Written by Tracey Duke, Photography by Olly Woodburn
Deep in the heart of the small harbour town of Salcombe, on the south coast of Devon, lies a business that, in just a few short years, has secured itself a status as one of the UK’s leading gin distilleries.
A brand steeped in history and tradition, Salcombe Gin, oozing with sophistication and style, is so much more than a drink; it’s an immersive experience attracting customers from across the globe to its beautiful home on the edge of the stunning Salcombe Estuary.
We caught up with co-founder Howard Davies, earlier this month, to find out exactly what it takes to create a world-class brand.
Howard thank you so much for your time this morning and for showing us around the distillery; you’ve created something truly beautiful and inviting and I’m honoured to have some time with you today. You have an incredible success story, but how did it all begin for you?
A long time ago! As a child, every Summer, without fail, my family would come to Salcombe on holiday. We’d spend two weeks here, renting a little house just near South Sands where we’d keep our boat on the beach. I’d be out every day on the estuary, practicing the skills I learnt at the Island Cruising Club which is a great local sailing school. I absolutely loved it and always really looked forward to holidays in Salcombe; I was passionate about the area.
My family loved it here so much that, as a teenager, we moved, lock, stock, down from Hampshire, to a lovely house up on Devon Road in Salcombe.
In my teens, I trained as a sailing instructor and taught at the Island Club. That’s actually where I met my business partner Angus; he was teaching sailing there as well.
So a typical thing we’d do at the end of a day teaching sailing was retire to the Yacht Club where there’s a lovely terrace overlooking the estuary . We’d sit with a Gin and Tonic, watch the sun go down and discuss the events of the day. It was fantastic and that for me is where the seed of the idea to distil our own gin came from. Gin. Tonic. Salcombe. What a great combination!
It sounds perfect! What amazing memories! As I understand, a little later, after finishing Uni at Oxford, you moved to London, working as a business consultant for a management consultancy.
That’s right. For a long time, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do; I had interests in lots of things but wasn’t sure what was right for me. After graduating, I figured that if I worked as a consultant it would give me an opportunity to work in a lot of different industry sectors and from this I could decide what to do longer term.
I got a job in London with one of the ‘big 5’ management consultancy firms. Typically we were working with a variety of clients; sometimes it would be financial services, sometimes technology focused. It was a dynamic environment, where I’d literally get dropped into a new environment, with a new client, in an industry that very often I knew little or nothing about and where, within a very short space of time, I needed to learn very quickly, gain knowledge, so I that I could add immediate value to that organisation. Completely immersing myself in a new industry and working very hard to gain an understanding of the business, was a real eye-opener for me.
And that’s the thing; when you push boundaries and challenge yourself, it’s incredible what you can achieve.
Absolutely. Even now, I think about that time and how relevant it was. Prior to founding Salcombe Distilling Company; I hadn’t worked in the industry before, but we knew we wanted to do it and so we immersed ourselves in the industry. We arranged some work experience at a distillery in Scotland, where we got really hands-on in all aspects of distillation, researched what we could both online and by meeting with industry experts, and started distilling ourselves.
And the thing that really runs deep with me, is that often having been in a career for a long period of time you can get quite uneasy of trying for a change, even within the same company. In some corporations, role changes are even discouraged; there’s a mindset that your current role is ‘what you are’. But I don’t think that people need to sit in a box. Of course we’ll all typically have a skill set that will make us slightly better at one thing than another, but often there are other things you thrive at as well and just didn’t realise it, and you can absolutely take your skills and apply it to another industry.
I think that sometimes we’re a little too conservative; we don’t really think we can make the change into another industry, but actually, you really can. You’ve got to work hard. You’ve got to learn and make sure you take advantage of the knowledge that you can gain from other people around you, but you can change and you can try different things.
Absolutely! Howard, you’ve just spoken with absolute passion; it’s clearly a subject close to your heart. Tell me, what was the trigger point when you decided now’s the time, now’s the moment we’re going to take the leap?
Honestly, it happened over a period of time. I’d had a successful career as a consultant in London and subsequently in technology in the South West; it was all good, but I just had this background pervading feeling that I wanted to achieve more and wasn’t really stimulated by my work. Also, I’m quite independent and I just didn’t really like working for someone else. I wanted my own business and to create something from scratch that I was proud of; that was a very strong factor for me.
Another factor was looking ahead to where I was going to be in another 5, 10, 15 years time in my current role. Yes, I’d probably have a senior position within the organisation but, when I looked at who I would become, I really wasn’t inspired; it didn’t excite me.
So all these factors got me to the point where I just knew, that even though I wasn’t quite sure exactly what it was I was going to do, I certainly wasn’t where I wanted to be and I wasn’t going to get anywhere else without a change; I had to make a jump.
And then Angus and I were talking; he had similar interests to myself, we had a combined passion and history with Salcombe, we both had a strong interest in gin and we’d seen the distillation movement starting to pick up. Salcombe Gin couldn’t have made more sense and so we thought, ‘Let’s do this! Let’s make this happen; learn about the industry, build our skills, make a plan and launch Salcombe Gin’. And so that’s what we did and we haven’t looked back.
And you’ve done it with such style and class. You’ve not just created a product, you’ve created an entire experience in which to immerse yourself. It’s just incredible here!
And that’s a really important point. We’ve spent a huge amount of time developing the product itself and whilst it’s fantastic, we’re really proud of it and it has won multiple awards, we always wanted Salcombe Distilling Co. to be so much more; it had to be an immersive experience.
What we really wanted to do, was to enable people to engage with us. We wanted a base, here in Salcombe, where people could come to visit us; have a drink in the bar, see the distillation process taking place and come to a gin school where they could learn about gin and experience making it themselves.
And it’s worked! It’s truly wonderful! As we both know only too well, success is never a straightforward journey, so let’s talk challenges; there are going to have been a few along the way. What was the biggest that you faced and more importantly, how did you overcome it?
The one that springs to mind was with the building where we are now. As with a lot of building projects, the construction was taking much longer than we originally anticipated, potentially putting back our launch date. But we knew the time was ripe. The summer season in Salcombe was beginning, we had the investment ready and we’d already made the leap out of our careers; we had to get things moving.
Long story short, we took other temporary premises nearby, where we could start distilling on a small scale to start getting the gin to market; we needed to get the brand out there and get some cash flow coming in. So even though our new distillery premises on Island Street wasn’t finished, we would go there every day in the summer, put up a stand in front of the building site and either Angus, I or Jason, who had joined us at this point, would sell the gin over a trestle table.
So you adapted your plan and that’s the mindset you have to have. You adapt to the circumstances you find yourself in.
That’s it exactly. This is just one example and we have had many others! Whatever you’re doing in life, you just have to see the challenges coming, decide what you can do that’s positive and try what you can to take advantage of what can seem like a negative situation.
For us, in that situation, it turned out to be incredibly positive; it got us right there, on the street in the heart of Salcombe, talking to people about our vision, our brand and giving them a chance to try our gin. It was really effective.
And now, just 18 months later, you’re fully established and seeing an incredible phase of global growth. What’s next? What does the bigger picture hold?
We want to grow, nationally and in key international destinations too, but we don’t want to become some huge mass produced brand. What we’ve got to protect, very strongly, is the integrity of our brand, and the quality of our product; it’s about careful growth with clear focus.
Tradition and partnerships are two aspects that feature strongly for your brand. Let’s talk a little about those partnerships, their importance in building a new company and indeed in establishing yourself in the local community.
So yes, partnerships are vitally important. We all have strengths and weaknesses; having a small business really brings these to the fore. The lovely thing about working with Angus, my business partner here, is that we’re quite different people. Angus has an amazing eye for detail when we’re developing products, he is great at quickly building strong relationships with people and the best salesman I have ever met! I, on the other hand, am maybe a little more analytical. It’s a really nice partnership; we can build on each other’s strengths and I like that. But then, even between ourselves, we still recognise where we have weaknesses; there are still gaps, in particular in the early days with industry experience, so we have worked hard to fill those gaps with a great team around us.
The other thing and something that exceeded my expectations was the amount of support we had from businesses here in the South West; many organisations and people, far more than I was expecting, really got the concept and the aspirations that we had for Salcombe Gin and were invaluable in assisting us.
I want to pick up on your recommended book for The Book Shelf this month; Brendan Hall’s Team Spirit. There’s a strong message that leaders create leaders, running through the book; it’s a powerful mindset to adopt. Is it one which you adopt here?
It’s one of the many things that I’ve tried to take on board; I try my best in my management style to try to do that, but I’m learning all the time. It’s a real challenge, especially in your own business, not to be controlling every single detail; it’s a psychological battle to step back. I found that book really inspiring in terms of the process. Having a self-empowered team, who are willing to suggest ideas and manage areas without close supervision, is vital to moving forward.
And so what’s been the biggest learning curve for you over your journey so far?
To be honest, there have been so many. The one thing that comes to mind, which is particularly relevant to us, is an uncompromising approach to quality and detail. Salcombe Gin is a luxury product and everything we do has to support that. This theme of quality and luxury has to run through everything – products, services and premises – we want everything to be stunning. As soon as you let one little thing slip or you allow a weakness somewhere, that can be the thin edge of the wedge that can quickly start to damage the brand and the business as a whole.
In terms of my personal life, I’m far more relaxed. I’m much more about being outdoors, being on the water and spending relaxed time with the family; we all need to be able to relax and wind down a bit on the weekends. Then I’ll come in again on Monday morning fresh and raring to go again.
And your greatest influencer?
Honestly, I don’t really have one in particular. My approach is to try and speak to lots of different people to gain as much knowledge, help and experience as I can. A great piece of advice that I had from a friend of mine, was that in the time and cost of taking someone out to lunch for one hour, you can glean the key points of twenty years of their experience, saving you making mistakes that can cost you hundreds of thousands of pounds.
And so that’s exactly what I’m doing right now; speaking to as many people from different aspects of the industry and trying to get as much guidance as I can.