Down to Business: ManiLife

Jenessa Williams 28 February 2022

We spoke with Stu Macdonald, founder of peanut butter company Manilife

RD: How did Manilife get started, and how would you best summarise what you offer?

Stu Macdonald: I met the family who run the peanut estate we source from on a trip and immediately loved them. I came home and imported a tonne of peanuts to start 'ManiLifeThe Argentinian Peanut Butter', but it was a complete disaster; I ended up with a tonne of peanuts in my bedroom and had to make all 4000 jars, one at a time, in a rugby club kitchen, with two blenders and lots and lots of friends.

By adopting the same principles that have shaped craft coffee and chocolate, ManiLIfe is genuinely a peanut butter like no other. Things like a direct-to-source supply chain, strong relationships at origin, small batch production, getting nerdy with roasting… they did not exist in Peanut Butter before ManiLife. Now, thankfully they do.

What career trajectory led you to opening your own business? Have you undergone any formal training/ previous roles that have helped with what you do for work now?

I was an accountant-in-training at Pricewaterhouse Coopers for 11 months. It wasn't as bad as everyone makes it out to be (PwC are a pretty good employer!), but I wasn't all that good at it. I much preferred telling people "I run a peanut butter company" to 'I'm an auditor (in training)"

How does your work compliment your personality?

It's an outlet for my obsessiveness, and a platform for my creativity. I love all of our team, suppliers and customers, so having them around at work is nice too.

Manilife has an ethical ‘craft’ approach to peanut butter production, working with Argentinian farmers; how have you centralized sustainability and fair wages within your ethos?

We have done a fair bit, but we could always do more. We’re mid-way through our B Corp application, and sustainability will continue to be a focus for us as we grow.

Our peanut supplier is a pioneer in measuring the environmental footprint of peanut production in the Latin American market. They have a foundation which supports education, partnering with local universities and schools. Believe it or not, the peanut shells from every harvest are converted into energy to power the local town! They're also Sedex certified, which is one of the world’s leading online platforms for companies to manage and improve working conditions in global supply chains.

"Believe it or not, the peanut shells from every harvest are converted into energy to power the local town!"

We recently launched Rich Cocoa Smooth Peanut Buttera ridiculously indulgent peanut butter with chocolate tones. The product is made with 100% ethically sourced cocoa, traceable down to the names of the farmers that contributed to the cocoa. This transparency in the supply chain is made possible thanks to the exceptional people behind Kokoa Kamili.

Not only do they pay their farmers a price that is premium to that paid by Fair Trade, but they buy what's called 'wet' cocoa straight out of the farmers' pods, paying more than they would receive if they were to ferment and dry the beans themselves. This means Kokoa Kamili's farmers get paid more, more quickly, for less work allowing them extra time to use on personal or business growth.

Branding is so instrumental for a successful food brand—how did you settle upon your name and company imagery?

The ManiLife team

Put simply, mani means peanut in Argentina. At the time, ‘life’ was just a nice sounding third syllable, but it's come to signify the human element of the brand, focused on vibrant people, which is actually the part I love the most.

What does a typical workday look like for you?

I usually get up at 6.15am for morning coffee, meditation and a flick through the newspaper. I get to work—whether that be at the kitchen table, in a café, or the office—at around 8.00am, and from there every day is literally a lottery. At the moment I'm building on our three-year business plan, so there's a lot happening with that.

We also brought in an MD recently, so I'm spending a lot more time developing our product lines of the future and seeking out new ingredients with great stories, which is all mega exciting! I’m also planning my long awaited return to Argentina—it's been 7 years!  As soon as I'm back from there, my typical day will be very different.

What are your favourite and least favourite parts of the job?

Stu (left) in the kitchen 

It sounds clichéd, but its spending time with interesting, smart, dynamic peopledreaming up big ideas and getting stuff done.

My least favourite—and this sounds terrible—was actually the day to day running of the business. When we could fit everyone round a table, I loved it. But as the business got bigger and I had to start thinking about managing stakeholders and consciously keeping 15-20+ people informed, I didn't like it at all. We hired an MD a wee bit earlier than most and although it's still early days, it seems like it could be the best decision yet!

What do you like to do to switch off?

I hang out with my wife and two twin girls, play golf and go to the pub with some pals. I like the occasional  sauna or to go for a run (though I struggle to do this casually, it's always a competition in my head). I also enjoy reading fiction, and listen to Stephen Fry's mind-bogglingly impressive narration of all seven Harry Potter's on repeat.

Stu McDonald

What has been the most valuable business lesson you’ve learnt so far? And what has been your most tangible achievement?

Look after yourself. ‘Self-care’ is a bit of trendy sentiment, and often highly driven people are aware of the benefits, but shrug it off in practice.

I have definitely worked myself into some very dark places by forgetting to switch off. Lockdown highlighted just how important all these little release valves areseeing friends, walking to work or even just bumping into someone in the hallway can literally stop you from losing your mind.

In five years’ time, where would you like to see Manilife?

I’d love to see Manilife as the most loved peanut butter brand in the UK and Western Europe, operating a Willy Wonka style Factory tour, with an office crèche and better merchandise than Nike.

If you weren’t in this line of work, what other career would you love to have?

I think I would be getting really into sustainable, regenerative farming. I'd love to bring back insect splattered windshields after long drives and have really noisy birds waking me up in the morning!

To learn more about Manilife and read up on various recipes, visit Mani-Life.

Read more: Down to Business: Little Omo

Read more: Down to Business: The Novelry

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter