Business management

High growth focus: how Didsbury Gin disrupted the spirits market

As part of our series celebrating innovative UK scale-ups, we speak to Liam Manton and Mark Smallwood, co-founders of award-winning growth business Didsbury Gin.

Key takeaways for growth

  • make fearless, bold decisions that are well balanced
  • build good corporate governance from the outset with a strong board
  • a good board is there to provide insight, knowledge, expertise and contacts
  • build your supply chain slowly, incrementally and honestly
  • put responsibility at the heart of your business
  • ask other people to sense test your ideas
  • be ambitious and roll the dice

What helped you scale the business after its launch in 2017?

“Being fearless in making decisions. When the pandemic hit us, we lost 80% of our revenue in the flick of a switch without any warning. We managed to pivot our supply chain and accelerated our business plan by two years by launching our pre-mixed cans. We made some bold, risky, but well-balanced decisions.

“We’ve also made some shrewd board appointments. We’ve brought in Allan Beattie as finance director from Brockmans Gin. Michael Saunders [CEO of Bibendum Wine and chair of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association] as a non-exec. And we’ve got Jenny Campbell [the former Dragon on the BBC show Dragons’ Den who invested in the company in 2018 and remains a shareholder]. And obviously, the product’s good!”

How do you build the right board in a high growth business?

“You’ve got to recruit people that share your vision. Be clear about what you want them to do and what they expect you to do before you make those appointments.

“What you don’t want is a situation where you’re spending 80% of your time appeasing the board. You need to be challenged; everything needs to be rigorously risk assessed. But it needs to be done in a way that’s collaborative as opposed to combative.

“A good board is there to provide insight, knowledge, expertise and contacts.”

What have been your barriers to growth?

“When we started the business, we took out a government start-up loan. We weren’t homeowners, weren’t from an affluent background, we didn’t have cash reserves. Getting financial institutions to take us seriously in the early days was very challenging. It was still challenging when Jenny Campbell invested because we didn’t have a wealth of personal assets. 

“We were very fortunate that we were able to take what was a small investment on Dragons’ Den, when we were turning over around £70,000, and turn that into £1m pounds within six months. People start taking you seriously once you start making seven figures, which is a shame because there’s a lot of really good entrepreneurs out there that could benefit from that.

Listen to advice, take on other people’s ideas. Don’t just be one dimensional, because it’s easy to put the blinkers on, look at your own idea and think it’s the greatest idea in the world.

Liam Manton and Mark Smallwood
Co-founders, Didsbury Gin

“When you first start a small business, the biggest challenge is often how to distribute and get your product into the hands of customers. That was big for us. We started locally, very small, delivering ourselves and over time grew our supply chain. We’ve just signed a deal with C&C Group as our UK distributor [the Didsbury Gin range will be exclusively distributed through C&C’s wholesale businesses, Bibendum Wine, Matthew Clark and Tennent’s Wholesale]. That helps us take our product nationally now. But you’ve got to build that expansion slowly.”

How do you maintain key business relationships?

“Getting a FTSE 250 business like C&C Group to partner with our brand is a testament to what we have built over the last three years. When we launched Didsbury Gin, Harvey Nichols was our first customer. Selfridges was our second. We created momentum early on.

“We probably only had 3 litres of gin at that time. It wasn’t really a business – it was just a concept. Harvey Nichols loved our vegan friendly, botanically infused liquid. They loved our energy and the vision for what we wanted to create. We knew there was a gap in the market. 

“After celebrating our first client, we did wonder what to do next. We had this order and we couldn’t fulfil it. We had no production; we were making it in the living room. 

“So, we asked Harvey Nichols, ‘could we just take a couple of months to pause and make sure we get this right?’. They gave us three months. We went to [social enterprise] The Growth Company in Greater Manchester. They helped us with a business plan, cash flow, some finance and then we were up and running.”

How do you combine passion and purpose with being profitable?

“It’s always key to be a responsible business. It’s part of our DNA and underpins everything we do. During the pandemic, we were one of the first companies to switch production to hand sanitiser. We produced and donated the equivalent of 2.8 million units of hand sanitiser for every hospital and GP surgery in Greater Manchester, as well as the police. 

“We always do things because it seems the right thing to do. We’re pledging to be carbon-neutral by the end of next year, not over five years. We have set some quite ambitious CSR [corporate social responsibility] targets and objectives. We are a small team of six people but everybody in the team is being developed and upskilled within the business over the course of three years.”

What lessons have you learned?

“Listen to advice, take on other people’s ideas. Don’t just be one dimensional, because it’s easy to put the blinkers on, look at your own idea and think it’s the greatest idea in the world.

“Other people can sense test your ideas, your ambitions, your commercial planning. It keeps the wheels on. It doesn’t mean giving up your entrepreneurial spirit – your passion is key to driving everything you do. 

“Be fearless in your decision-making. If you feel it’s right for the business, it probably is. You’ve got to be ambitious and roll the dice. A lot of people are scared to take that next step and scale up. We had jobs when we were running this business and were made redundant. It wasn’t so difficult to make that leap. Until you do it, you’ll never know.”

What have you learned about accessing finance?

“Banks are risk-averse, but they’re risk-averse for a reason. As entrepreneurs, you’ve got to be patient, because there’s no flick of a switch if you need cash to grow. 

“You’ve got to be prepared to navigate the financial staircase and the suite of products available. It starts small – we took a small government loan; then we looked at a loan from the bank to help us fund some stock. Then we looked at invoice financing for larger orders. Then we looked at equity release. It’s a journey. 

“We’re in a position now where we’re looking at a seven-figure opportunity for next year. We have cash reserves and can navigate cash flow easily. That comes with experience and the lessons we’ve learned over three years.”

What are your proudest achievements?

“We were told on Dragons’ Den by a number of Dragons that the gin market was saturated; you’re late to the party. We quickly took the business from £70,000 to £1.2m. Last year we did £3.5m and over £600,000 EBITDA [earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation]. We’re proud of that financial performance. 

“We’re also proud of what our team did during the pandemic. We’re small, we were working remotely. We managed to pull off things that multimillion-pound businesses couldn’t do.

“We also took on a lot of responsibility on behalf of the British spirits industry by challenging Donald Trump’s proposed gin tax on British imports. After a lengthy period of lobbying MPs and national news features our collective efforts contributed to him backing down.”

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