The most important thing about setting up your own business is to be passionate about what you make, says Hill Station ice cream co-founder Gina Hall, who remains whippet thin despite wolfing down litres of the stuff every week.
Sitting with a spoon in one hand and a dish of vanilla bean ice cream in the other, Hall reflects on her previous career at investment bank JP Morgan, where she met her husband and equally wiry business partner Charles, who shares a tiny office directly above their factory in rural Wiltshire with her.
“It was getting to the stage when we never saw each other,” she says.
For those who can feel their bile rising in anticipation of another tale of City slickers who quit the rat race and discovered the true meaning of life in the country, think again. Hill Station might have meant more time with each other, points out Charles, but it was first and foremost a great business opportunity, not a lifestyle choice. Indeed, ice cream has proved infinitely more stressful than corporate finance.
“It’s a different kind of stress. When you are running your own business, it takes over your life. You just can’t switch off.”
Many of his banking-colleagues thought he was crazy when he drove past his old office in an ice cream van, admits Charles, although they now suspect he could be
having the last laugh. “We knew that we had a great product, and that’s the most important thing.”
Back in the mid-1990s, premium ice cream was basically Häagen-Dazs, he says. Ben & Jerry’s was virtually unknown in the UK and supermarket own label was more likely to be 2-litres of soft scoop than 500mls of pure indulgence.
The potential was obvious, say the couple, who were born in the US and grew up with a fanatical love of ice cream, which Gina used to make from a one-litre ice cream machine in their kitchen in London.
If you are entering a market from scratch, and your product is not patentable, you have to offer a genuinely different proposition at superb quality, says Charles.
“You are never going to compete in the mainstream market because you will never be 5p cheaper. We wanted to make ice cream that had a cleaner, less stodgy taste than other products on the market, with flavours from spices and fruits, such as cardamom, cinnamon, stem ginger, mango & lime and dark roast coffee.
“We probably appeal to a slightly older audience than Ben & Jerry’s, which is based on crumbling up cookies, cakes and candy into the product. You can have our ice cream as an accompaniment without it overpowering everything else.”
By 1995, convinced they had a product and a brand that people would buy into, Gina gave up the day job and took a commercial ice cream manufacturing course at the University of Reading.
The next step was signing a lease on a tiny factory in Calne, Wiltshire, and commissioning the equipment.
While churning out a couple of litres in your kitchen is light years away from industrial production, the Halls were determined to make their own product, says Gina. “We were probably a bit naïve, but we did not want to contract out production to someone else whom we couldn’t police or were not able to control.”
At this point, Charles also left JP Morgan to devote all of his time and energy to the new business.
An official launch at the 1997 Good Food Show was followed by listings at Harrods and Harvey Nichols and a range of London delis, to which Charles would deliver personally in his van.
However, the big break came in 1998 when the Tesco store in Trowbridge approached them to supply Hill Station direct to the store. The brand was a big hit, and listings at additional Tesco stores were followed by a string of major deals with British Airways and Sainsbury in 2000, Virgin Atlantic and Brake Bros in 2002 and Waitrose in 2003.
By October this year, Hill Station will also
be in more than 100 Somerfield stores. It’s taken six years, but sales should top £1m this year, say the couple, who are preparing for an AIM flotation this month.
The company made a small loss last year, but that was expected, says Gina. “We’ve ploughed every penny of cashflow into brand-building marketing activities.”
Assuming the AIM-listing goes to plan, the cash raised will fund new, larger premises, and a 10-fold increase in marketing spend, which should dramatically accelerate growth, says Charles.
Although they will not tempt fate by disclosing their financial projections for the business, the Halls are quietly confident of taking a significant share of a super-premium ice cream market that they estimate will be worth around £100m in three years’ time. He says: “We’d also like to be in high-end own label and have a position on the continent.”
The day-to-day experience of dealing with the multiples as a small supplier has been a surprisingly happy one, although availability isn’t great in some stores, says Charles. “Tesco has been tackling it by asking suppliers to colour-code cases to make them
as easily identifiable as possible. But it’s an ongoing problem for all retailers.” It is also frustrating to turn up at a store only to discover your product is not by the Ben & Jerry’s, but buried beneath frozen peas at the other end of the fixture because staff haven’t followed the planogram, he says.
However, brightly coloured new packaging launched earlier this year has made it far easier for staff and customers to identify Hill Station products. “We actually thought our old packaging was the classiest thing on the market. But customers said it was stuffy and old fashioned and completely lost in a supermarket freezer.
“And they were right. When we launched the new design, the response from friends, family, buyers and customers was overwhelming.”
The couple have also learned to trust their customers rather than their instincts when it comes to flavours. While nutmeg might have been Charles’ favourite, customers were less impressed, and the line was pulled to make room for more popular flavours, he says ruefully. “People are getting much more adventurous. But not that adventurous. Maybe if we had called it something else?”