Four years ago, Rupert Holloway was donning a hard hat and hi-vis jacket in his previous career as a chartered surveyor. After realising his career hadn’t evoked a smile out of him for as long as he dared to remember, Holloway decided it was time for a drastic change and Conker Spirit, a dry gin, was born.
In the past few years, Conker Spirit has seen over 1,000 bottles a week shipped off to the likes of John Lewis, M&S, Waitrose and Fortnum & Mason. The distillery saw a 100% increase in turnover in 2017 and a few weeks ago Conker Spirit established a deal with Marco Pierre White and the brand is now stocked his 50 restaurants across the UK.
BLM talked to Holloway about setting up Conker Spirit, how the business has changed over time and what’s in the future.
Tell me all about Conker Spirit, how did the idea come about?
I had reached 28 with a cracking career as a Chartered Surveyor ahead of me, only to slowly realise my work hadn’t evoked a smile from me in years. I wanted to work for myself and build a business that inspired me, something I had put off opting for the safe road for years. After throwing out some not so fruitful business ideas, I noticed that while you could go to any bar and find a number of brilliant local craft ales and ciders, when it came to gin you mostly had a big green or blue bottle to choose from – and so the journey to launch Dorset’s first gin distillery began.
How much initial investment did the company start with?
Conker was an incredibly lean start-up. I sold my car for £6,000 and made up the rest with a £10,000 start-up loan, a £10,000 grant, and a combination of credit cards and scrounging off friends and family. We grew organically – investing in new kit at the distillery as the sales grew. I always say there’s a lot to be said for starting a company on little money; it forces you to sharpen you pencil and write a business plan. After all, there is always money for good ideas.
What was the initial business plan for the business and how has that changed over time?
From day one it was about creating something authentic and meaningful without the gimmicks. I can’t stand the marketing gloss over inferior mass-produced products. Conker Spirit was going to be the real deal; the distillers, bottlers, labellers, botanical foragers – even hand-signing every bottle.
I wanted Conker to be known as an innovative drinks producer, rather than another gin brand jumping on the band wagon. So for our second product, we took our time deliberately avoided the well-trodden gin distiller’s path of expanding into flavoured gins and instead focussed on creating something innovative and meaningful.
After realising that I couldn’t find a single so-called ‘coffee liqueur’ that even closely resembled the true dark and rich complexities of the espresso, I created Conker Cold Brew, a coffee liqueur which lets the coffee bean do the talking, without the need for the usual additives, flavourings and thickeners.
How important is an inspirational figurehead to a scale-up company?
I think being connected with the people behind a brand is very powerful; its more authentic and makes people more invested in a brand’s journey. For this ambitious idea to work I needed the support of my local community, so I have made a point of being out in front telling our story. I’m a big believer of pursuing what excites you, and I get a lot of kicks from talking about business and hopefully inspiring people to take the leap to do their own thing
What inspired you to go into business in the first place?
It is something I had always dreamed of doing but had talk myself out of along the way; persuading myself that the time wasn’t quite right. Before I launched Conker I knew that working for myself would give me more meaning and purpose, but now I realise that the greatest joy is that there is less of a rift between your home and work life. When you are not doing what you love for a living, you lead a double life – putting on a suit and a brave face from nine to five. Today, Conker is part of the family and although the job is tough at times, it never feels like a chore.
Let’s talk about the relationship between you and Marco Pierre White, that was an exciting development, how did it come about and what has the relationship with him enabled the company to do?
In the early days when I couldn’t sell our gin I once exchanged a bottle of gin for a balloon spider – it felt like a good trade at the time. Three years later that same person introduced our gin to Marco Pierre White! I’m a big believer of being a ‘yes man’ as you really can only join up the dots looking back. Marco called me out of the blue to tell me that he wanted our Dorset Dry gin and Cold Brew coffee liqueur in his 50 restaurants across the UK. That’s a pretty cool phone number to have in your phonebook!
How important is the role marketing and PR plays to your business success over the years?
The internet has been absolutely crucial to us. Simply put, Conker wouldn’t have happened without it, and in the early days that was the only marketing we could afford. We’ve coined the phrase ‘Transparency is our marketing’, meaning that all we do is show people what we do day to day, rather than cooking up some marketing around a boardroom table. We simply use our social media channels to give a little window into the life of a Conkerer! Once the business was starting to grow, we took on a PR firm which put Conker in most of the mainstream media, which of course had a big impact.
What is the biggest hurdle you have faced in business, and how did you overcome it?
This is always a hard question, mostly because it’s all a struggle but also because when you are running your own busiess it helps to have a short memory when it comes to the pain! The hardest learning curve is learning how deal with the daily grind. The realisation that the headaches and challenges exist even in businesses that have ‘made it’ helps you take it more in your stride, letting go of things in your downtime and building a great team to help you take it on.
Any advice to entrepreneurs?
If you think about it, the only thing stopping you from starting something new is fear. We place such an incredible amount of importance on other people’s perception of ourselves that we all too often take the safe road. Taking the plunge really can pay off – Conker Spirit is a testament to this.
Don’t worry if you feel like you lack the knowledge and experience to get started. The beauty of the internet is that you have such a wealth of information at the tip of your fingers – anything can be learnt and there has never been a better time to build a business around what you love.
What’s the future looking like for Conker Spirit?
We are really excited for this year, with new products in the pipeline, expanding our manufacturing facilities in Bournemouth and a projected doubling of output compared to 2017. It’s great when people are knocking on our doors, after all those years of knocking on everyone else’s. When Marco phoned us up it felt like a good sign that we are on the right track.