Interview: Tyrrells founder William Chase on bankruptcy, potatoes and vodka

HOW I BEAT THE ODDS: The founder of Tyrrells and Chase Distillery on how he had to dig deep to turn spuds into crisps and vodka.

by Jack Torrance
Last Updated: 01 Feb 2017

I always wanted to be a farmer like my parents were. My mother died when I was about 14 and everything sort of fell off a cliff because my father lost interest in his work. By the time I was 16, things were in turmoil.

So when I was 20, I managed to convince a bank to loan me the cash to buy the family farm – Tyrrells Court. I struggled to make money for a long time and after 10 years I found a partner to invest a couple of hundred thousand pounds into the business. But I was up to my neck in debt and when my backer had to pull his money out I went bankrupt.

I had to start again. The receiver let me keep my £10,000 car, which I sold, and I convinced another bank to lend me £200,000 to buy back Tyrrells Court. I had lost the land but I kept the house and buildings. So I let out storage to farmers and became a potato trader.

I made good money but after a while I was desperate to get out of it. Being on the phone all day, stuck between farmers, market traders and supermarkets is not a nice place to be. In 2002, I had some potatoes rejected by McCain, but I found a home for them at Kettle Chips. At the time they were taking these ranky, old spuds and turning them into potato chips – and that’s where the idea for Tyrrells came from.

I flew out to the US to have a look around another company’s chips factory, but they wouldn’t tell me anything. But the makers of Good’s Potato Chips, out in Pennsylvania’s Amish country, showed me how to make them and where they got the equipment from. I came home and designed the brand while I waited six months for the machines to arrive.

I grew Tyrrells into a very profitable business. It was only turning over £15m when I sold it, but it was making £4m. That’s because we were mainly selling to independent retailers instead of the big supermarkets.

I didn’t build the business to sell it. But in 2008, I had just taken on a management team who were killing it with corporate management bollocks. I was also getting divorced at the time and didn’t want to spend another five years arguing over the value. So I decided to sell up.

I always thought vodka used to taste like nail varnish remover, but it can be really good if you make it from scratch with your own potatoes. So I used £10m of the cash from Tyrrells to build Chase Distillery. Once you do something in life that’s a big success you can begin to think it’s easier than it is, but this has been extremely difficult. It’s working out now and we’re turning over £7-8m this year, but it has taken eight years of a lot of pain.

In my 30s, I spent 10 years as a potato trader, in my 40s I spent 10 years building Tyrrells, and I’ve spent my 50s building the distillery. For my next 10 years, I’d like to do something completely different. To sell out and do nothing would be quite boring.

‘One Potato, Two...’ by William Chase is available now, RRP £22

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