Every once in a while, a product comes along and plugs a hole in the market which, in hindsight, was so gaping you think ‘Dash it, why on earth wasn’t I in on that?’
With Fever-Tree tonic, Charles Rolls and Tim Warrillow hit upon a concept which was so long overdue, so ripe for success, everyone was left wondering why no-one had thought of it yonks ago.
They have coined a brand which is bold, brilliant and, best of all, British. And boy has it made them rich. Warrillow, who remains the firm’s chief executive, is estimated to be worth £167million. Rolls, now a hands-off non-executive deputy chairman, £209million.
Invincible duo: Charles Rolls and Tim Warrillow came together in 2003
The pair came together in 2003. Warrillow was a fresh-faced, 28-year-old former advertising executive looking for a new career direction. He wanted to launch a premium brand of gin and arranged to meet Rolls, who had successfully grown Plymouth Gin, for a cup of tea and some advice.
The pair hit it off immediately. Within ten minutes, Rolls persuaded his new friend it wasn’t yet another pricey gin the market needed. It was some decent tonic.
He was right, of course. For a country where gin and tonic is like mother’s milk, the mixers at the time were a national embarrassment. Our legion of gin drinkers was faced with a choice of syrupy Schweppes or, worse, some supermarket own-brand abomination.
It helped that Rolls, a tweedy gent with silver Donald Sutherland locks, had a spare £1million on hand for a new venture after enjoying success relatively late in life.
Having started out as a consultant, he had a crack at entrepreneurship selling exercise cycles. It didn’t work. At 35, he was asked to be boss of struggling Plymouth Gin in return for a 25 per cent share of the business. It was a great brand but brewers couldn’t shift it.
Rolls sunk his savings into a new recipe and redesigned the bottle. By 2000, he was flogging 80,000 cases. Absolut Vodka pitched up and bought it for £25million.
He bought himself a boat and a plane – he owns a beautiful Piper Seneca V – but soon hankered after another challenge.
In Warrillow, a cheery cove with a toothy smile and Sloane Ranger’s wardrobe, he discovered a like-minded soul with endearing enthusiasm and a youthful exuberance. Since tonic takes up more than half of your evening sharpener, they agreed they would concoct a mixer to outdo all others.
Tales abound of their Dr Livingstone-style treks over the following 18 months to discover the right ingredients.
Bitter orange oil was found in Tanzania. Green ginger in Ecuador. For the tonic’s key component quinine (harvested from the bark of the cinchona, the so-called fever tree) they travelled to the Democratic Republic of Congo, wads of money stuffed firmly in their socks. Passing through a checkpoint, Warrillow had the muzzle of an AK-47 poked in his face.
Marketing jibber-jabber? Of course. But having rediscovered our tastebuds in the past 20 years, us Brits, with our new-found Jamie Oliver obsession with ingredients, absolutely lapped it up.
Within six months, Waitrose, who some brands spend years persuading to stock their goods, were the ones chasing them. Almost unheard of.
The business has been on the up and up ever since. Growth has exceeded expectations almost year on year. In 2014, they floated the company at 134p a share. Today they are nearly treble that figure.
Both are married with four children apiece. Warrillow lives in Putney with wife Gemma. Rolls is in a waterfront home in Chichester with wife Jan, a cookery writer who is niece of English Patient author Michael Ondaatje.
This week, Fever-Tree announced half-year sales had reached £104.2million, up from £71.9million during the same period in 2017.
Fifteen years since they first met in that Chelsea cafe, Warrillow and Rolls’ perennial good news story shows no sign of losing its fizz.