A masterclass in exporting success: The English Whisky Company

Santander’s local Business Banking team recently held a Breakthrough Masterclass at the English Whisky Company, with local East Anglian businesses invited to hear about (and taste!) the firm’s success and its exporting aspirations.

Given that whisky has been made in Scotland for over half a millennium, how old do you think the oldest whisky distillery in England is? 300 years? 200? In fact, the English Whisky Company, based in Norfolk at the aptly named St George’s Distillery is the oldest English distillery but was only established in 2005. In whisky terms, the EWC could almost be described as a start-up.

However, the family-run and award-winning EWC has outgrown all its own expectations to become not just a UK success story but also one of the UK’s fastest-growing food and drink exporters.

The firm’s premium whiskies are already on sale in around 20 countries globally, including Japan, Russia, the US, France and China, and the firm is actively targeting 20 more such as Canada, Mexico, and India (the world’s largest whisky market by volume). Indeed, export growth has begun to snowball: non-UK sales as a percentage of overall sales are forecast to double between 2016 and FY2017 to 14%.

Santander’s local Business Banking team recently held a Breakthrough Masterclass at the English Whisky Company, with local East Anglian businesses invited to hear about (and taste!) the firm’s success and its exporting aspirations. Andrew Nelstrop, owner of the EWC, and Colin Cordy, the firm’s export sales director, gave hugely insightful talks about what they had learned in building the business.

Five of their top tips were:

  1. Build a brand: the EWC makes great use of its Englishness and the fact that it’s the oldest distillery in the country. Such branding can play well in overseas markets, where Englishness (and Britishness) is seen as a mark of quality. As Andrew Nelstrop, owner of the EWC, said: “Nobody is going to care much about England’s second-oldest distillery.”

  2. Focus on cashflow and costs: starting a whisky company presents some specific cashflow problems. For instance, the earliest the product itself can be made available to sell is three years so focusing on costs and long-term cashflow management is vital. This is a big lever behind the recent explosion of small-batch gin from Scottish distilleries – as a product which is much faster to make, it can supplement a distillery while you wait for the whisky to age. The long-term view is important: as Andrew noted, it is possible to market a 50-year-old whisky, which requires significant forward planning.

  3. Make use of the advice and support available – particularly when it comes to exporting: UK businesses can get a significant amount of information, advice and support from an increasingly broad range of stakeholders. Colin Cordy, EWC’s export sales director, highlighted the UK’s Department for International Trade’s website as an excellent resource, while Tracy Grazioli, International Director at Santander, discussed the significant information, business leads and exporting insights available on Santander’s unique Trade Portal.

  4. Employ people with the right skills: running a family-run business successfully means getting the best out of family members’ particular strengths. Staffing is fundamental to the success of an SME – you don’t need lots of staff, you just need the right ones.

  5. Invest for growth, but only when the time is right: off the back of its local and global success, the English Whisky Company has become a popular tourist destination, with a growing number of enthusiasts even flying in just to visit the distillery. As such, the firm is now expanding its facilities and building a 100-seat restaurant to better cater for visitors. The EWC is also expanding its product range, bringing out a range of differently branded and flavoured whiskies in 2017.

While the EWC is generating excellent momentum in the UK and globally, the firm recognises it still has a way to go before it rivals whiskies made in Scotland. The latter has a 78% global share of the global market, thanks to around 115 distilleries in Scotland managing 20 million casks. Amazingly, Scotch whisky represents a quarter (25%) of all UK food and drink exports, with the Scotch industry valued alone at around £4 billion.

But, as Andrew Nelstrop, owner of EWC, pointed out, the vibrancy and success of the Scotch market simply illustrates the significant opportunities for a firm like his. “Scotch is sold in 200 countries, we are in currently established in around 20. But we are happy to invest and grow steadily and maybe in five years we will be in 50 countries. That would be something very special.”

Talking about their attendance at the Santander SME Masterclass at the English Whisky Company:

Jason Guest, Director, Squiggle Glass Ltd, said: “I run a family run business so hearing from Andrew about managing his team from a family perspective, including long-term succession planning and investing in skills, was fascinating.”

Tim Newton, Director at HLJ Foods Ltd, said: “It was very useful to hear about the tools and solutions available to SMEs looking to export. It was clear that Santander’s Trade Portal contains a great deal of information across most major markets and sectors.”

Colin Wooliscroft, Regional Director for Santander, said “Having heard the inspiring start-up story of English Whisky from Andrew when we first met, I was delighted that Andrew agreed to host a Masterclass for our customers and share his story. Businesses benefit from shared experiences and knowing that challenges can be overcome."

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John Carroll - Helping businesses achieve International success. Head of Product Management & International Business, Santander UK

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