Six years ago, David Milner received a phone call from private equity firm Langholm Partners, the former owners of Tyrrells Crisps.
They needed help. After an eight-year growth spurt, sales at the posh crisp brand had turned rather stale and Langholm wanted the former Mars and Campbell’s Soup executive on board.
“The first thing I did was to go out and buy the whole range Tyrrells crisps, bring them home to my kids and my wife, and eat them all,” he said.
The crisps – and their bold packaging superimposed with quirky black and white photos – won unanimous approval from the Milner clan. But with only a small presence in major UK supermarkets, it was clear that Tyrrells was not reaching a big enough audience.
“They were only in a few Waitrose and Co-ops. So simplistically I thought, if we can get the Tyrrells into more shops then we can grow the business,” Milner told City A.M.
Six years on, Tyrells’ has expanded into most UK supermarkets and exports overseas to 37 countries, including France, US, China and Australia, where it also made its first acquisition last year.
Group turnover has almost tripled from £16.9m in 2010 to £49.3m last year – a rise of 22 per cent on 2014. International sales now account for a third of the business.
It has also changed owners, after Langholm sold the business for £100m in 2013 to Middle East-backed private equity firm Investcorp.
However, Milner says the Tyrrells still remains a firmly British brand, its hand-cooked potato crisps (and popcorn) still produced at Tyrrells Court farm in Herefordshire, where enterpreneur Will Chase – who is no longer involved – founded the company in 2002.
“There is a risk if you get too big you lose touch with why you became successful in the first place. And that’s why I’ve always vetoed it [the idea of moving the factory closer to London].
“Our offices are old converted potato sheds, we have a victoria farmhouse...and we are producing crisps from potatoes grown for us exclusively in Herefordshire. We are very attached to the land,” Milner said.
In December, Tyrrells launched its first advertising campaign in a bid to broaden its reach, with the slogan Life’s a Shindig and three straplines including “best enjoyed the civil side of sozzled.”
“We like the idea that Tyrrells can turn the moment into a bit of a shindig – a bit of a party – and before you know it everyone is having a really great time,” he said.
"You get home from work, and you are standing in the kitchen and somebody opens a bottle of wine and a bag of crisps and it kind of transforms the moment."
It is one of the priciest crisps on the market. However Milner believes that key to its success in both Waitrose, Morrisons and Tesco stores alike is the fact that shoppers buy it for special occasions – when a packet of Walkers just won’t do.
"When you have a premium brand like we do, it doesn’t mean you have to be in Waitrose. It means you have got to be everywhere so that when people have friends coming round and they want to show they care, they buy Tyrrells," he adds.