Making millions from potatoes

No one has ever written a book about how to make a million from a potato, but Will Chase could. The founder of Tyrrells crisps – the posh ones that brought the vegetable crisp to the tables of the upper middle class – has now turned his hand to vodka, made from the spuds grown on his Herefordshire farm.

He sold Tyrrells to venture capital firm Langham Capital in the summer of 2008 for £40m. However, ceding control did not come naturally to him: “I wasn’t prepared for it. I was like the grumpy old bugger at the touchline of a rugby match. It used to be my train set and then it wasn’t.”

It’s easy to understand Chase’s attachment to the business he started in 2002. In 1980 he took out a £200,000 loan to buy his family farm (his father was going to sell it after the death of his mother). After struggling through the 1980s he went bankrupt and eventually acted as something of a potato broker between other potato farmers and big supermarkets. But at the end of the 1990s he was desperate to escape.

A rejected batch of potatoes led to the idea for Tyrrells. “I borrowed £400,000 from the bank to get going and within six years we had annual turnover of £14m.” At the start he worked seven days a week, building the team from five people to 130 just before he sold it. During that time he had a run-in with Tesco and wouldn’t let it sell Tyrrells crisps cut price – a ballsy move since Tesco is the UK’s largest supermarket chain.

It was while he was looking for equipment for Tyrrells that he came across a distillery. That was back in 2004. After four years of research and attending courses on spirit making he set up Chase Distillery at the end of 2008 with £2m of his own money.

Bottles of Chase vodka started rolling off the production line in 2008 and it has already been a hit. It recently won the title of “World’s finest vodka” at the San Francisco World Spirits Association.

Unlike other successful businessmen who only talk to the press in careful sound bites written by their PR, Chase doesn’t mince his words. He’s not a fan of private equity: “I prefer direct ownership”. He thinks that corporations take the wrong business approach: “They are not concerned about turnovers, but leftovers. They always look at growth, rather than costs.”

He lives by his own mantra: he is deliberately limiting the production of Chase Vodka. “We don’t want it to become mass-produced. It’s all about the pedigree of vodka. This stuff costs £4 a litre to produce and we are the only company to produce it all in one location.”

Chase’s next project is wine. He is currently on the look out for a vineyard in Provence, which, in his typical direct style, he tells me he has found frustrating: “It’s so complex, there is so much to wine. It’s like a typical French bureaucracy.”

CV | WILL CHASE

Age: 50
Lives: Herefordshire, with his wife and young baby.
Drives: Bentley GT Continental
Favourite drink: “Bollinger champagne, like Winston Churchill.”
Reading: The last book I read was A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, by Marina Lewycka.