William Chase is not your average farmer. The Herefordshire-born 60-year-old has gone from bankruptcy to making millions by turning potatoes into crisps and vodka, and is now hoping to make a fortune from apples.
Chase bought his family farm off his father at the age of 20 using a £200,000 bank loan, but quickly ran into trouble when he had problems harvesting the potato crops and ended up filing for bankruptcy by the time he was 32.
Instead of selling them at £100 a tonne I could sell them for £1,000 a tonne
Chase’s “eureka” moment came when he realised he could make much more money from his potatoes by turning them into crisps, and so Tyrrells was born.
“Instead of selling them at £100 a tonne I could sell them for £1,000 a tonne,” he says.
When the crisp brand was sold off for almost £40m to private equity house Langholm Capital in 2008, the new owners went on to source their potatoes from elsewhere, leaving Chase with a glut of produce once again. Following a trip to the US, Chase became inspired after visiting a small distillery making potato vodka. Using the proceeds from the sale of Tyrrells, he went on to launch Chase Distillery, which now produces seven gins, four vodkas and an elderflower liqueur.
Chase Distillery posted sales of £12.5m for the 17 months to the end of 2018, its latest accounts show, compared with £7.1m for 2017.
'No business can stand still'
Chase Vodka, the company William Chase started with the proceeds of his multi-million-pound sale of Tyrrells to a US private equity company
Chase is now set for another payday after Diageo, the world’s largest spirits maker, swooped and snapped up the farmer’s distillery for an undisclosed sum in October. Analysts at Jefferies estimate the purchase price at anywhere between £60m to £80m.
I'm probably at an age now where I've not been the perfect candidate in terms of things I've eaten and the way I've lived my life
The competition regulator has just launched an investigation into the transaction but Diageo hopes the deal will be completed early this year.
“There comes a point when a brand needs to move on,” Chase says. “When it’s your own business you’re worried about the money; you’re worried about the lights being left on, the paper clips being thrown away and every little detail.
“All businesses have to grow, they can't stand still and in that sense it's a phenomenal opportunity for that business.”
The wealth of gut health
After years of skin in the game in the snacks and drinks industries, Chase is going for a healthier approach and building his Willy’s Wellness brand, which produces gut health products such as apple cider vinegar and kombucha.
“I'm probably at an age now where I've not been the perfect candidate in terms of things I've eaten and the way I've lived my life and there comes a time where you learn to grow up,” Chase adds.
The idea for the brand was sparked when Chase was waiting in Whole Foods for a business meeting and overheard two young women discussing health foods.
“I decided that was the audience I wanted to go after,” he says. “Whether society likes it or not, these people are the future.”
Willy’s Wellness is already stocked by retailers including Waitrose, Whole Foods and Holland & Barrett in the UK, and now Chase wants to take the range to the rest of Europe.
The company has set up a base in France out of the Chase family vineyard to ensure it can trade smoothly following the UK's departure from the EU.
“Export is our main focus and taking this all across Europe,” Chase says. “Over the last 10 years, especially with social media, I’ve learned that the world is becoming one in their tastes and fashions. I wouldn’t have seen it as important previously but now I can see why companies want a European address and bank account to trade from.”
When life gives you apples
Chase has been able to use some of the fallout from the pandemic to grow Willy’s Wellness. The closure of pubs and bars for many months over the past eleven months has seen many British orchards struggle to find a home for apples that would usually be used to make cider. Chase says the business has started to join forces with some of these apple farmers to ensure it has the necessary supply to be able to expand overseas.
The firm currently employs around 15 people and Chase is on the hunt for new recruits. He has ambitions to grow the company to a workforce of around 35 over the next year and then double that year-on-year for the next five to six years.
“There’s a speed at which you can grow from a small business,” Chase says. “I’ve seen a lot of companies today grow very quickly by chucking cash at it through crowdfunding, but it’s not really sustainable as soon as you stop the funding. I believe in growing the business out of profit rather than out of investment.”
Chase’s goal for Willy’s Wellness is to get a million bottles of its apple cider vinegar into people’s homes. The product, which is made using a 300-year-old fermentation starter called a ‘mother’, claims to be an immunity booster which Chase says can be added to everything from salad dressings to smoothies.
Willy's Wellness apple cider vinegar contains 'The Mother', and Mr Chase says it can be used for everything from salad dressing to deodorant
He even encourages people to use it as part of their daily grooming routine.
“In California people have started using apple cider vinegar as a deodorant,” he adds. “It’s a bit smelly to begin with if you can get past that.”
The rapidly growing health and wellness industry has seen demand for fermented food and drink such as kimchi, kombucha and kefir, skyrocket in recent years. According to the market research firm Statista, the global fermented food and ingredients market was worth around $24bn (£17.6bn) in 2018 and is forecast to grow to more than $35.5bn by 2023.
Chase says people close to him say he has the attention span of “a gnat” and admits he gets bored easily. However, he insists that at the age of 60, this is likely to be the last time he launches a new start-up.
“Never say never but I’d like to spend my time helping other people grow their businesses. It's like a Herculean task creating a new brand,” he says.
“I’m looking forward to getting out of potatoes because they’re not particularly sexy. It’s either mud or dust, it’s pretty painful being a potato producer.”