A day in the life: Stephen Marsh
Stephen Marsh tells Julia Irvine how an enforced change of diet and the taste of raspberries with juniper convinced him to start gin company Pinkster
HOW I CHANGED CAREER
After qualifying with Cooper Lancaster Brewers, I stayed on as an auditor. Then in 1996 the founder of Consolidated, a PR agency I’d audited for several years, asked me to draw up a job spec for a finance director. It was amazing how closely the job spec matched my CV so I went to work for him and stayed for 18 years. I got into gin entirely by accident. I was quite ill in the noughties with candida and had to cut sugar and yeast from my diet, including alcohol. After two years, the consultant said I could reintroduce alcohol but only gin or vodka. I wanted something that had flavour. I went through the fruit bowl before I discovered that raspberries took the edge off the juniper and made it really smooth. I spent the next four years playing around with combinations of botanicals to make a clean refreshing gin.
Friends started asking me to make them a bottle. Then two friends whose opinions I respected – Richard Bridgwood, founder of Contender Entertainment, which created Peppa Pig, and Sean McCreery, a leading fund manager at Ruffer LLP – offered to put up some money. Both now sit on Pinkster’s board, Richard
THE CHALLENGES I’VE OVERCOME
I am a firm believer in trying to cut the odds in your favour wherever you can. Often the difference between success and failure is narrow and a very small adjustment can make all the difference. I didn’t want to risk my close friendships by taking their money upfront.
Nor, as a professional in my late 40s with an awful lot of commitments, did I want to step off a corporate ladder into the unknown without a) the full support of my wife and b) a very shrewd idea of our chances of success. I was not interested in playing Don Quixote and tilting at windmills.
So I invested about £20,000 in some test runs and signed up for four big foodie festivals. We had some pink paisley stickers printed and each time someone bought a glass we gave them a sticker. What I was interested in was the number of people buying a glass who already had a sticker. People buying a first glass is curiosity and I wasn’t going to make a career decision based on that, just as I wasn’t going to make a decision based on the platitudes of my friends. I wanted to see whether people I didn’t know liked it enough to buy it more than once. So we put a notch on a pad each time somebody came with a sticker.
We smashed our target on each date at each venue. At our third event, my wife came to see for herself. She sat on a stand opposite and at the end of the day she said she thought our figures were understated by 20%. She’d seen people tearing the stickers off and then going back to buy more. She’d also heard people say they loved it. She told me I had her permission to bet the farm on it. So I went back to my friends and said OK, if you are prepared to put up some money, I am prepared to do it.
During the summer – which is our production time – we’re working seven days a week. Someone said to me the other day that I am much more like a wine producer than a distiller and it’s true. A distiller can flip the switch any time of the year, set the stills going – you’ve got all your dried botanicals, flavours, liquids. Whereas I think in seasons. From the beginning of February I will
be speaking to our raspberry grower regularly to find out how the crops are coming on. English raspberries are available from April to late November but they don’t have much flavour at either end of the season. I prefer to wait until June because I know they’ll have flavour, the price has come down and we’ve got the labour.
I am no longer physically doing every single bucket myself but I do taste every single batch.
MY TYPICAL DAY
There isn’t one. I often start the day feeding the chickens, walking Betsy, our border terrier, and talking to my team in Australia, before heading for the office. I’ve got five sales staff who aren’t based in the office and in the course of the morning I will probably have conversations with two or three of them. Invariably, we have people coming in to talk to us. At any one time we’ve got labels being designed, cartons being printed, things going off for bottling. I spend a lot of time on the phone talking to customers, suppliers and to staff. And thinking up new products. At any one time I have a number of experiments on the go even though commercially we got it right first time.
I knew nothing about the drinks industry, which in many ways turned out to be an absolute blessing. Because I didn’t know how it was done
I didn’t do the same things as everybody else.
For example, the traditional route to launch an alcoholic drink is via the on-premise trade. In theory you pay a barman to recommend your drink to the customers, the customers drink it and like it and then reorder it. Once you’re doing well enough, you then move to the off trade. I didn’t get that particular memo. So we started by going to events – we now do 200 per year. And we are selling around the world now.
We sell well in Australia, Hong Kong, Ireland, Denmark, Singapore, Japan and we’re about to launch in the US.
HOW THE ACA HELPED MY CAREER
Accountancy made me interested in business: not long after I qualified, I set up Cheeky Monkeys, a chain of toy shops, with my sister, and in 2007 I set up a website called myfamilysilver.com with my brother-in-law. Everything I learned setting them up has proved useful.
THE HABITS OF AN ACCOUNTANT
I have an extremely good finance director in place so I know I can concentrate on my role as MD. So I am shaking off the habits of an accountant. I’ve gone native and I can honestly say I’ve had more fun in the last five years than
I had in the previous 25.
Originally published in Economia on 7 March 2018.