It’s not every day that I can say my guest has gone from tanks to tonic. Today we are joined by Charles Gibb, CEO of Fever-Tree North American, whose Sandhurst training put him in good stead to tackle any challenge.
Describing himself as incessantly curious, Charles jumped at the chance to be “globally mobile” with a career that has taken him from the UK to Poland to Australia to the USA. Now he finds his French 75’s in a glass, not on the battlefield!*
*The French 75 cocktail was named after The French 75-mm field gun, which was commonly used in World War I.
This episode originally aired on October 21, 2020.
You can listen to this episode here, or any of your favorite podcatchers.
Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Charles Gibb. Just remember that I own the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of Lush Life podcast, with all rights reserved, as well as my right of publicity. So if you want to use any of this, please email me!
Susan: I am excited to have you on the show. Thank you much for joining me and I can’t wait to hear your story. I just want you to know I’m drinking Fever-Tree at this moment. It is the Aromatic Tonic Water. Not only do I love its color, but I love its taste, all by itself. Don’t tell any spirit company!
Charles: A lady with extraordinary taste, obviously.
Susan: What can I tell you? You are such a big man on the campus here! You are CEO of Fever-Tree in North America, and you have done and seen a lot of things before this, and I would love you to start at the beginning.
Charles: Oh my goodness.
Susan: Don’t worry. We’re not going to be here for days, but I know that you started off life, well actually, I don’t know where you started off life. Why don’t I ask you, where did you start off life?
Charles: Well, I always describe myself as a child of the world. My father was in the army. He served in the British army. I grew up all over the world. I grew up in the UK and went to school in the UK. Every time there was holiday, I went to Germany or Belgium or a different house somewhere. My father was there and not there, because he was always serving in Cyprus or Northern Ireland, or somewhere strange. I had the pleasure of living in Singapore and America at one stage.
I grew up all over the world and I’ve always embraced global mobility and the global community that we live in. I think as a result of that it was instilled in me at a very early age.
Susan: Your father was in the service. Did you always know that you were going to head there as well?
Charles: No, I didn’t. He never pushed me in that direction, but it was something that I wanted to do. It was something that I was determined to do. I obviously held him in very high regard with the deepest amount of respect, and I really admired what he did and his service to our country. It was something that I wanted to do, and it was a very natural evolution, I think for me at the time.
Susan: Right after school, you went into Sandhurst, right?
Charles: Yes. I probably didn’t have the qualifications to get to university, nor the patience, frankly, to do the amount of study. I was a restless young man and I wanted to get out and attack the world, as it were, and grasp it. I chose not to go to university, went to Sandhurst and did the officer training there. Then I completed that and joined my regiment, at the age of whatever it was, 18 – 19 years old.
A young, young man suddenly thrust into a position of leadership and command of, in those days, about 30 soldiers, and spent six phenomenal years, tremendous adventures, serving in the British army.
Susan: You were in Royal Scot’s Guards, right?
Charles: Yes, of course.
Susan: I thought you were going to say, “Oh, my father was Scottish, and I grew up drinking whiskey and that’s what led me here.” Was there any Scottish in you that led you to join?
Charles: A hundred percent! My father served in the Royal Scots, I’m a Scotsman by blood. Cut me open and I bleed Scottish, but I suppose I have a neutral British accent because I grew up all over the world, then ended up going to school in England As you evolve, particularly in a global business, I find myself as one of the majority of Scots….I read a great story. There are million people in the world who classify themselves as being Scottish, but only four and a half or five million who actually live in Scotland. I class myself in the majority of Scots who chose to live elsewhere.
Susan: The Royal Scots was something that you knew you were going to go into, but did you think you were going to be in the service for your whole career? Or were you thinking this was only a short-term thing until I then jump off and do something else?
Charles: It was, when I joined, it was an intention to have a full career in the army. What I discovered as I moved through the first three ranks, as it were, very, very quickly. I was a Second Lieutenant, Lieutenant, then Captain.
I was a captain at the age of 23 and suddenly I looked ahead, and the army has a strange hierarchy where you can accelerate very quickly in your first seven or eight years. Then suddenly they slow you down for the next 10 years. While I’d done three steps in say five or six years.
The rules didn’t permit me to take the next two steps for another nine or ten years. I think that, coupled with the fact that there was a lot of defense cuts, there was a lot of reduction in military spending meant that I was running around the woods an awful lot shouting bang, as opposed to firing a gun, which sounded a bit silly or waving a rattle to simulate machine gun fire. I found myself playing a lot of soccer, as you guys call it football. I played football two afternoons a week and I thought, just a second, I should be doing more with my life than this.
I decided to resign my commission. I’d seen some active service in Northern Ireland. That was the main place that you went in those days in the British army and, of course, bizarrely nine months after I left, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and my battalion was one of the first across the start line in the first Gulf War.
Many of my friends who stayed in served in two Gulf Wars and they’ve ended up in endless tours of Iraq and Afghanistan and all over the shop. The world was a very different place because I was in the army during the cold war period, and I was there right at the end of the cold war.
I always remember being on exercising in Northwestern Germany and we saw a Trabant, which basically had come from East Germany and that was the day that the wall came down. It was an extraordinary day because suddenly you saw hundreds, but you saw dribs and drabs of Eastern European cars drifting across into the West. It was very strange, strange time to be alive in this very strange time to be living in Germany.
Susan: I guess for someone who has trained long to be at war, it must’ve been quite frustrating for you to not be able to have that experience. Some of you probably is, thank God I’m safe. It didn’t happen. But part of you probably felt unfulfilled. I don’t know. Is that true?
Charles: Yes, I think undoubtedly, It’s the same as anybody. If you train endlessly to be something, then you want to test yourself in those areas. A nurse who never has to deal with an open wound and has done all this nursing training, but didn’t actually get to dress a wound or something. Or a policeman who trains to stop people robbing banks, never gets the chance to stop somebody robbing a bank. When you’ve trained very hard for something or when the training is that intense, you want to put yourself to the test.
Susan: Of course. Now there you are, you’ve resigned your commission and you are out in the real world, without a babysitter or anything to fall back on. Where did you even think of starting? Did you have an idea?
Charles: No, absolutely not. I was 25-26 years old. I was a young, young man. I went skiing for six months, much to the ire of my father who was like, “Where are you? When are you going to get a proper job?!” But what it did was it gave me time; it gave me a break and it gave me a chance to think.
What I landed on is that I didn’t want to be in banking or in insurance. I didn’t want to spend my life looking at a computer screen. I wanted to be in a business that, if you like, played to what I felt my skills were, which were those of leadership, management, and working with people.
I immediately sought out careers in business industry where I would have the opportunity to lead teams and lead groups of people. Because that’s what I’m passionate about. That’s what I love doing. I’m also passionate about consumer behavior or people’s behavior.
Consumers is what I would call it now, but in those days, the way people behave, and I think the final thing was I wanted to do something that I felt was tangible, something that I could be passionate about and care about. As much as it makes my whites, laundry detergent, maybe a fantastic business. It just doesn’t do it for me.
I automatically gravitated to some of life’s vices. I started my career in tobacco which gives, I think, the best training in the world and certainly, those days, gave the best training that you could get in any industry.
Then from there, spent time at Gallaher, which is a British tobacco company doing export markets for them. Then, very quickly, I transitioned into the alcohol business after a couple of years and really that’s where I spent 25 years of my career, in the alcoholic beverage industry.
Susan: Yes. That was probably a smart shift, given how tobacco has changed.
Charles: I think I was the only person who actually gave up smoking whilst working for a tobacco company. There you sit in a meeting room and, the thing was, the air was thick with smoke as it would be in those days. There’d be cigarettes everywhere down the table. You could take the light ones, your medium ones, your super strong ones, then you could take these ones at the end that you just looked at. Those are instant death ones and think I probably won’t touch those one.
I remember sitting in this room and then walking out and I actually felt ill and I hadn’t even smoked a single cigarette during that meeting, but it was almost like a form of religion or communion. That you’d walk into a meeting and the first thing everybody would do is grab a cigarette, light up, and you sit in a room with 10 or 15 people, all smoking for three or four hours. The way you would feel was just…anyway, I never smoked again, and never would. Yet, when I was in the army, I smoked all the time because I was young, I was fit, and we probably didn’t understand the real perils of doing so.
Susan: Right. Of course it was totally a different time. When was your, if you remember, your first job in the drinks industry?
Charles: My first job was with Bacardi Rum when Bacardi was a single brand company. It hadn’t bought the Grey Gooses or the Bombay’s or any of these brands.
I was based in London. I was a European Marketing Manager. I’d grown up speaking French and German at school. I was quite good at languages. I was in the European Marketing team and I would travel into Europe and support their local markets there. It was all just a big adventure, because for a young man, it was a great adventure.
I was learning about how distribution networks operate, how brands are marketed, and I had phenomenal mentors, guides at Bacardi and Bacardi was a great, it still is a great company, but it was a great company to work for because being family owned they didn’t worry about this year’s profits.
They worried about making sure the brand was in the best shape it could be to give on to the next generation. They thought much longer term, I felt, that they always cared about what would happen in five years’ time, more than in five minutes’ time.
Susan: Once you got a taste of marketing, did you think, okay, I now can do this! This is what I feel like my training before has led me to. I feel comfortable being in marketing. Because there’s lots of aspects to the drinks industry that you could have fallen into, other than marketing.
Charles: It was very quick to me; it would be marketing and sales. I think that marketing and sales, commercial management requires the two to work brilliantly together. People talk about this all the time, but marketing to me is about understanding how people behave. How you can change their behavior through your actions, through marketing the brands, through presenting the brands, talking about the brand in a very specific way that appeals to people.
I think that whole idea of behavioral change is really important, but none of that matters if you haven’t got a great sales organization who’s out there executing that, particularly in the drinks industry, where you’ve got this unique environment where you can engage with your consumers as they’re using your product.
Back to my soap powder analogy. Nobody comes into your kitchen and asks how’s that soap powder doing? Is it going well for you? Do you do like it? Nope. you think, no, I just throw it in, and the clothes come out clean. Please leave me alone and get out of my laundry room. In a bar, you can go up to people and talk and people are keen to talk about what they like.
They love it. There’s this wonderful live aspect to the drinks industry where you really do get to meet the people that drink your brand and you can’t have any misconceptions about it. Because you can walk into a place and there are the people drinking it. That’s what they look like. That’s how they behave. That’s what interests them. That’s why they’re there. You suddenly realize that actually they’re in a bar because they want to be with their friends or because they want to watch a game on TV or because they’re celebrating something or this or that. They’re not in there to drink your brand. You’ve got to find your way into that conversation. I think that’s part of the fun of being in the alcohol business.
Susan: That is super interesting. Back to Bacardi, when you were at Bacardi and getting your feet wet with this. Did you think you would stay there forever, or did you feel okay, this is a step onto the next thing, or was it just a logical transition every time for the next move?
Charles: Bacardi bought Martini and Rossi at the end of my time there. As a part of that process, and I think this shows you how much the world has changed. They bought Martini and Rossi and they wanted to relocate all of us to Amsterdam and there were opportunities for me in Amsterdam or maybe in Bermuda. I thought Bermuda, that sounds interesting and fun, then I realized that people never leave Bermuda when they get there.
I thought I’m a bit too young to go to an island and retire at the age of whatever I was, late twenties at this point. Amsterdam just didn’t do it for me, I will say. Maybe because I’d been there too often in the army. It wasn’t a city I particularly fancied living in and, bizarrely, Bacardi made me redundant and the industry was such in those days that they said, well, listen, we feel very sorry that you’ve been made redundant and they made one or two introductions for me.
One of which led to me joining United Distillers which, of course today, is Diageo and I joined United Distillers and I left Diageo and didn’t stop working for the same company. It just merged and merged and merged and acquired and changed names endlessly.
Susan: It was super friendly of them to say…
Charles: It would never happen. The drinks business was considered to be a gentlemanly business. People took care of each other as it were. That was it. I’m sure many industries were the same.
Susan: I’m sure. Look, I still feel that a little bit about the drinks industry, but so Diageo, was that when they immediately sent you to Poland?
Charles: Yes, I think I worked for them for about two weeks. Then somebody said to me, “You were in the army.” I said, “Yes.” They said, “Do you want to go to Poland?” I said, “Where’s the link?”
Susan: Yes, one plus one.
Charles: Anyway, they said, “Well, there’s a job going in Poland. We’re starting a company there and we think it’d be a great opportunity for you.” I went to Poland in November.
It was miserable. It was wet. It was cold. There was nothing appealing about it whatsoever and I came back and I accepted the job only because I thought, wow, what an adventure, an amazing opportunity. What an amazing time to go to a country that is literally, it was what it was. December 1998, really?
Susan: Just after the Berlin wall fell.
Charles: That was when the wall came down. I went there in, 1990 – end of early 1993.
Susan: Still pretty early.
Charles: Very early on and, god, living in Warsaw in those days, you would buy what was in the shops. You never wrote a shopping list, because you would go to the shops and there just wouldn’t be stuff.
Susan: What were you selling, why did they want you to take out there? Number one, what were they drinking and what were you trying to get them to drink?
Charles: Well, what they were drinking, was vodka, vodka, vodka, and more vodka. I’ve got a long history with Poland, obviously, but Poland is the birthplace of vodka, several hundred years before the Russians and Poles would drink vodka. Vodka in those days was controlled by the States, the state government-controlled vodka, and they controlled the sale of it at every level. They produced it themselves at these Polmos, which stands for Polish monopoly of spirits. Literally Polmos and then the town name, they had all these distilleries all the way over the country.
They controlled the brand names. They had all the brands. Then, in those days, believe it or not, they would publish the vodka prices in the newspaper when they wanted to do a price increase. There were just three pages of vodka prices. You could not breach that if you were a retailer or a wholesaler, you could not breach the pricing mechanism that was set by the government. The government made all the money on vodka. It was sold in milk crates, literally plastic crates, and people would walk in and they would buy vodka by the half liter. The half-liter was considered one night’s consumption. People would walk in, buy their bottle of vodka, consume it that night.
Susan: Then they come back the next day??
Charles: I think there was a time in Poland when they were, at least, when I was, there were 40 million people living in the country consuming 40 million cases of vodka. By any standards, that’s a lot of vodka. I was there, believe it or not, to change their drinking habits and to get them to drink whiskey.
Susan: That was going to be my guess. Whiskey.
Charles: Johnny Walker.
Susan Was there any history of them drinking whiskey?
Charles: Yes and no. The Poles are phenomenal people, they really are, because during the whole communist era, they were the most innovative, they had all these routes to get product into the country and stuff.
They had a very healthy black market that allowed them to thrive and to live and to survive during communism. Johnny Walker would get in there through various different means, through some duty-free shops. For some channels, obviously up through the Baltic, and there was a brand presence there.
But our job was obviously to get more and more and more people drinking it, all be it, it was very, very, very expensive for any locals to drink. It was already at a super-premium pricing, even for many Johnny Walker Red Label.
Susan: How was that for you and your growth as a businessperson? Would people take to you? Did they want to know you?
Charles: I think what that taught me was the most important thing was to give the brand a personality, live the brands yourself, which is really important. Tell the story. People were obsessed with telling the story. Literally, I would do tours of Poland. I was wearing a kilt probably three, four nights a week. Normally, I wear kilts for weddings, funerals, and big celebrations, parties, balls or whatever, maybe five times a year, max. I was wearing the kilt literally three or four nights a week as we would go around the country, educating people, standing up in front of groups of people and telling the story of Johnny Walker. Then we’d bring a piper in there and play the bagpipes. We would just give the brand a real personality and give it real energy.
I lived the brand myself endlessly, I’d sit down with these big distributors and wholesalers, and they’d want me to drink vodka and I’d want them to try whiskey. We would educate each other on the nuances of our preferred drinks and what we found. Obviously ,Johnny Walker and whisky is a very aspirational, because it was a Western product, an aspirational product for people to get them to engage with and phenomenally interesting to watch people, as this country was growing, as this country was maturing, as this country was reawakening and reopening. It was a real reopening and reawakening of Poland, coming out from the shackles of communism. They really embraced things that were new, that were vibrant, new to them, that were energetic, and, my God, we had some fun.
Susan: It must’ve been incredible. How long were you there?
Charles: I was there for three and a bit years, living in Warsaw. There was all that side of it, then there was a really tough side of it. It’s a very hard country to live in. It’s very harsh. The winters are extremely cold. It’s no surprise that so many Poles settled in Chicago, because the weather is very similar. It’s extremely cold in the winter, lovely in the summer, extremely cold in the winter. The winter would drag on and on.
I think there was one year where, out of something like five months, it never got above freezing for one minute of one day. It just wore you down because of the cloud cover because you’re on the planes. There are flat planes and the cloud cover would sit about three or feet above the ground and it would just be gray, and it was exhausting. Obviously, personal security was an issue because you’re a westerner operating in an Eastern European market, which had a huge wealth gap between a British expatriate living there and any of the locals. It was tough, but it was a lot of fun. It was hugely energizing, but tremendously exhausting at the time.
Susan: No wonder you went right to Australia.
Charles: Well, I had an Australian girlfriend and my boss asked what would you like? I need a sunshine tour. I told them that I had an Australian girlfriend, so how about it? About a month later, my boss came to me and said, “There’s an opening for you in Melbourne.” I was shipped off like any good Brit off to Australia. I said, “What have I done wrong?” They said, “You’ve actually done alright!” I loved it.
Susan: As you were gradually progressing up in the company, obviously they already know about whiskey in Australia, but was there a different brand that they wanted you to promote or that the Australians weren’t drinking as much?
Charles: You go to Australia and it’s a totally different ballgame. I was in Australia with Diageo. I was in Melbourne and then I went to Perth and then I came back to Sydney. The Aussies love their Bundy Rum, Bundaberg Rum. Somebody told me when I first moved there: five nights on the Bundy and you’ll be converted for life.
I think I made it to three, waking up with these horrific hangovers, because it was Bundy and Coke. You just wake up with these massive sugar hangovers, and I thought, “I can’t drink that stuff.” Bundaberg and I never quite hit it off, but there was obviously the huge whiskey market, big gin market, even more exciting today, actually the gin market in Australia and, vodka, etc.
Bundy was the newcomer for me. It was again a fascinating brand to work on. Because my last job in Australia was all about innovation.
We started doing Bundaberg Rum and Cola on tap in kegs in Queensland, which is the home of Bundy Rum. You walk into a bar and you’d get a Bundy and Cola on tap, literally pulled right out of a keg and people loved it. It was phenomenal. It was getting a simple insight that the coldest you can get a drink with ice in a glass is three, four degrees centigrade, but beer coming out of the tap was coming out in two degrees. Maybe it’s like five degrees in a glass. The difference was huge. Therefore the refreshment queue was massively different. As soon as you put it on tap, you can ice the taps. Make sure it was super cold. What happens when it’s super cold is people go, Oh, that’s refreshing?
Susan I want another!
Susan: That must’ve been really exciting for you to start innovating as well as marketing in your role.
Charles: Yes, a hundred percent. We did all sorts of fun projects down there. We were there at the early days of the RTD (ready to drink) boom. Well, I just remember the madness of that time and the craziness of RTDs in Australia. It’s probably still one of the markets in the world where RTD is considered almost a normal form of consumption, whereas everywhere else it’s come in and out of fashion over the years and struggled to sustain a strong position.
Susan: It’s very much the fashion right at this moment. It had to be a really great role to bring you back from Australia with Belvedere.
Charles: First I left and then I did a little bit of work in a wine business for a while, which was fun. It was quite innovative and, sadly, we were about to kick off a business here in the US and then 9/11 happened. A contract that we were going to sign, never got signed. The wine that was designated for the USA never got put into a bottle. We had to fold that. Then I heard about this company, Moët Hennessy, starting in Australia.
I said that sounds like a bit of fun and I stalked, literally stalked, the guy who I found out who was going to be the CEO and I stalked him which is much more difficult in those days. Because you couldn’t LinkedIn him.
Susan: I was going to say, no LinkedIn!
Charles: You would have to go; you have to really stalk him and send him letters and stuff like that and insist that he met you and try and find his phone number and all the rest of it. I met this extraordinary man called Rob Remnant, who was sent by Moët Hennessy from Asia down to Australia to start the company there. On the first day we met, I think we both knew that we would be lifelong friends and we are lifelong friends.
We hit it off from day one. We were on the same wavelength when it came to vision for the company, how we wanted it to operate, how we wanted it to behave everything. It was just one of those unique moments in life where you find somebody who’s so in tune with you and who you are and what you want to do.
We started Moët Hennessy Australia from scratch. He was the boss. I was running the sales organization. I’d been living in Australia for nine years. He was the newcomer to Australia and knew all about Moët Hennessy. I knew nothing about Moët Hennessy, and so we had this wonderful ying and yang and just got on like a house on fire.
We just both had the same ethos of work hard, play hard ,and have a lot of fun doing it, and genuinely that’s what we did. We took the business to levels that were never imagined, prior to us starting the business. It was a business that was doing well, but it really, really, really grew, after we took control of it.
We recruited an extraordinary team of people, many of whom have gone on to very senior levels in Moët Hennessy. That was something that we were both really, really proud of, the fact that one of the guys that I recruited is now actually the Managing Director of Australia.
One of the girls we know was running Chandon in Australia. Another one of the girls we recruited at the start now runs all of the on-trade business for Moët Hennessy in the UK. We had some real wow, massive success stories when it came to the people and that was something we were both hung our hats on and were really proud of.
Susan: I’m sure. Was there one specific spirit that they or you wanted to promote there or was it just the whole gamut?
Charles: For us, it was champagnes first, Moët Chandon, Veuve Clicquot, Dom Perignon, those three in particular. Ruinart was coming in towards the end. The next most important thing was Chandon, because we have the local winery, and that was a huge business for us. Then of course, with the ownership of Cape Mentelle and Cloudy Bay, we had those brands, which were really important and big brands in the Australian market and both very iconic in that part of the world.
Those were a big focus of the portfolio, and spirits were a much smaller focus for us, but a beautiful portfolio with Hennessy as the lead and a heavy focus on that in the Asian market in particular, within Australia. Then brands like Belvedere were integrated during that time, along with Glenmorangie. They were all coming on board, but they were new bits of business, but our business was really champagnes and wines first and foremost.
Susan: What drew you to the role at Belvedere? Another new brand that you could conquer?
Charles: No, it was more that after three years of doing that, Rob, my boss, by this point now, he said, “I want to find a new opportunity for you.” I then had the pleasure of meeting probably one of my other great mentors in life, James Cockeram, who was running Moët Hennessy Europe at the time.
I went into Moët Hennessey Europe, working in the head office there, helping James with strategy, New Business Development. We were doing a joint venture at that time in Russia. We were doing setting up companies across Eastern Europe. We were trying to consolidate our sales and marketing efforts across the European markets.
I sat in James’s office and helped him with trans-national projects or pan European projects or initiatives. It was, again, an amazing team of people that James was assembling because James, again, was one of these people that believed in surrounding himself with the best talent he possibly could. I don’t need to be the expert in everything; I can be the conductor of the orchestra, but I want to have the best people in all these different roles.
Again another character who’s very influential in my life and my career, because if I look at the people on his executive team at the time, they ended up running Moët Chandon. They’ve ended up running Europe. They’ve ended up running part of Asia. They’ve ended up running big parts of the business. One of them was the CFO for Marc Jacobs for years and years and years. They’ve all gone on, I’m including myself.
Then the Belvedere opportunity came along. Christophe Navarre who was running Hennessy at the time came to me and said I need you to run Belvedere. I said, oh wow, and off I went and again to Poland. The office was based in London, but my wife was brilliant because my wife she looked at me and said, “Charles, just a second, you’ve got a boss in Paris. You’ve got a distillery in Poland.” In those days, 80% of the business was being done in America or whatever it was. It was a very high percentage. “Why are we were living in London?” I was literally traveling between those three places – Paris, Poland, London. After about four months, I took a proposal to Christophe and, that’s what I love about my Hennessy. I said we need to relocate the headquarters.
He said, “You will come to Paris.” I said, “Actually the idea was we’d move to New York to be close to the market, close to the consumer.” He said, “Make it happen.” Three months later, I’m shutting the London office, moving it from London to New York. We moved to New York in early in 2009, in the middle of the financial crisis and all the rest of it.
I’ve lived here ever since. It’s one of those things that I look back at my life and my career, one of the things I’ve worked out is that I love doing startup businesses. I love doing things which are new, starting up the business in Poland, I just loved that energy and passion.
I love the startup experience in Australia. In Europe, I was loving all the new initiatives and starting up new ways of doing things across Europe. Then when I came to Belvedere, it was…well, how do I do this? It sort of came into my mind, probably naturally was that I need to reset. I need to treat it as a startup, changing the location, changing the headquarters, changing the way that we were thinking and breaking some of the previous paradigms. I suppose it’s no surprise that I found myself starting Fever-Tree’s business in North America after that, because it’s something I enjoy doing. I love the energy of a startup.
Susan: Yes. It must be. Especially with the brands that are already around that have been established. Fever-Tree is quite established here in the UK, there’s not one bar that you go to that doesn’t have Fever-Tree. I am terribly allergic to aspartame. I would always seek it out. I can’t have a Pimm’s cup at a pub because they use mixers that are store-bought, I’m not going to name any names, but most of them are made with it. They don’t say it on the label, but you ask and they say, sorry, yes. Of course, I started to drink Fever-Tree. because I had to, it was thank goodness, one of the ones, if not the only one that was made with natural flavors, natural everything it’s been in my life for a long time now. I don’t think of it really is quintessentially English, but it has been here for a while. How did you feel that you could introduce it to the US market?
Charles: I’ll go back a step. Fever-Tree has obviously been around since 2005 and it first came to the US in 2007. I didn’t bring the brand to the US, the brand was already here, but it was here through a third-party agent, but it was putting it into a distribution network, but wasn’t marketing the brand, but selling cases into the marketplace. It wasn’t getting the care and attention that a brand owner would take if you were based here. He did a great job to get the brand established, but, as with any agent business, once you get to a certain size, you’re better off running the business yourself.
I first came across Fever-Tree again, bizarrely, all the great things in my life happened because of my wife. We’d been drinking Fever-Tree in London in 2006/2007. We were at a Christmas party at a friend’s house and they had Fever-Tree. She starts chatting to my friend Fever-Tree. This chap said actually, one of the founders is over there. My wife being Australian, she’s got no inhibitions whatsoever. She walks right over to this chap, Tim, and says that this Tonic water is absolutely delicious. It’s all we buy. It’s all we drink. We don’t drink anything else. We absolutely adore it. Tim and his wife and myself and Tamara, we just hit it off very, very quickly. We got on; we get on very, very well. Then as I moved into the Belvedere job, I said, my God, this is such good product.
To your point, it’s got none of the artificial garbage that most of them have. It’s got no high fructose corn syrup and, frankly, you make all these amazing spirits and then people destroy them with awful mixers. I mandated when I was running Belvedere Vodka under no circumstances, providing Fever-Tree was in the market, were we to do any events anywhere in the world, if Fever-Tree was not present.
Because it makes everything taste better. It makes Belvedere vodka tastes better and it makes everything taste a lot better because, and I always, I use this analogy a lot. But if you think about a master distiller or you think about the spirit creator they’ve chosen, the carefully selected their grains. They’ve distilled them to the point. They’ve aged them in barrels that have been hand selected and they age them for a specific number of years. They crack them open. They blend them, they bottle them, and they take all the care and attention in the world. They put them in a beautiful bottle and then 10 seconds before you get your drink. Somebody injects it with a whole load of garbage and high-fructose corn syrup, artificial ingredients, nothing natural, and the spirit gets completely destroyed. What you’re doing when you do that is you’re destroying the life’s work of this master distiller and that’s it. That’s what you’re doing. You wouldn’t put tomato ketchup on wagyu beef. You wouldn’t put garbage mayonnaise on your lobster.
Susan: That’s why their logo or their saying is great – that if three quarters of your drink is going to be a mixer and make it the best mixer possible. It’s that simple.
Charles: What’s interesting is, obviously it starts with working with premium spirits, but the reality is, over time, we find more and more and more people say to us, Oh my God, I drink X brand and it may not be the top shelf, but it may be the medium or bottom shelf. But I only drink it with Fever-Tree because I want to make my drink tastes better. Whether it’s the best spirit or the worst spirit, the reality is it makes it taste better. It delivers a better drinking experience for the consumer, that is the genius of Fever-Tree. That’s the genius of Charles and Tim, the two founders, the genius of the way they’ve done it because they’ve approached it in the same manner as a spirits company.
We’re a mixer brand! Absolutely one or two people may consume our products neat, but we’re a mixer brand, we’re designed to be mixed with spirits, we’re designed to make alcoholic drinks taste better. That’s what gives us the ability to talk about our ingredient hunting, our sourcing, talk about the brand in the same way as spirit brand talks about its sourcing and its raw ingredients and its distillation process and all the rest of it because there’s as an art form to the creativity of Fever-Tree.
Susan: Absolutely. Now, in your role in the US, have you found that you have introduced it to people who had never heard of it. How did you do it? What are some of the things you did or have done or still doing?
Charles: I think the answer is that the brand had a strong, loyal following of mainly people in the know, I would say, people who really care about, or, had traveled, let’s say to the UK, or seen the brand somewhere, or certainly obviously a big, big favorite amongst the bartending community, et cetera.
What we’ve been doing is really trying to expand the consumer base. You do that first and foremost through experiential, pre COVID, of course, but bringing the consumer experience to life. We would be present at Jackson Hole Food and Wine, Pebble Beach Food and Wine, and South beach, where you get a real chance to talk to tastemakers and talk to people who care about ingredients.
People love to talk about the ingredients they use in their cooking and creating the most delicious meals. These people are fascinated by the Fever-Tree story. They love it. They love the lower calorie aspect. They love the non-high fructose corn syrup aspect.
They love the different ingredients. Finding ways to physically go and talk to people. I go back to my early the days in Poland. I spent a lot of time on the road myself in a kilt, wandering around telling the Johnny Walker story. Well, I’ve got a team of people, but I’m still doing a lot of it as well.
We fly around the country and we turn up at these events and stand behind things and we talk to people and we tell them the story of the brand and we bring it to life. Then it comes from the heart about how much we love it and why we love it and why there’s an amazing opportunity for them to upgrade their drinking experience.
I think that’s been really, really key, engaging the bar trade and then starting to look at bigger initiatives. We opened the Fever-Tree Porch in Bryant Park, being right at that epicenter of New York – a few blocks from Grand Central, between Grand Central and Times Square. Then the golden triangle with Times Square, Grand Central and Empire State Building. It’s absolutely a mixing pot of locals because you’ve got HSBC, you’ve got Salesforce, you’ve got Bank of America, you’ve got Campari, you’ve got big, big, companies who have all gotten their offices in and around that space who love to go on the grass in the summer and have a drink and have lunch and relax.
You’ve got events. You’ve got skating in the park in the winter. You’ve got the winter market that pops up there and we have a bar there and that bar would serve a hundred thousand Fever-Tree cocktails in a normal year by 13 million people and again, they get to see the brand, feel the brand, experience the brand. We’re able to look at different drinks trends. We can see what’s selling because we can put different things on it. Wow.
Susan: That’s what I love about you. As I said, I’m drinking the Aromatic tonic water, is that you’re always innovating and there’s something new on the horizon and interesting and delicious. That is great for someone who both either loves to mix it or to have it by itself.
Charles: Yes, I think, again, obviously one of the keys was elevating the drink, but secondly is innovating. This whole platform of innovation is phenomenal because what it allows you to do is create more than a simple drink at home.
The reality is that if you ask spirits companies and, I was guilty for God knows how many years, I’m not going to say I was innocent here, but spirits companies are endlessly telling you to create these very complex cocktails at home, do this a dash of this, some simple syrups and boom, and agave nectar and, dash of St. Germain, maybe a bit of this bit of that.
You’re up to five or six ingredients. Of course, your average consumer, by the way I include myself in this, you start pouring in something and think I got too much of that and, Oh dear, that’s really horrible now because I really stuffed that up. You realize just how damn difficult it is to make a decent cocktail. It’s why you go out to a bar. You want a good Negroni. Don’t come to my house, go to a bar.
Susan: I always say that too.
Charles: People at home don’t make complex drinks. Yet, spirits companies endlessly are trying to sell people complex drinks at home. People don’t have endless sprigs of Rosemary and Thyme. Fever-Tree has already done that work for you, in our Aromatic tonic, you’ve got angostura bark and pimento berry. Now you would never know how much angostura bark and pimento berry to put in your drink, but when you’ve done it for you. We’ve got lemon thyme and rosemary in our Mediterranean tonic. Nobody’s going to know how to mix lemon thyme and rosemary essences into a drink. Nobody’s got the time to.
Because you come to somebody’s house and what do you get offered? You get offered a beer, glass of wine or a spirit, and a spirit has to be simple – spirit, mixer, garnish! Hopefully they know how to do ice, which in America, actually, people do, people in Britain and not quite good at the ice thing. You get one little lump of ice.
Susan: It’s getting better!
Charles: It’s getting better, but it used to be that one lump of ice that would just fall apart. That is what people do at home. You can come to my house. Yes. I’ll give you a gin and tonic. I’ll give you a whiskey and ginger, I’ll give you a Paloma.
I can do that because it’s tequila and grapefruit. I can do it because it’s gin and tonic. I’ve got a great friend of mine in the city who loves the Mediterranean Tonic and serves it endlessly at his house. He always makes the cocktails in the kitchen, because he comes and says, yes, this is my special recipe, but he’d been convincing his friends for months that it was something special he created.
Susan: No, it’s Fever-Tree.
Charles: Yes. He’s been found out, so he’s stopped hiding it
Susan: I don’t usually ask this, but since you’ve had such a long career and many interesting things, looking back at the young lad who just gave up his commission and went skiing. Could you ever have imagined that you have gotten and traveled and done so much. Do you feel that you well succeeded in what you thought you might achieve so far?
Charles: Thank you for saying that. Thank you for that compliment. I always knew I was going to have a lot of fun. I have various mantras, but one of them was I’m globally mobile. If I hadn’t been globally mobile, if I said, I only want to live in the United Kingdom, I would never have Poland. If I hadn’t gone to Poland, I would probably never have gone to Australia. If I hadn’t gone to Australia, I wouldn’t have met my wife. If I hadn’t met my wife, I wouldn’t have two crazy kids. If I hadn’t had my wife, we wouldn’t probably have moved Belvedere from London to New York, because I’d been stupid enough to keep on jumping on the train to Paris every day and off to Poland. She was the one who said, “Why are we here when you’re never yet?” I’ve always been open to new opportunity. I think that’s the thing that excites me.
I talk with my team a lot about having incessant curiosity about new things. I think that’s what keeps me young. That’s what keeps me fresh. That’s what keeps me vibrant is this idea of being incessantly curious about what people are doing and why they’re doing it and how we should, how can we affect change to make this happen?
I have the privilege of working with a really young dynamic team. I’ve had the privilege of meeting a number of great people, but I’ve mentioned my two greatest mentors, the one in Australia and the one at Moët Hennessy Europe, Rob and James. Then prior to that, I had a crazy Australian chap and a great man in Poland, who took me under his wing and I’ve always had the privilege of meeting those types of people or found them along the way.
I’ve loved what I’ve done. I’ve loved every minute of it. Still, I think I’m still the same guy that left the army at age 25/26, and I still look at myself occasionally, as I said, a young restless man and I have to be reminded that I’m 55 years old. Actually my kids are the ones who should be young and restless, but that’s because I thrive off that energy.
I love it. I played golf; I love it. I try to be competitive. I’m not as competitive as I used to be, but I try to be, and I love bike riding. I go off and do these massive bike rides. My best friend from my time in the army is still my best friend in the world, when I see him, it’s straight back. He’s just is the first person I call when I’ve got a problem and the first person I call, and I want to celebrate. I never imagined. I didn’t have a plan; I suppose that was the thing, but I’ve stayed true to what I think I’m good at. I believe I made a very strong, very good leader of people. I believe that. I’ll take on any challenge with people.
I find the situation that we’re all in at the moment it’s been extraordinarily challenging, but I think it’s been a real test of leadership on many, many, many levels. The other thing I do is I love starting things. I recognize that really the first time when I went to Poland in the early nineties, I loved the idea of startup and it’s why if a big multinational giant came knocking at my door, I would say no.
That’s not what I enjoy doing and I’m only going to do things I enjoy doing. Also one of the other great things about Fever-Tree is this can-do culture. I think the challenge with big business, at times, is you get into much of big business ends up as being politics and politicking and people politicking, endlessly, and, a lot of the times your enemies are actually on the inside, not on the outside of the company, whereas at Fever-Tree, that’s just not the case.
We’ve got a brilliant global leadership team. I respect Tim, the founder, immensely. In the first few weeks of COVID, he came out and said, we are not going to furlough anybody. Imagine the confidence that gave to his entire workforce, everybody just went, wow. I don’t have to look over my back. I don’t have to look over my shoulder anymore
Susan: It’s wonderful.
Charles: That’s wonderful. It meant that people, and again, particularly living in America where people got furloughed instantly people lost their healthcare benefits instantly, when they got furloughed in many, many, many cases.
Tim basically said, “We’re not furloughing. No, we’re a growth business. We’re a growth brand. We’re going to invest. We’re going to keep our people. They get to work. We want them to work. They’re going to be doing stuff, but we’re keeping our people.” The respect he’s earned from that simple action has elevated the way I and all the employees, particularly the American ones where, there is this employment at will thing, elevated that to a completely different level.
Susan: Well, I can’t wait. Number one. I love seeing what you’re doing now, and I can’t wait to see what you do next, because I’m sure there will be something. So will you come back the next time you’re doing you’re starting something new?
Charles: Well, it’s going to be a lot more Fever-Tree, that’s for damn sure.
Susan I can’t thank you enough for being on the show. It has been amazing to get to know you and hear your journey. I can’t wait to share it with everyone out there.
Charles: Well, thank you. I’ve loved chatting to you. Big walk down memory lane. It’s been really enjoyable and thank you much for the opportunity to talk. I really enjoyed it.
TIPS FOR THE HOME BARTENDER
Susan: Can you give me some tips for the home bartender?
Charles: First tip is to mix with the best!
Susan: Somehow I knew you were going to say that.
Charles: I think the tip for the home bartender is be prepared to experiment. Covid has been a fantastic opportunity to experiment. Things I’ve been experimenting with – I was enjoying a Paloma the other night and we were running out of grapefruit. I threw some ginger beer in with the pink grapefruit and I made this spicy Paloma. That’s now become my new go-to drink at home, Patron tequila with a bit of Sparkling Pink grapefruit, and then a bit of the light ginger beer is a delicious, refreshing, light drink.
I think trying different things. It was my wife’s birthday yesterday, we had dinner last night and I had a Maker’s Mark and the Spiced Orange Ginger Ale. That was just delicious. Because orange and ginger just go well together and Maker’s Mark is such a beautiful brand and amazing expression.
The risk is that because we lack confidence when we’re doing drinks at home is we don’t experiment. I think experiment on yourself and your family, providing they are of course of legal drinking age. Experiment at home and then try out your friends with them because genuinely, the thing about what we do and what this industry is all about – it’s about the times when we want to relax, it’s about the times that we want to celebrate, and the drink is such an important part of that. It’s integral to the occasion whether you’re just having a drink with your partner or whether you’re with a whole group of friends. That first drink of the night is the most important drink that you have because it’s the only one that you stop and you take a sip and you appreciate! After that everything is consumption really. That first drink is just so meaningful so make it a good one.
Treat your mixers the way you treat your spirits would be my other advice for the home bartender. Play around with garnishes, because garnishes do make a big difference. Also don’t bloody use small ice cubes because they really do destroy a drink. They dilute and they weaken, and they make a horrible drink. I’ve got ones the size between a golf ball and a tennis ball, in terms of the big, great big ice ball.
Susan: Now I’ve got those too. I love them.
Charles: Love them!
Susan: Now, if you could drink anywhere right now, where would that be?
Charles: If I could get drink anywhere right now, it would be in a pub in Edinburgh with my best friend and my dad. It would be somewhere that’s not in a house. We’ve all got homing pigeon in us, as I told you, if you cut me open, I bleed Scottish and I would be at a bar in Edinburgh and I would be there with my best friend, my dad and ideally my son, but he’s a bit too young at the moment.
We’d be off to watch Scotland play rugby and hopefully win. That would be a dream. That feels like a very long way away at the moment, just in the world we’re in, and the one thing about being, and I’m sure you feel the same, expatriated, not in your home country is, dare I say, if something was to go wrong. You are a very long way from home at the time.
Whereas in the normal modern world, you’re a six-hour plane flight and now you’re not somewhat isolated. Particularly those people who are expatriated, not at home, that weighs on us. I think at this time, both myself and my wife, whose parents, obviously in Australia, which is even further away and, more impossible to access.
Susan: All right. I see you at that pub in Edinburgh.