I am the co-founder of Celtic Marches, an alcoholic beverages company currently producing two apple brandy based liqueurs. So far our products have been linked to historical events within our geographical area – the Marches. Celtic Marches is based on our family farm in Bishops Frome, Herefordshire and we currently employ ten people, in both a full and part-time capacity across the business in sales, production and marketing. We class ourselves as a true family business with my partner in charge of all things financial, my brother managing the production side and my two eldest sons involved with sales and shows during their spare weekends in London.
My background lies in sales and marketing for a major drinks manufacturer and after the birth of my two younger children I decided to take a career break to raise them. As they grew older, I was keen to get back into the alcoholic drinks industry and luckily my background meant this was a market I knew well. Whilst doing my research I quickly spotted a gap in the market for a range of fun and quirky liqueurs that could be drunk neat, or used as a mixer in a cocktail.
Starting this business with my partner who, like me, had only worked for big corporations, meant that, although our skill sets were well-developed, we faced the challenge of bringing a “large business” mentality to managing a “smaller business enterprise.” To overcome this we decided from the start that all members of our team, no matter how senior or junior, should be prepared to do most tasks within the business. All staff have to spend time in production and in direct sales, which gives us flexibility across our business.
Before Celtic Marches was born we were planning to purchase an existing business in the sector as we believed that this would have been our quickest route to market. However, the sale fell through and as we were fortunate to have a farm that was already growing apples for local cider producers we decided that apple brandy liqueurs seemed the most obvious route to market for us.
We installed a fully automated bottling line, developed two brands and began manufacturing them. We had plans to grow the business year on year and so purposely developed a production plant that we could grow into. Our backgrounds in finance and sales taught us the importance of our business plan, and fundamentally this plan remains the same as the objectives we had originally set.
In the current economic climate there is very little funding for start-up businesses and banks are loathed to lend without excessive security and most government grants are not cost effective. The time taken to apply far outweighs the benefit of any grant. So we are very proud that our business has been totally self-funded, giving us ultimate control over it. My advice here is to work out what capital you think you are going to need both initially and within the first 12 months and then double it. If you run out of capital your business will surely fail.
Right from the beginning we faced many challenges within this business, many of them bureaucratic, for example from HM Customs. We also had to completely satisfy Health and Safety and Environmental Services, and because of the nature of our business (alcohol) we had a raft of administartive and legislative issues to overcome.
We made the decision to out-source some key areas of the business that are time consuming. We outsource our finance to a company specifically set up to manage the accounts of small to medium sized businesses and we employ a marketing consultant on a part time basis to handle our on-going marketing, PR and social media. All of our outsourced staff have been invaluable and are viewed very much as part of our team.
Our products are sold predominantly through our website, through farmers markets and national and regional shows, as well as in independent food centres, garden centres and farm shops. We use a distribution service for our national distribution. Internationally, we are currently in negotiations with a major German agent and are looking into the Canadian and Irish markets for viability to export. We see our growth continuing to come from major listings both within the UK and abroad.
It’s quite hard to describe our customer base, as there is such a wide demographic, we’d like to hope that they, like ourselves, are passionate about quality products that encapsulate the heritage of the Marches and this glorious countryside that our business is set in.
We use social media to engage with a wider audience and we find it invaluable in getting our business name out there. We try and upload snippets regularly, and post links to our quarterly e-newsletter on there. We also run competitions for social media followers, and upload promotional codes for our fans to use in our online shop. We are thinking of starting a blog, but it’s hard to find the time, as we’re constantly working, but we do regularly appear on other bloggers’ websites which have reviewed our products, and quite often feature in apple related blogs.
Looking to the future, we have strong plans to grow our brand and increase profitability. Launching a new product was always going to be difficult during a recession, but by offering a quality product that is good value for money sales have tripled within the last six months. To try and counter the low economic growth rates in the UK we are hoping to secure links in international markets as an alternative way to grow our business in 2012. We also hope to secure major UK listings and have presented to major London stores, Co-op supermarkets and Waitrose.
In our first year of trading we have also won a few awards, such as a Star in the Great Taste awards and a Diamond Heart of England Fine Food award and will continue to enter these as we’ve found this helps with getting into retailers, and provides us with some PR collateral.
My advice to anyone thinking of setting up a business in the alcoholic beverage industry is this:
- No one will do anything for you. Many organisations can advise and offer support but fundamentally you have to sell your own product and you have to manage your own business.
- Ensure that you have access to sufficient “start-up” and on-going “working” capital. Funding is very hard to come by and lack of funding will hold you back.
- Have a firm business plan of where you want to be in 1 year, 2 years, 3 years and beyond and stick to it – obstructions will come your way but have a firm business plans helps you negotiate around them.
- Be prepared to continue to re-invest in your business in the early days – cashflow is king. You have to be totally on top of your finances.
- Build a brand and a story around your products – all our brands have extensive historical links, which sets them apart from the competition.
- Be prepared to “lean on” professional organisations such as UKTi, HEFF and Chamber of Commerce – but accept that they are there only to help not to achieve – it is really down to you alone to make your business successful.
- Surround yourself with good professional advisors (Accountant/Bank/ Solicitor) – you will at some time need them.
- Be prepared to make mistakes – no one is perfect – but make sure you learn from them.
- Employ people in key aspects of the business – i.e. production, sales and admin so you can work within reason “on your business” not “in your business”. Be prepared to listen to new ideas from within your team – you don’t have the answers to everything.
- Learn from your competition – see what they do successfully and look to do it better.
- Make products that have a market – don’t make products that you alone would like to buy.
- Your product and people are everything – be passionate about them both.
Website – www.celticmarches.com
Twitter and Facebook addresses – www.twitter.com/CelticMarches www.facebook.com/CelticMarches