‘Being different was our route forward’
Winemaker Chapel Down has built a business on doing things differently.
Three years ago it paid for land to plant new vineyards across Kent with the proceeds of a then world-record £4m crowdfunding campaign, the first ever undertaken by a quoted company.
Last year, it was at it again, raising £1.7m through another crowdfunding bid, this time to build a new brewery in Ashford for its Curious Brew lager brand.
Attracting an army of new investors – and fans of its sparkling tipple – has seen the Tenterden company’s share price nearly treble to 91.5p since March last year.
Its chief executive, Frazer Thompson, believes this is not just about its fundamentally tasty wine but about setting itself apart from other winemakers in the UK, by doing things like making beer as well.
“Brexit is coming up and if you don’t have a plan B you’re mad,” he said.
“When everyone was struggling to meet demand for Eng- lish wine we put our energy into creating beer. I always believe the future is about trying to do things which other people can’t.
“We will never be the cheapest and you can only be the best for a short time. Being different was our route forward.”
Mr Thompson began his career at Whitbread, the UK’s largest hospitality company,
What is the key to good leadership? “A great team is about trust. A lot of CEOs check that people are doing what they are supposed to be. That is wrong. Great leaders lead by example and not by telling people what to do. You must listen to your team and do all you can to help them do what they need to do. Then let them do it.”
Should small and mediumsized businesses be concerned about changes ahead from Brexit? “The world is changing and big companies are the slowest which owns Costa Coffee, Premier Inn and Beefeater Grill.
He led a team to acquire and integrate the Boddingtons brand into the company, aged 29, and became a director at the business before a move to Heineken in 1995.
He said: “The strongest part of Whitbread was not its sales and marketing or finance but its HR to react. This is our time and times are changing. Big companies are nothing to be afraid of. Consumers are on your side and should follow you with the same degree of passion you have.”
How can companies attract enthusiastic investors? “Not all money is the same. One of our early investors was Nigel Wray, who is one of our non-executive directors. He invested in 2004 and hasn’t taken a penny out of the business. Investors are different from speculators. People who want to take shares and sell department. It was an incredibly hard company to join, the quality of people was incredibly high and they cared about everyone when they got there.”
At Heineken, he said they were world class protectors of their brand.
“They were obsessed with how it looked, how it was positioned, how it was discussed and how them are speculators. People who want to hold on to them are investors. Nigel invests in people first, then looks at the products and then looks at the numbers.”
How do you attract good staff? “We employ some very smart people from outside the company. We hired a new managing director last year, who said he had learned more in 18 months here than he did in 20 years at his old employer. Our aim is to go to bed a little bit less stupid than when we woke.” it was sold,” he said. “My life was about rules and guidelines, researching everything to death and ignoring my instincts.”
He joined Chapel Down in 2001 after seeing an advert for the managing director’s job in his Sunday paper, not long after he had tried it in a bar with a friend. His wife reminded him that he had thought the wine was good, adding “you think you’re good at marketing and you said the bottle was rubbish”.
He was offered the job once he reassured the company that the salary was not the reason he was joining. It was a third of what he was then earning.
“If salary is the only reason people want to do something I don’t want to be around them,” he said.
Taking the company into the beer market has also limited damage from bad harvests in years of poor weather.
However bad harvests have not always been a bad thing. A shortage of stock meant the company had to put its prices up in Mr Thompson’s early years with the firm, at about the same time it won its first international gold medal.
Shortly afterwards he was selling three times the volume at three times the price. He said: “The best thing I ever did was putting the prices up. The higher price gave people more confidence in our product.”
Chapel Down chief executive Frazer Thompson