By Sarah Willis
A pot of gold is often rumored to lie at the end of a rainbow, but some may find their fortune in a place even more unexpected than this. For one British entrepreneur, this was in a potato field.
William Chase upmarket British crisps business Tyrrells in 2002. It has risen from a small artisan company to an international enterprise in just over a decade. Last year it was acquired by alternative investment provider Investcorp for over $165 million, a deal which won the GrowthBusiness M&A 2014 Deal of the Year award. How?
How it started
Farmer-turned-entrepreneur Chase initially started the sophisticated snack line as a side project to subsidize his struggling potato farm.
Fast-forward two years and 80% growth had been delivered, achieving a pre-tax profit of almost $200 million. Another three years down the line and Tyrrells crisps are sold in 35 countries, while still being created at the same farm all the way from seed to packet.
William Chase seemed happy for this to continue and declined takeover bids, only reconsidering his position when was offered “an awful lot of money”.
In 2008, private equity firm Langholm Capital took hold of Tyrrells following an offer of just below $50 million.
Although Chase had always upheld his idea to provide a high-end product with integrity, this would soon change after selling out to the City. An agreement that Chase would continue to supply superior spuds was soon overturned when their buyers found them cheaper elsewhere.
The ingredients weren’t the only thing to change following the buyout; the ethos of the brand did too. The new owners of Tyrrells began a push to get the snacks sold by larger retailers including UK supermarket giant Tesco, who Chase had purposefully chosen to snub in the past.
Gone were the relationships with artisan stockists that Chase had worked so hard to cultivate, as were the premium potatoes that inspired the entire venture. Tyrrells was no longer a brand that William Chase recognised.
So now Chase had a field of potatoes and nowhere for them to go. With his buyout burning a hole in his pocket, he quite literally brought his entrepreneurial spirit to life by starting a vodka empire.
The latest venture
Whilst working on Tyrrells, William Chase noticed that tons of potatoes that weren’t big enough for crisps were rejected and thought that they could be used to produce vodka instead.
Within the same year of making the Tyrrells sale, just under $5 million went into building the Chase Distillery where the vodka would be made, which included the world’s tallest copper distillation column, costing close to $1.5 million.
So is this latest venture set to make extra cash for the potato entrepreneur? Perhaps not. Chase has admitted that although the spirit retails at a noticeably high-end price of $63, the bottles take almost $30 to make and the middle-men eat a lot of the margin. So why does he do it? Apparently for the love of it – Chase admits that even though he may not have entered the industry if he knew how tough it was for newbies, he would still have set up a small distillery as a hobby.
William Chase’s innovation and determination for a superior product has already produced one great British business success story, and look likely to deliver another. So what has he learned? Although his entrepreneurial spirit and work ethic seems almost unshakeable, he has had to make one compromise for the sake of his business: he’ll now sell to Tesco.
Sarah Willis is a business writer in the United Kingdom @SarahQWillis.