IT ALL comes down to marketing, says William Chase, the owner and chief of Tyrrells Potato Chips inHerefordshire.
He should know, as turnover for the business is expected to hit 6m in its third year, with one-third of his crisps heading overseas.
But business, and indeed life, has not always been so sweet for this born entrepreneur. Mr Chase left the Royal Agricultural College in 1984 and bought a 40ha (100-acre) farm near Leominster from his father with a £200,000 bank loan.
Sensing that there was not much money to be made in the traditional cropping, livestock rearing or dairying of Herefordshire, he immediately branched out into potatoes.
“We were one of the first in this area to rent land to grow potatoes. Farmers round here are not as commercially minded as they are in more developed areas of the country, and they looked down their noses at it because we were bucking the trend. Today every farmer in the area has potatoes.”
At first it was hard work, worsened by a failed foray into agricultural contracting, but times changed with the arrival of big supermarket buying power.
“We really focused on potatoes in the early 1990s, when the supermarket boom happened. Estima was the variety that we grew, because it is almost like growing a weed. If you plant it in this fresh land it would just produce these beautiful snow-white, creamy potatoes. We had years when they would pay fantastic prices for these in the 1990s, and the business would sometimes make up to 300% return on capital.”
Mr Chase built new cold stores to retain his potatoes’ colour and texture, and began to rent land as far afield as Pembroke and Stratford-upon-Avon, trading about 35,000t of the crop by the end of the decade.
The rise of processed food and diet fads spelt the end of the good years for packaged potatoes, though, and he began to look for opportunities to diversify. “Everything goes in cycles,” he says. “As soon as you see the cracks, I think you should act.”
One day he was eating a packet of hand-fried crisps from an American brand, and the idea took seed, says Mr Chase. He went to Spain and America in January 2002 to look at equipment and gather advice from others in the business. And by June the first samples were emerging from the friers in the half-built factory, after set-up costs of £2m.
From the outset Tyrrells targeted small farm shops and delicatessens, believing that discerning customers would pay a premium for high quality. The packaging stressed the fact that Tyrrells” chips were made from Tyrells’ potatoes, grown on the farm. “We wanted to do something different to make our product stand out from the rest; We wanted to sell a product with a story and a pedigree,” he says.
It was hard work, and the three-strong team were happy to sell 20 boxes in a week to begin with. But the business turned over £1.5m in its first year, compared with set-up costs of £2m. Turnover has doubled each year and the farm now produces 3500t of potatoes annually, of which 2500t are turned into hand-fried chips. It supplies 4000 retailers and employs a team of 20 salespeople and 20 on the production line.
Tyrrells chips are only available at Waitrose, having avoided business with the big supermarkets. “It would take the fun out,” Mr Chase says. “I would have to spend all my time in meetings, and accept a whole tier of middle management with clipboards. I am unemployable. I’ve got a very low boredom threshold and I do not think I could ever work for anybody.”
But despite his success, Mr Chase admits that he has been lucky. “When we started, there were only two competitors, but now there are 15 trying to do the same thing.” He is looking at making fruit chips to stay ahead of the market, but believes that the firm is reaching the point where further growth could just mean more work, not more profit.
He is strongly critical of DEFRA, which only provided support after the business was up and running, and has offered little help in overcoming the numerous barriers to export. “They are interested more in turning this countryside into a leisure park than into a place for commercial food production,” says Mr Chase.
He also says farmers must become more commercially minded, and put the numerous practical and administrative skills used in running a farm to good use.
“Farmers don’t plan their business when they are 25; they seem to just drift into producing these different things because their father did. They have this old-fashioned sense of divine right, where if they are going to produce, the customer will buy.”