From Grey Hens to global exports as Fentimans continues to look ahead

Eldon Robson, owner of Fentimans.
Eldon Robson, owner of Fentimans.

It sometimes seems as though there isn’t a pub or restaurant in the North East that doesn’t stock some of the Fentimans range of soft drinks.

But it’s not just in the area around its Northumberland HQ, or even the UK, where the historic brand is doing well; the botanical brewer’s products are now sold in more than 65 countries worldwide, with overseas sales growing to £5.9million in 2015.

The Fentimans range of drinks.

The Fentimans range of drinks.

This international growth has seen Fentimans Botanically Brewed Beverages, to give the firm its full name, go straight in at number 30 in the Lloyds SME Export Track 100 league, published in the Sunday Times last month.

Now in its third year, the table ranks Britain’s small and medium businesses with the fastest-growing international sales – Fentimans is one of only four North-East firms in the list and the sole drinks manufacturer.

Speaking to the Gazette last week, owner Eldon Robson, the great-grandson of original founder Thomas Fentiman, said that they really began to give exports ‘proper attention’ about five years ago.

Prior to that, the US, where there is now a franchise based in Pennsylvania, was the firm’s first overseas market, thanks to interest sparked by a magazine article.

The Fentimans range of drinks.

The Fentimans range of drinks.

Japan followed and now, with strong sales in northern and central Europe, particularly Belgium and Austria, as well as the States, Fentimans drinks are sold in 68 countries, including as far afield as Australia and New Zealand.

India and China are not on the list yet, as they are ‘hard to crack into’, but ‘ it amazes me where it goes to be honest’, Mr Robson said.

Talk of exports and overseas sales, particularly in mainland Europe, inevitably raises the spectre of Brexit, but Mr Robson is optimistic about the future, preferring to focus on the opportunities.

“As a business, you have all sorts of challenges and you have to embrace them,” he said. “I don’t feel negative, it’s just another challenge to get on with and it might open up new marketplaces to us. I’m sure positives will come out of it.”

The only negative so far has been the falling strength of the pound and if tariffs were imposed, then Fentimans could manufacture in Europe – “we have done it in the US so it’s not beyond our capacity.”

Fentimans was founded in 1905, but as supermarkets started to take over the soft drinks market, the sales of the Grey Hens (the traditional stone jars for ginger beer) slumped and the company closed down in the 1970s.

Mr Robson kicked it off again in 1994 and has taken it from ‘nothing in the early days, when it was very tough struggling to get started to taking on a whole new dimension’.

The firm now employs 55 people and its turnover is £24million.

“The whole essence of the business has changed,” said Mr Robson. “We are constantly laying foundations for the future. We are continually evolving and you have got to think ahead because there’s a great deal of competition.

“But it’s a big world out there to go at if you have something worth selling and we have a unique product.”

Fentimans is the only remaining botanical brewer left in the UK and its production process is globally unique.

Alongside this, the firm has positioned itself to benefit from a major trend in the drinks industry in recent times, which has seen a focus on local, artisan and small-scale producers.

“It’s all part of the premiumisation of the food and drink industry,” said Mr Robson. “When I kicked it off, we were ahead of our time in some ways.

“Premiumisation has been a key word for the past five or six years and it’s forecast to have pretty strong growth for the next five/10 years too.”

He added: “It’s great to see little manufacturers springing up in the North East.”

Fentimans has moved well beyond being a ‘little manufacturer’ and that is set to continue with a bid to triple turnover over the next five years, which came about after Mr Robson challenged bosses to look not just one or two years ahead, but five or 10 years.

‘I’m very proud of our North-East heritage’

The company is headquartered in Northumberland, but it has sites elsewhere in the country which means it does not have to deal with the potential logistical issues of being based in an area with less well-developed transport links.

The flavours are created at the Hexham HQ, but both the manufacturing and warehousing take place elsewhere – at sites in Stockport, Kendal and Warrington – ‘so being based in the North East is not a problem for us’. “If we manufactured up here in the North East, it would be more expensive,” Mr Robson said. “Logistics are very important and the bulk of the stuff is transported in a very tight area.”

As a Geordie lad himself, Mr Robson said: “I’m very proud of our North-East heritage.

“It’s a very important factor in marketing the brand.”

The company’s loyalty to the region was highlighted in 2015 when its expansion required it to move out of its previous home in the centre of Hexham – but it only moved a short distance to Beaufront Park, on the town’s outskirts by the A69.