Taming the beast

It's a source of joy, but also a “life-consuming beast”. Tom Warner, co-founder of artisan gin producer Warner Edwards, considers the personal highs and lows of building a fast-growing business.

For a young company, it was a dream showcase. This summer, Warner Edwards was chosen by top chef Raymond Blanc to distil its gin on site for customers of Jardin Blanc, his restaurant within the Chelsea Flower Show.

A hectic start

It was a prestigious moment in a year of notable wins for the firm. Behind the scenes, however, co-founder Tom Warner was working flat-out to keep the wheels turning.

After an intense spell at the show, Tom dismantled his mobile distillery and travelled back to the Northamptonshire farm where the business is based. “I got home at 10.30pm; at 5am next morning I was firing up the still,” he says.

Tom and his co-owner and wife Tina Keogh-Warner have become used to this kind of schedule since selling their first bottle of hand-crafted gin in December 2012.

“In the first two years of the business, I don't think we had a day off from April through to December, because of the trade shows we did,” Tom recalls. “By the end of the year we were quite mad and physically ill - I was a shell on Christmas day.”

This year, the couple has managed a weekend away. The swift growth of the team, from 14 at the start of the year to a projected 30 at the year-end, should allow them more regular breathing space.

In the first two years of the business, I don't think we had a day off from April through to December, because of the trade shows we did,

Learning to let go

Expansion comes with its own personal challenges, however. “Your role changes every day, with every new hire in the team,” Tom says. “There are times when you can feel a bit lost.

“At the start, we did everything from sweeping the floor to bottling the gin and doing the accounts. Now we need to learn when to just step back and stop bothering people.

“We're now able to hire people who know the industry better than we do. There's a few more grey hairs in the business, which has given us confidence and a more mature approach. But you have to actively let go, because otherwise it won't happen.”

Committed to getting that process right, Tom and Tina have recently enlisted the services of a leadership coach.

“We're going through a 360-degree feedback process, and having personality assessments so we understand what areas we need to improve,” Tom says.

Your role changes every day, with every new hire in the team.

Riding the financial storm

Besides the sheer intensity of the workload, the founders had to grapple with the fact that they'd under-capitalised the business at the outset.

They were obliged to raise several rounds of personal money, culminating in a final effort in April 2016. Combined with the prize money they gained by winning HSBC's Elevator Pitch, this saw £250,000 invested. “Financially, we haven't looked back since then,” says Tom.

Along the way, however, the pressures saw Warner Edwards lose founding partner Sion Edwards, who decided to leave the business.

“It's not for everyone,” Tom says of the split. “We created a bit of a monster, a life- and cash-consuming beast. You have to ride the storm. It's only in the last 12 months that it's become cash-generative.”

He emphasises that there are more highs than lows: “There are exceptionally dark days, but for every dark moment there are many more positives.”

Most recently, the firm has celebrated listings with M&S and Waitrose, as well as a major deal with a supermarket in Germany, where gin consumption is just taking off.

“Moments like that are just incredible,” Tom says. “We've been really poor at celebrating our successes until now - we just didn't have the time. We're getting better at it as a team.”

We created a bit of a monster, a life- and cash-consuming beast. You have to ride the storm.

Focusing on the vision

Tom and Tina are galvanised by a long-term personal goal to secure a legacy for future generations.

“A lot of the gin producers now are building brands to try to sell on to the big players,” Tom says. “What we're doing is different: it's farm diversification.

“Farms now tend to be lifestyle choices rather than a living. We're trying to achieve both - though currently we have no lifestyle! We're aiming to get to the point where the farm is secure and can be passed on through the generations.

“We may need to leverage some of the business, but we're not selling.”

We're aiming to get to the point where the farm is secure and can be passed on through the generations.

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