a lack of easily-available healthy food to-go.
“We both worked at my dad’s roofing company at the time and we’d have a little competition between us over who was fitter and stronger. It sounds sad that, doesn’t it?” he laughs. “We noticed there was nowhere to get a good quality healthy lunch so we’d end up going to supermarkets and buying a pack of cooked meat and vegetables, which was the most bland thing you could imagine, then we’d fall into the trap of treating ourselves when it got to Friday.
“We came up with the idea of offering shakes tailored to each individual person’s goal, whatever that was, whether it was weight loss, going to the gym, or just wellbeing. We had a menu and we’d manipulate the carbohydrates, fat and amount of protein depending on what a customer wanted to achieve.”
They launched Fuel Shakes in Liverpool city centre and struck lucky with some unplanned social media endorsement.
“A couple of WAGs and local celebrities started coming in after the gym or yoga sessions, including Steven Gerrard’s wife Alex,” he remembers. “They put posts on their Twitter and Instagram mentioning our shakes and that got our name out there.
“The actress Michelle Keegan, who was still at Coronation Street then, saw of them and got in touch because she wanted to have a shake each day to keep her going when she was filming.
“They only have a six-hour shelf life, they’re made fresh, so I’d drive from Liverpool to Manchester every morning at 6am before work and deliver one myself. It cost more in petrol than the shake did, but it was worth it because she’d post about it and the next day we’d have an extra 10 customers, then another 10 and it went on …”
It was a desire to give the business an extra boost that prompted Kurt to apply for The Apprentice. “And naively I’d watch it and think I could do better than the idiots on there, like everyone does,” he jokes.
By the time he was fired that desire was even stronger and Kurt and his brother felt ready to take their idea out into the venture capital world in search of backers.
They began researching crowdfunding and investment opportunities and it was one of Kurt’s former Apprentice rivals who pointed them in what turned out to be a lucrative direction.
“I was still in touch with Luisa, who was one of the finalists in my year, and she’d opened her own business after the show,” he explains. “I had respect for her, she seemed very clever, so I messaged her on Twitter and she suggested we spoke to Angels Den, which is a platform for potential investors – like a real life version of Dragon’s Den.
“We went and pitched, over and over, and we did speed funding – like speed dating – where there were eight tables in a room, 20-30 investors and five businesses all pitching for funding. You got four minutes on each table to explain your business before you moved on to the next one.”
Kurt and Jay were aiming to raise £150k for a 20% share of their business. Having successfully won an initial investment from a consortium through the speed funding, they were contacted via LinkedIn by a second investor in the City who agreed to match-fund £75k.
In July 2014, with their £150k target secured, the brothers closed their first shop, rebranded as Fuel Station and opened a unit in Aintree.
Teaming up with nutritionist James Morehen, who works for the FA as a performance nutritionist for England’s national football squads, they added meals to their shakes, supplements and snacks range.
“James helped us to create a menu of good, perfectly-balanced meals for customers to choose from,” says Kurt. “So when they go on our website they can either build their own meals using the right balance of their favourite foods, or they can take the easier option and choose ones built for purpose by James and our chef Harry.
“We use the right type of carbohydrates, the right fats, the right amount of protein – and we source everything carefully so we know exactly where everything on the plate has come from and that it’s the best quality. The better the quality of ingredients, the more nutrients there’ll be in them, so that’s what sets us apart from our competitors.”
Fuel Station’s customer base now ranges from time poor office workers to elite athletes.
“The majority are female, women who go to the gym after work then either don’t want to or don’t have the time to prepare something healthy when they get home, or they want a lunch to eat at their desk that’s good for them and not bland.
“But we also look after sportspeople who are either training, or they’re injured and need to maintain muscle mass without putting on weight while they recover.
“James designed a meal plan for Tyson Fury before the Klitschko world title fight and we have Premier League footballers who come to us. We’ve still got quite a few celebrities too, like the TOWIE and Made in Chelsea cast. It’s all about helping people to achieve their individual goals, whatever they are.”
Kurt can proudly say that Fuel Station has increased its turnover every year since launch, breaking the £1million barrier in 2017.
Shakes and juices are still the biggest earner, and they’re about to launch their own natural protein bars using pea protein rather than whey, but Kurt predicts that – as its fastest growing product – nutritionist-guided meals will soon overtake.
“Obviously we were very pleased to hit £1million last year, but the scope is much bigger than that so my aspirations are a lot greater,” he says. “There’s an enormous market of people who want to eat healthier, because they’re more aware and educated about food, and they want everything to be convenient because they have busy lives.”
Now with partner, Joanna, 17-month old son Felix and another baby boy on the way, 31-year-old Kurt says he’ll be disappointed if the company doesn’t double its turnover in the next 12 months.
All of which makes Lord Sugar’s decision to fire him seem quite unwise now …
“With hindsight, I think it’s worked out well so I’m quite satisfied,” he smiles. “And my business plan when I went on The Apprentice was awful, I read it back now and cringe. Then I had an idea but not the skills to see it through. Now we know what we have and we know we can make it work.”