Playing the long game: an interview with Chapel Down CEO Frazer Thompson and the UK Investor Show's Nigel Wray

 
Alys Key
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Chapel Down has become the poster-child for the English wine boom (Source: Chapel Down)

Back in 2004, England was considered rather better at playing rugby than it was at producing wine, basking in the afterglow of the national team’s world cup win six months earlier.

It was around this time that a mutual contact put Nigel Wray, the owner of Saracens rugby club, in touch with Frazer Thompson, a former Heineken director with the seemingly eccentric idea of building a world-class English winery.

As Thompson and his then-chairman arrived at Wray’s office, they bumped into star England rugby player Richard Hill signing shirts at the top of the stairs. The encounter was a marker of the differences between his world and Wray’s as they sat down to discuss wine.

Read more: This British wine brand is about to launch into its toughest market yet

“We had a 20-minute discussion booked which ended up being over an hour,” recalls Thompson. “I remember leaving the meeting with my then-chairman who thought I’d blown it because we had talked about rugby and other unrelated topics. But then we got the call and the rest is history.”

Wray invested in Chapel Down, making him one of its earliest backers. Since then he has never taken a penny out of the business, even as it became the poster-child of the English wine boom, served at Downing Street and the Oxford Cambridge Boat Race.

From that first meeting came a productive relationship, the success of which Wray attributes to the informal conversation. “For me, everything in life is about people,” he says. “It’s important to try and understand people, have a connection. People make things happen.”

It’s a philosophy he tries to imbue into the UK Investor Show, which is now jointly owned by his family and that of share tipster Tom Winnifrith.

The one-day event brings private investors together with CEOs, providing what Wray describes as a rare opportunity for non-institutional investors to really get to know company chiefs.

“It’s important that you do get a chance to talk to investors,” adds Thompson. “They are the pilgrims who are going to go away and bore people to tears about how good wine is.” Not only should the relationships formed be personal, says Wray, they should be long-lasting: “Just as wine is a long-term business, so is successful investment.”

“It seems to me the evolution of English wine is the perfect example of long term investment,” he says. “If you stick at it, you’re part of an exciting journey with the right people.”

Chapel Down has reaped most of the fruit from that journey so far. English wine’s progression from a joke to a must-have has been one of Britain's great business success stories in recent years.

Read more: Londoners are driving the boom in English wine sales

Back in 2004, when Wray first invested, consumers associated English wine with Tom and Barbara’s home-brewed plonk in The Good Life rather than a rival to champagne.

“We started doing tastings in London and people were looking for an excuse not to like it,” says Thompson. “That’s now changed because people want to try it. There has been a
wholesale shift in attitudes.”

On top of that, he says, Chapel Down and other players have only just scratched the surface of what could be a huge market: “We’re just not making enough wine in the UK yet. Demand is massively exceeding supply."

“Ultimately we’d like to plant a great deal more vineyards, the sites are available so we’re going to have to dig deeper and make sure that we’re able to do that.”

This is where investors like Wray become so crucial for getting that snowball rolling which soon becomes an avalanche. It is not just about the funding which Wray has put in, Thompson explains, but the effect it has on the company’s reputation.

“When you get investors of the calibre of Nigel believing you’ve got something, other people look and listen. It gives you gravitas.”

Read more: British demand for sparkling wine just keeps fizzing up

It also helps with recruitment, allowing Chapel Down to attract a higher level of board members now than they would have done at the beginning. In 2015 the winery enticed Mark Harvey of LVMH pedigree over to be managing director of wines. The most recent appointment was that of Gareth Bath as MD of Chapel Down’s beer range Curious. He is an alumnus of one of Britain’s other big drinks industry success stories: Brewdog.

From Wray’s perspective as a serial investor, this is perhaps the most important element of building a business. “You have to have good people,” he says. “You have one good person at the top, and then you need a few really good people. Without them you’re not going to make it.”

He limits his own involvement to regular chats with Thompson about the business, and to being an ambassador for the wine.

“I don’t tend know a lot about vineyard planting, so what’s the point of me learning a lot about it? The object is find people who are a lot better than you are at it.”

Chapel Down has won acclaim alongside its commercial success. But with so much potential still untapped in the English wine market, Wray is determined to stay on for the long haul. “Personally I don’t like selling and I feel almost disloyal when I sell,” he says. “When you’re in a company, why not be in it forever?”

To claim your free Investor Class ticket for The Global Group UK Investor Show on Saturday 21st April 2018, visit www.ukinvestorshow.com/tickets and enter CITYAM as the discount code.

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