Steeped in history

April 30, 2018

In 1905, Thomas Fentiman launched his botanically brewed ginger beer that he delivered door-to-door in stone jars using a horse and cart. He grew the business, opening several brewing and production facilities in the North East, but sadly, changing times meant Fentimans closed for business in the late Sixties. But this isn’t the end of the story as Eldon Robson – Thomas’s great-grandson – relaunched the business in 1994. Staying true to its botanical brewing roots, Fentimans now exports its 24 products to 70 countries around the world. Alison Cowie speaks to Eldon to find out more about this fascinating family business

What are your earliest memories of Fentimans?

I used to go to the Bensham factory with my grandfather when I was a boy and I remember the evocative aromas and the sounds from the machinery. It was like an Aladdin’s Cave. I would head to the area where they made the syrups to see the great big cases full of glass bottles of concentrated flavours or I’d go to see the machine that ground the ginger. You’d wind a big iron wheel and the two huge stones would crush the root.

What about the closing of the original business?

When I was about 17- or 18-years old, I used to be a wagon boy who sold the drinks door-to-door in the school holidays. Then, when I passed by driving test, I then had my own round on a Saturday morning in Dunston using a Transit van. I’d get three quid and a package of fish and chips for my labours. It was fantastic! But a couple of years after that, the business gradually began to decline. The whole nature of distribution changed as cash and carries, supermarkets and big wholesalers arrived – as did plastic bottles. The decision was made to close the business and split up what was left financially. The last factory to close was the one in Durham, which was in about 1969.

When and why did you decide to relaunch the business?

I had done all sorts of jobs, mainly in the hotel and catering trade, but one day I was telling a friend I wanted to start my own business. His throwaway comment was, ‘you should make your grandfather’s ginger beer again; it was the best one around’. That stuck in the back of my head for about four or five years until, at the age of 32, I decided to start Fentimans again.

Did you have to adapt the business?

Originally, the botanically brewed beverages were sold door-to-door using a horse and cart. Once it was brewed, it was put in the stone jars and stored in the factory for four days where it fermented so that all the flavours and the sugars amalgamated to produce this wonderful product. The only problem was that you had to drink it within a week or it would go off.

When I relaunched the business, I wanted to stay true to the original recipe but we had to look at how we could carbonate and pasteurise the products to give them a shelf life.

A lot of the background work went on in the 1980s and I didn’t start the company off again properly until September 1994. We initially produced two products – our Ginger Beer and Victorian Lemonade – and we had our first sale in January or February 1995.

Over the last 24 years, we’ve grown from zero turnover to just under £30 million last year, have around 25 products and 65 members of staff based at our site in Hexham.

How did people react to your botanically brewed products?

Being a company that produces botanically brewed beverages has been our strength and our weakness. Our strength is that we make all of our products this way. We make all of our flavours and do all our product development in Hexham. Everything is completely natural and we have complete control over sourcing the right ingredients. We produce first-class products and are always looking at three important factors: texture, mouthfeel and viscosity. These are not something you get in a regular carbonated soft drink and that’s our point of difference. I can explain that to people but our challenge is that it’s very difficult to put that into a quirky tagline or advert so that more people buy into what you’re doing. I’ve been at it for 24 years but we still haven’t cracked it.

People seem to be more concerned about what they put into their bodies nowadays. They want high-quality products made with natural ingredients. Has this helped business?

The area of ‘premiumisation’ has got stronger over the years and I think it will continue to do so. It means small companies like Fentimans can come along with different ideas and different approaches. We produce products of a higher quality with better packaging because it’s a personal thing; we take great pride in what we do.

If your product is not right, you might as well forget it. That’s always been my business principal.

Did you always have ambitions to export?

We didn’t go out actively seeking to export because, at the time, we were busy trying to get the products established in the UK. Instead, it came along quite by accident.

When we got our products into Waitrose, we got a five-page article written about in its monthly magazine – Waitrose Food Illustrated. They wanted to showcase botanical brewing and came to the brewery to film the stuff being made and did an article on me. We then got an enquiry from Dean & DeLuca, a chain of very upmarket deli stores, in New York. They’d seen the article and wanted to buy from us.

How did you grow from there? Which territories did you enter next?

Japan came on pretty quickly after the States and Europe came on board in abundance after that. It happened quite organically – through enquiries on our website or via people we met when travelling. But in the last few years we’ve put an export team together, headed by Piero Alberici, who, believe it or not, is a guy from Byker! The team is now up to six and we export to around 70 countries.

Didn’t a US state try and ban Fentimans to under 21s because of its tiny percentage of alcohol?

It was a bit of a hoohar, really. A kid at a school in Maine bought a bottle of our Victorian Rose Lemonade and he noticed on the label that it had ‘less than 0.5 per cent ABV [alcohol by volume]’, which is simply a by-product of the brewing process and completely within regulation. He took it to his headmaster, who took it to the chief of police. In the end, it turned into a big joke and ended up on the Late Show with David Letterman. There was our representative in the States with a bottle of Budweiser – which I think is about 4.5 per cent ABV – and the equivalent amount of Fentimans’ Victorian Lemonade, which was hundreds of bottles!

At the end of the segment, our representative drank from one of our bottles and let out a great big burp. Laughter ensued and that was the end of that.

…great publicity though?

It would have been great if we had a bigger distribution at the time in the States but we were still quite small.

You’re in the middle of a five-year plan that’s targeting turnover of £70 million by 2020. Where are you up to and how are you looking to achieve this target?

A few years ago, I went to the team and said to them, ‘let’s get ambitious about this’. I had put together a five-year plan and announced I wanted to hit £65m turnover in five years. The team went away and a month later they came back to me and said we think we can do £70m.

We’re now about half way into our plan and we’re a little bit behind where we were hoping to be but we’re confident we’re going to put that right over the next couple of years.

We’ve recruited a lot over the last couple of years and I’ve recently appointed Ian Bray as CEO of the company. Ian’s been with us on a consultancy basis for the last year and has an international background with massive amounts of marketing experience. He will guide us through the future and take us to £70m point and beyond. We’ve also worked very hard on the brand equity and changed some of the bottles and labels so that when you look at all our products now you’ll see they’re all from the same family. We’ve also changed some of the sizes of some of our products and launched a range of syrups last year, under the Fentimans House of Broughton brand. The name has come from one of the family years ago.

What about international growth?

At the moment, exports make up about 50 per cent of our business but we’re looking to increase this to 60 to 65 per cent. This will come from more growth in existing territories while also entering new territories. 

What’s been your career highlight at Fentimans?

There have been so many highlights over the last 24 years. Seeing the first bottle coming down the production line – after such struggle to get it there – was quite a tearful moment.

It also gives me great satisfaction to see all the products we have now and that we’ve stayed true to our botanically brewed roots. My only regret is that none of the family – my parents and grandparents – lived to see the return of Fentimans. But I’m sure the company of old would have loved to see what we’ve achieved: taking a local drinks manufacturer and turning it into a global success.


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