“Don’t do it unless you’re passionate about it.” This is the advice that Alex Albone, Director of Brigg-based Pipers Crisps, gives to anyone wanting to start out on a new business venture. With a lot of hard work and a few controversial ideas, Alex has created a thriving company with a £10 million turnover, but he couldn’t be more modest about it.
“Unless you really are going to put the hours in, forget it, because it’s not going to happen,” Alex said. “If you’re starting out, the truth is that you have to be passionate about it and know that there are going to be knocks along the way.”
Having gone from financial futures broker to farmer Alex saw a change in the world as it was just starting to shift its focus to local produce and it wasn’t long before he became passionate about being local, and not just for Lincolnshire.
Whilst on a trip to Wales, Alex met David Lee Wilson who made Anglesey Sea Salt. “It suddenly occurred to me that there was an opportunity surrounding the possibility of taking potatoes from Lincolnshire, turning them into crisps and putting Anglesey Sea Salt on them.
“We have the opportunity of being local in Anglesey (Wales) and working on the localism of Lincolnshire potatoes.”
Pipers Crips was the first to launch a brand which talked about the provenance and where food came from, setting a trend that others, such as Marks and Spencer soon followed.
On April 9th, 2004, Alex delivered his first 20 boxes of crisps to four pubs and Abbey Park Farms in East Heckington.
From there the company has continually grown and now the company makes more than 26 million packets of locally produced crisps a year, which are distributed to over 17% of the UK as well as 11 different countries.
“What feels really good is that we employ 76 people and that we’ve pushed our reach beyond Lincolnshire.
“We export to 11 countries, admittedly on a small scale at the moment but we’re starting to find some traction there. What’s really great in terms of export is that it appears that we don’t have to put a Union Jack on it in order for people to recognise that it is British.”
Working with his partners Simon Herring and James Sweeting, who own coffee roastery Lincoln and York, Alex has built the company upon a foundation of strong relationships.
The brand is sold at a number of retailers of all different shapes and sizes, from corner shops to Lincolnshire Co-operative and Booths, as well as many different pub chains. All of which are distributed from one of its three distribution centres across the UK, at Elsham, Epping and Oxford.
Currently, 50% of deliveries being made are by the company’s own fleet of vans. There is also a fourth depot on the cards to be opened by the end of the year, which will allow the company to cover the whole of England with its own delivery vans.
“We don’t compromise on our flavours”
Alex aims to grow the business between 20% and 30% each year and so far has averaged 25% year on year growth. Pipers has also won several awards for best brand design and been voted by the Guild of Fine Food as the best snack for four years.
With eight flavours already well established including Burrow Hill Cider Vinegar and Sea Salt, Anglesey Sea Salt and Lye Cross Cheddar and Onion making up 70% of sales, Alex refuses to just top up with a new flavour unless it’s the best new flavour.
Five years after the release of its last flavour Kirkby Balham Chorizo, Pipers has released the latest in its line – Atlas Mountains Wild Thyme and Rosemary at the start of September.
“Five years ago we were the first people to come out with a chorizo flavour, then everyone else did it. This time, we’ve brought out something really special.
“It’s Atlas Mountains Wild Thyme and Rosemary and no one else has really done that before. I think that there’re a couple of opportunities here. One is that it’s different. Secondly, it’s not a ham flavour, it’s not a beef flavour, so it tastes like what it says on the tin.
“I think that’s very important. Although the world is very niche at the moment, we are starting to see people drink more gin, and rosemary goes really well with gin!” Alex smiled.
“We’re not following anyone else. We’ve found a great flavour, I think it tastes great and that’s why it’s happening.”
However, with premium quality comes a premium price. Alex and his team have worked tirelessly to make sure that their product is the best it can be and this comes at a cost.
“We don’t compromise on our flavours – we could compromise on our flavours, it would make it much easier because it would make the margin easier.”
Many PR companies are always pushing for product promotion on social media sites, but no matter how many times they contact Alex to tell him of the possible benefits, he has a very strong resolve that it will not be an option for Pipers Crisps.
“I think there is so much nonsense, so much unbelievable twaddle, talked about the value of social media. I’m constantly getting attacked by PR companies and agencies asking what I do in social media and I say, ‘Not a lot.’
“It’s something that I do before I go to sleep at night and I think that the challenge for us is we are aiming to have our crisps in every town, city and suburb in the UK – it’s written on our wall.
“We make crisps as they should taste, so we do it without compromise to taste.
“I’m not sure that people are looking to have a long and meaningful relationship with their crisp supplier. We just make great crisps and I hope they know that for what it is.
“I will now get every teenager in the land proving me wrong, and I really hope that they do. I really hope that they all now go and tweet that I’m wrong or something because that will be really great.”
Giving a little bit back
With the success the company has had, with and without social media, Alex is very passionate about giving something back to the community, and not just money. At the Lincolnshire Show, he hosted a free circus tent behind the Pipers stand to allow the children to blow off a bit of steam.
“The things that we do at the Lincolnshire Show are actually about something completely different. I just think it’s really nice that when mums turn up with their little kids and they’re being asked left right and centre for money in order to entertain them, the kids are often being dragged around the Lincolnshire Show.
“I’ll not make any claims that Pipers Crisps are good for you,” Alex stated. “We do not aim to sell our product to children. Children eat them because they are crisps but no part of my branding or my conversation that occurs on social media or on our website is directed towards children. Children eat crisps, that’s a fact of life.”
Alex also provides support to Cat Zero, a charity with helps people who are not in education, employment or training (NEET) by entering them into a 10-week scheme to build skills and boost confidence. The scheme ends with an 8 – 10 day adventure on a 72ft clipper yacht where the participants have to work together as a team in order to be able to sail back home.
“From a business perspective, we are going to get involved in one of the programmes this year. I’m hoping that the people in our business get on board with it all and really engage with it. It’s easy to give money. The more valuable stuff is whether or not we can actually give time and give something back to make the programme work.
“We are just giving one day this year to see what happens with that and see whether our staff engage with it.”
This feature interview was first published in issue 96 of the Lincolnshire Business weekly magazine.