Luke Johnson: Calling local cider producers - want a new investor?

The serial entrepreneur is back clubbing again and he thinks it's worth taking a punt on cider.

by Luke Johnson
Last Updated: 07 Jun 2016

I have returned to my old stamping ground after 35 years: I have gone back into the nightclub business. I started in Oxford in 1980 at a dive called Scamps where we hosted one-night events, and relied on Tainted Love and Don't You Want Me to keep the students grooving. It gave me a taste for the entrepreneurial life. Now I have re-entered the fray by becoming chairman of a business called Eclectic Bars, which operates around 20 venues across the country.The industry has changed a lot.

It has shrunk in the face of competition from pubs with later opening hours, the smoking ban, and a sharp decline in the amount of alcohol being drunk by young people. According to the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers, the number of nightclubs in the UK has fallen from 3,144 in 2005 to 1,733 this year

The public still like going out and dancing, but the sector is battling rising costs like security and music licensing, while losing much of the lucrative entry money, which used to be charged on the door. My latest engagement is an attempt to revive a company, which has suffered a tough time since it went public. Once upon a time I would have known the music and what made a place tick: now I have to rely upon my operating partners. I may be able to make use of a new book called Life After Dark: A History of British Nightclubs & Music Venues, by Dave Haslam. Its 390 pages should teach me something.

I hope my latest investment is not a sentimental journey, but motivated by the prospect of economic gain. The shareholders will surely want nothing less. Certainly the extracurricular benefits of DJing to a packed dancefloor, which once appealed, was not a factor in getting involved.

By contrast, an old industry which is truly booming is cider. I have been an enthusiastic drinker of proper cider since I bought a home in Herefordshire some years ago. Our property is surrounded by apple orchards, which grow fruit for the good stuff. Luckily the rest of the country is also getting keen on scrumpy too.

Sales in Britain rose by 12% last year, and in the US sales have tripled since 2012 - although we still consume 40% of the world's production. Just as beer brewing has been transformed by the rising popularity of craft beers from independent suppliers, so the downmarket image of cider has shifted over recent years.

The revolution started about a decade ago when Irish brand Magners altered perception of the drink thanks to a hugely successful advertising campaign. More recently fruit ciders like Kopparberg have expanded the market. And now artisan producers are introducing a higher quality tipple to more discerning drinkers.

Retailers such as Ocado sell almost 100 different bottled ciders, a huge increase from the range they stocked just a few years ago. The mass brands like Strongbow and Bulmers are losing share to niche players who use apple juice rather than concentrate, make the product in small batches, and only press English apples. Among the producers I like are Dunkertons, Sheppy's, Aspall, Henney's and Oliver's.

The marvellous thing about cider is that it is such a good complement to food. There are even those who see it becoming a threat to wine over time.

The fact that it has typically a third as much alcohol by volume helps broaden its appeal. After all, the country consumes 20% less alcohol in total than it did 11 years ago.

The drinks business can cope with these behavioural changes by making its products more about taste, quality and provenance - just as has happened with categories like coffee and chocolate - and indeed bread.

In fact, I'm so eager about the prospects for cider, I really should find a local producer to back financially. If by chance one is reading this column, please do drop me a line.

The tax that has changed more than any other in my adult lifetime is capital gains tax. It has been as high as 40%, as low as 10%, and is currently 28%. And Entrepreneurs' Relief allows some investors to pay only 10%.

Meanwhile in the US, Hillary Clinton, who is probably the best bet to win the Democratic nomination and hence the Presidential election in 2016, has announced that she would plan to virtually double shorter-term capital gains tax to almost 45% for top rate taxpayers.

It would reduce to 20% over six years: this is designed to encourage more patient investing, and address what she sees as quick-buck flipping. This level of intervention will mean capital is less mobile - and may therefore hurt enterprise. But I tend to agree with Clinton that not all capital gains should be taxed at the same rate: our old system of taper relief, which cut capital gains to 10% after two years, was a sensible way to penalise flippers and reward more patient investors.

But there is one massive exemption to the tax, which creates harmful distortions. And that is the absence of any capital gains on the sale of a principal private residence. This means unearned gains accrue to those who have simply owned a home for a long time. Former Crimewatch presenter Nick Ross sold his home for £35m in 2012 after buying it for just £950,000 in 1993. Unquestionably he improved the property but most of the £34m was pure gain - and tax free. That sort of windfall cannot be right. If the government wants to help address the housing crisis and inequality between the generations, it should make homes subject to capital gains tax.

Luke Johnson is chairman of Risk Capital Partners. Follow him on Twitter: @LukeJohnsonRCP

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