Who is Charles Rolls?

Co-founder of AIM-listed Fever Tree, Rolls is the gin mogul that took on corporate giant Schweppes. Here are five facts you should know about him

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Name: Charles Rolls
Business: Co-founder and executive deputy chairman of Fever Tree, a premium drink mixers brand.
Why you should know about him: After becoming disillusioned with artificially sweetened tonic water, which he believed ruined the taste of any good gin, Rolls founded Fever Tree alongside Tim Warrillow in 2005 – a time which saw a huge resurgence in the number of premium gin brands. Available in over 50 countries worldwide, with profits of over £59.3m in 2015, Rolls cashed in on the AIM-listed brand’s massive success in March 2016 by selling 1.9 million shares for £12.3m.

An inspiration for any entrepreneur looking to take on giant corporations (and succeed!), Startups brings you five need-to-know facts about Charles Rolls…

1. His first business was a failure

Like any successful entrepreneur, Rolls’ career hasn’t been without its failures. In the early 1990’s, long before establishing Fever Tree, he quit his job as a management consultant to develop a hybrid rowing/bicycle fitness machine. Alongside the product’s inventor, the pair sought and received investment. Despite a promising start, Rolls admitted “it all fell apart when the shareholders began arguing with each other”.

Ruing the “opportunity cost” of the wasted years, and having just gotten married, Rolls returned to consulting for a secure income. However, it wasn’t long before he was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug again – a sign to everyone that sometimes failure can breed success.

2. He saved a dying business

Itching to get back into the business world after his rowing venture collapsed, an opportunity presented itself to Rolls in the form of a declining gin business. Plymouth Gin, which its investors had bought from a larger brewer, was selling just 4,000 cases of gin a month and losing a monthly average of £24,000 in the process. With investors ready to pull the plug, Rolls took the helm in a bid to save the sinking ship.

Selling spare stock left over by his predecessors to ASDA in a bid to raise much needed cash, Rolls invested the money in a new recipe and decided to focus on the brand’s heritage by reusing an older bottle design from the company’s past. Partnering with leading names in the alcohol industry that didn’t make gin, such as Rémy Cointreau, Seagram and Absolut Vodka, Plymouth Gin began looking to the overseas market and started selling in the US.

Having dragged the business from the brink of extinction, under Rolls’ guidance Plymouth Gin was now shifting 80,000 cases a year and generating almost £3m in sales. Having caught the industry’s eye, Plymouth Gym was sold to Absolut Vodka for £25m – certainly a taste of what was to come for the gin guru!

This success was not without its struggles though. While re-launching Plymouth Gin in the US, Rolls experienced what he calls his ‘worst business moment’ ever. After deciding to use corks to seal the bottles, the company’s gin became discoloured to resemble something that “looked like urine”. Luckily, the company’s long time US absence meant consumers didn’t notice.

3. Travel provided his business inspiration for Fever Tree

Central to Rolls’ and Warrillow’s vision for Fever Tree was an emphasis on natural and exotic ingredients rather than a reliance on artificial sweaters and flavourings. Rolls told Moneyweek.co.uk “One of the things that had annoyed me at Plymouth [Gin] was that, no matter how hard we tried to make a good gin, when it was mixed with a cheap tonic, it would all taste the same.”

As a result, the pair would often travel to some of the most dangerous parts of the world to source the most authentic ingredients possible. They flew to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to source pharmaceutical grade quinine from a plantation, and even hired plant hunters to help them find other flavourings, such as a bitter orange grown in Tanzania.

Rolls told Managementoday.co.uk: “The purest quinine – the main ingredient, and the essential bitterness in tonic water – is to be found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I’d contracted malaria the last time I was there, in 1984, and refused to go back, so [Warrillow] got the pleasure of that particular trip: he got held up at the border by a band of local militia brandishing a rocket launcher and AK-47s!”

Dealing with all-natural ingredients initially caused many headaches for the pair as their flavours would completely change once put through stability and ageing trials delaying their launch by nearly two years. However, once corrected, the brand became an almost instant hit with the Waitrose buyer personally phoning Rolls to tell him he had a ‘hit on his hands’.

4. Celebrity endorsements helped Rolls on his start-up journey

Despite gaining some early traction in the UK, Rolls found the international market a difficult nut to crack for Fever Tree. Identifying Spain as a potentially valuable market, Rolls’ efforts to attract importers, wholesalers, or even journalists, seemed in vain.

However unbeknownst to Rolls, the late pop artist Richard Hamilton had become fan of Fever Tree after buying it in Waitrose. He enjoyed it so much that he sent a bottle out to his friend, Ferran Adria, owner of the world famous El Bulli restaurant who shared a passion for ‘gin tonic’. The endorsement of the world’s number one restaurant coupled with Spain’s “gin-naissance” ensured sales of Fever Tree rocketed.

Rolls recalled the incident to Startups.co.uk: “One day we got a call from El Bulli’s sommelier, saying Ferran wanted a shipment of bottles. ‘We’d love to send some’ I said. ‘But we can’t find an importer’. ‘We want this so much that we’ll help you,’ he replied.”

5. He’s no stranger to hard graft

Far from being handed his success on a plate, Rolls’ first ever job was in the UK’s first ever McDonald’s where he worked for the fast food business in its first month.

Proof of his hard work ethic, it serves as an example to any budding entrepreneur that anything is possible – from fast food chain employee to multi-million-pound business owner.

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