The potato farmer who swapped bankruptcy for making millions
- 8 February 2016
- From the section Business
For a Herefordshire potato farmer, William Chase is impressively savvy about the need for positive publicity, and the importance of telling a good story.
It is a talent that helped him move from being bankrupt, aged 32, to becoming a multimillionaire by the time he was 48.
Along the way he created and sold best-selling upmarket crisps brand Tyrrells, and won a high-profile battle against supermarket giant Tesco.
Now 56, and the founder and owner of Chase Vodka, a luxury version of the spirit made from potatoes grown on his farm, the serial entrepreneur says: "People love stories, the real stories behind things.
"And the media was very important to me from the first days of Tyrrells.
"I was a guy who had been beaten up by the supermarkets, and people love to support the underdog."
The son of potato farmers who lived near the Herefordshire town of Leominster, Mr Chase bought the family farm from his dad when he was 20 after he "managed to find a bank manager brave enough to lend me £200,000".
As the cost of potatoes can rise and fall sharply, business was up and down for the next 12 years, until torrential rain in 1992 meant he couldn't harvest his crop, which he had to leave to rot in the fields.
Overextended financially, the business collapsed, and Mr Chase had to file for bankruptcy. He says: "I was very ashamed and embarrassed."
After "running away to Australia" for a few months, he returned to Herefordshire, and was able to borrow funds to buy back the farm from the receivers, and start up in business again.
This time, to make extra money, he became a potato trader, buying spuds from a number of farms, and then selling them on to supermarkets.
Yet while he got himself back on his feet financially, Mr Chase says he became increasingly frustrated that supermarkets would reject potatoes that weren't "cosmetically perfect".
He adds: "I'd send off 10 loads of spuds every day, and I'd be getting five back. It was very painful how the supermarkets were treating us farmers."
Mr Chase's life-changing moment came in 2002 when he found out that rejected potatoes were being bought up by the UK operation of US crisp-maker Kettle.
At the time Kettle was one of new companies making so-called "posh crisps", potato crisps which were cut a little thicker than the mass-market brands, and fried by hand.
Despite having no crisp-making experience or knowledge, Mr Chase was convinced he could set up his own upmarket crisps brand.
So he phoned a few UK crisp-makers to ask if he could see how they did things, and all said "no". Undeterred, he flew out to the US and visited facilities in Pennsylvania and Colorado.
Returning to the UK, he built a crisp-making facility at the family farm, and Tyrrells [taking its name from the property] was up and running six months later.
Quick to tell his story to local newspapers to build up publicity, Mr Chase hit the road to spend two weeks visiting independent food shops across the UK with samples of his crisps.
He says: "Tyrrells grew and grew very quickly, and it was a brilliant cash cow. We'd sell the bags to shops for £1 and they would retail them for £2. For us the net profit was 35%."
Supermarkets such as Waitrose soon followed suit, but Mr Chase was adamant that he would not sell to the largest - Tesco - because he didn't like what he saw as the pressure it put on farmers to lower their prices.
Then one day in 2006 a friend told him that Tesco was selling Tyrrells' crisps. It transpired that Tesco had been buying them on the grey market, and selling them below the recommended retail price.
An incensed Mr Chase demanded that Tesco stop selling them. After the supermarket refused, Mr Chase started a media campaign that included an appearance on BBC Radio 4's Today programme. Tesco then did back down.
With sales of Tyrrells crisps continuing to grow over the next few years, and annual turnover hitting £14m, Mr Chase borrowed money from his bank to expand production. The condition the bank set was that he had to bring in a management team to help him run the business.
Mr Chase, who had previously been very hands on, and liked to help out with all parts of the business, says that bringing in new managers ultimately changed the business - to its detriment.
"We got to a stage where I didn't like where the business was going," he says. "We were employing corporate people who were arranging meetings about more meetings."
Unhappy with Tyrrells' new big business ethos, and going through a "messy divorce", Mr Chase - who was the sole shareholder - decided to sell up in 2008 to a private capital business for almost £40m.
Looking for a new business venture, and with the new owners of Tyrrells choosing to buy their potatoes from elsewhere, Mr Chase came up with the idea of turning his spuds into premium vodka.
So with money no longer a problem, he bought a distillation system, and Chase Vodka was born.
Aimed at the luxury end of the market, it retails for £35 a bottle.
While Mr Chase admits it isn't anywhere near as profitable as selling crisps, it appears to be very much a labour of love. And focused very much on exports, he spends a lot of time travelling the world to build up sales.
And showing that he has lost little of his public relations skills, every year he flies influential barmen and women from around the world to visit his farm in Herefordshire to see how the potatoes are grown, and vodka is made.
Also now making a gin and a whisky, the Chase Distillery sells 10,000 bottles a week.
Mr Chase says: "You have to tell people your story if you want to build your brand. But there has to be real DNA behind it if you want to be successful."