FRAZER THOMPSON, CEO OF THE AQSE QUOTED CHAPEL DOWN GROUP, IS ONE OF THE UK’S MOST EXPERIENCED BRAND ADVOCATES.
Like one of his bottles of sparkling wine, his career has been carefully nurtured and ripened. Aged 29 he was appointed a director of Whitbread in 1989, and then led the team that created the Boddingtons ‘Cream of Manchester’ campaign, one of the most successful beer advertising campaigns in recent memory. Clever marketing ideas are still close to Thompson’s heart – the slogan ‘Great Minds Drink Alike’ is used for Chapel Down’s sponsorship of the annual Oxford vs. Cambridge boat race.
Now he heads the UK’s most successful wine producer, the Chapel Down Group. Aside from a multitude of accolades and awards for its wines, the company really came to the notice of the general public in 2011, when Chapel Down was widely reported to have been served at the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. According to Andrew Jefford, the wine writer, “Chapel Down is one of the long-term pillars of the UK wine creation scene and has many fine wines under its belt…[wine production] is not an easily recouped investment and anyone in it needs to be there for the long term. It has to be upmarket, too, as it can never compete on price with Cava and Prosecco.” What Thompson doesn’t know about selling drinks would fit on the back of one of his wine labels. We caught up with him to ask about the highs and lows of the wine world – and why he chose AQSE when it came to doing the company’s public listing.
What have been the highs and lows of life for Thompson since 2001? “The highs are easier than the lows. Raising £20 million and getting Black Rock and IPGL as investors last year, plus the World record crowdfunding in 2014, were recent personal highlights. Seeing the brand in the major supermarkets, in great restaurants, and in bars in New York gives you a real buzz. And we have been really lucky with the people we have – not only our lead investors like Nigel Wray, but we’ve been incredibly fortunate in getting a terrific bunch of people to come and work with us. It’s a great team that keeps you humble, stops the hubris and focuses the mind, but never dampens the desire to be fearless, relentless and curious. One of the real joys of this job is that I always go to bed a bit less stupid than when I woke.” As for the lows, “God is not the most reliable business partner you can have – bad harvests can be frustrating,” says Thompson.
The antecedents of what was to become Chapel Down were bumpy until in 2001 two Kent vineyards – at Lamberhurst and Tenterden – put their assets together, and Thompson joined. Chapel Down has expanded, and today is not just Britain’s biggest winemaker but also produces and markets beer, gin, and vodka. The antecedents of what was to become Chapel Down were bumpy until in 2001 two Kent vineyards – at Lamberhurst and Tenterden – put their assets together, and Thompson joined. Chapel Down has expanded, and today is not just Britain’s biggest winemaker but also produces and markets beer, gin, and vodka. “They say you can’t make great wine without good beer,” Thompson tells me. Chapel Down is a genuine success story – all the more impressive for being in the notoriously weather-and-disease prone wine sector.
“2012 wasn’t a great year in terms of the harvest although a great year in terms of profile for English wine, thanks to the Olympics. But the biggest low was probably when we had a fire in 2004 – that really knocked us back. Had we not already raised money from Nigel Wray and others we would have been very close to going bust.” However, God has been a great business partner in 2018. “Wonderful!” says Thompson. “The harvest isn’t in yet and you learn that there’s always a potential twist – nothing’s ever completely perfect. The growing season is only 22 weeks and there are still another three to go,” says Thompson, who has acquired the cautiousness recognisable from anyone in the wine business. Harvesting for the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir varieties starts late September and runs through October. “It’s a big crop,” says Thompson. “Quantity can be OK, but we really want quality. What’s interesting about this year is that it has both, potentially.” Chapel Down has achieved remarkable things but it’s only just begun.
CHAPEL DOWN IS PLANNING TO DOUBLE ITS ACREAGE OVER THE NEXT THREE TO FOUR YEARS, TO AROUND 1,000 ACRES.
Thompson says that “as a marketer you look for ‘insights’. Occasionally something comes out of left field and you realise that it’s gold dust. We found one, which is that as winemakers we are given a licence to do things that other people can’t do. If I were to ask someone who they’d sooner go out on a date with – a winemaker, a brewer, or a distiller – then everyone would answer a winemaker. Why? The assumption is that they are more likely to be sophisticated, educated, romantic and interesting. Winemakers are given this romantic and mythical status as they are connected to the Earth. As a consequence, a winemaker can make beer, cider or gin that people will correctly assume is made from better natural ingredients.”
The decision to go public is explained by Thompson because establishing a good wine business is cash-degenerative over a number of years whilst the vines grow and bottles are stored before sale. From starting the business to seeing any return on your investment takes years.
“The establishment cost is initially high, and if you are growing fast you need access to further cash as the business grows. To do that credibly, you also need to demonstrate good financial disciplines” says Thompson. “Aquis Stock Exchange forces you to ensure that you get those disciplines ingrained in your company for your investors. It is low-cost and has been a good exchange for us – it’s enabled us to grow. At some stage investors want to sell, and AQSE gives them the opportunity to do that. The levels of trade in our stock that go through AQSE are about the same as the average AIM company. So we have decent levels of liquidity,” says Thompson.
Chapel Down is planning to double its acreage over the next three to four years, to around 1,000 acres, on land that is, in Thompson’s words “impeccable”. In the first week of September it took that to over 950 acres when it announced that it had conditionally signed long term leases over 388 acres of prime land on the North Downs of Kent, showing that a reputable public company with institutional shareholders has no trouble in growing its business.
Aside from awards for its wines, Chapel Down has been dubbed an official “Cool brand” by those who know, and is one of a thousand companies to Inspire Britain according to the London Stock Exchange. Thompson has a very clear sense of where he is taking the business: “The drinks business, more than almost any other category, has higher intangible asset values because the brands have to be strong. People don’t buy much own-label beer, wines or spirits. They buy brands. The value of those brands is extraordinarily high. The business is all about the creation and maintenance of world-class brands. If you get that right, the potential for global expansion and value is enormous. The growth in English wine is good but it’s never going to be a billion pound business. Spirits on the other hand could be that in five years’ time, as could beer. There aren’t the same limits to growth as there are with wine. What we have as a winemaker is the chance to create fantastic brands in other categories.”
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