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Tyrrells Potato Crisps: William Chase

How an unwavering love for potato farming finally delivered the Tyrrells founder a bumper harvest

Even from a very young age I knew I wanted to run my own business. I could never work for anyone else. I suppose it's because I don't like being told what to do – and that makes me totally unemployable. I've also only ever wanted to be a farmer despite it being an incredibly difficult industry to establish yourself in.

I started off in the potato farming industry when I was about 20. After agricultural college, I took out a loan to buy my father's farm, but struggled with it right up until I had the idea to turn my potatoes into crisps. Initially, I'd been trading in potatoes, but the low margins, coupled with sky-high interest rates at the time, hit hard and I had no choice but to go bankrupt. I was determined not to give up, though. I sold my car and replaced it with an old pick-up truck with holes in the floor, which cost me about £200. I then cottoned on to the fact that, at the time, Tesco was paying suppliers within a week, but I could buy crops from other farmers with 30 days' credit. Doing that helped me get on my feet again with my farm and, for a few years, I had a nice little business. But while supplying supermarkets with potatoes was lucrative for most of the 1990s, it became increasingly difficult to make a profit, and the big retailers started to squeeze me on my margins. I knew I had to do something else, but my knowledge was in potatoes. I couldn't suddenly learn a new trade. I had to find a way of adding more value to the original potato crop before selling it on. At the time I considered plenty of different options, such as part-frozen chips or pre-baked potatoes, but in the end I had a hunch that crisps were the way to go. I borrowed an old fish fryer and started making my own. I knew I was onto a winning product, so I decided to go for it. When I first started visiting local shops, I had to take hand-cooked batches of the crisps for them to try, but it was a fast-moving business. In October 2001 I had a shed full of spuds and by the following April it had turned into a crisp factory. One thing I've learned throughout my business career is that you have to go through the bad times to get to the good ones. When I went bankrupt, I felt it was completely undeserved, but one thing it did teach me was the ethics of business – how to take 50p and turn it into a pound. It's important to experience that. I wouldn't want to go through it again, but I recognise how character building it was. If you're handed everything on a plate, you're never hungry, and it's hunger that drives all successful entrepreneurs.

After selling his majority stake in Tyrrells in 2008, William Chase started the Chase Distillery, which launched its first product, a premium vodka, in spring 2009. Chase Vodka recently beat 249 rivals to be named the world's finest vodka at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. The distillery, which currently produces 1,000 bottles a week, also makes a variety of other spirits and liqueurs and will soon launch a premium apple juice and cider range.

William Chase was speaking to Kate Walters.


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