The fruits of his labour

PUBLISHED: 14:31 16 November 2012 | UPDATED: 22:28 20 February 2013

The fruits of his labour

The fruits of his labour

One scorching hot weekend at WOMAD sowed the seeds of Jeremy Benson's hugely successful Cotswold-based juice business

The fruits of his labour

One scorching hot weekend at WOMAD sowed the seeds of Jeremy Bensons hugely successful Cotswold-based juice business

Ive been asked to interview Jeremy Benson. So I head towards LinkedIn and start looking for a Jeremy Benson.

Nine come up: an IT professional, two lawyers, e-learning lecturer (a teacher teaching how to teach?), a recent graduate from Nottingham Trent University (yawn), a regulatory specialist at BT and a senior civil servant. I do hope its not any of them. Wait, whats this? A Jeremy Benson at Bensons Totally Fruity with a funky profile photograph with kids. I hope its this one.

It is.

Jeremy Benson is the managing director of Bensons Totally Fruity, an overnight sensation 12 years in the making. Based at Sandy Hill Farm, Sherborne in Gloucestershire, the family business now has an annual turnover of around 1 million and customers include the National Trust, Tate Modern, Nandos, Pizza Express, La Tasca I could go on.

I am only half joking when I say the business is an overnight sensation. A lot of very hard work went into building the company, but its now really kicking into gear. Weve had to start talking to big London marketing and design companies, its all a bit new really, says Jeremy acknowledging a business that is no longer simply a small family concern and recognising that his responsibility for the jobs and welfare of 15 employees is as important as the fact that they are all great to work with. Not that he shies away from that; hes embraced the business for what it is, a Cotswold success story based on hard grind and knowledge that Bensons is a great brand that has caught the mood of the time for quality, well-sourced locally made produce.

So where did it all begin? Let the camera pan out, and back in again to a young lad growing up on his dads farm in Northumberland. After school, Jeremy went to Australia and spent 18 months farming his way across the continent, working on huge arable farms, cattle stations and sheep stations before the parental summons back home. Son, get back here, youve got a place at the Royal Agricultural College at Cirencester.

Three years, no discernable qualifications, but a fantastic set of friends and college memories later including holidays spent working on farms Jeremy was offered a permanent job at the Bedfordshire farm where hed spend a number of summers.

After three years he moved to the Chivers (jam) farm in Cambridgeshire to manage 5,000 acres of arable land.

Farming is long hours and very hard work, especially if youre working for someone else, so Jeremy and his, by now, wife Alexia began to look around for other opportunities.

Back in Northumberland his father had bought an apple press and was selling a few bottles of homemade apple juice locally. Jeremy and Alexia visited one weekend, made some apple juice and took it to WOMAD, the world music festival.

It was a boiling hot weekend and we sold juice all day. At the end of it we began to think perhaps theres a business in this. Jeremy handed in his notice.

Then life took over. At a wedding in Northleach they met Chris Burton, formerly Managing Director of Doehler (UK) Ltd, a juice manufacturer. He offered us a cottage and barns rent free for three years, in exchange for gardening.

It was the opportunity the couple had been looking for. They moved in, bought an apple press and a pasteurizer, found an apple supplier and were off.

Within six months they were doing 40 farmers markets a month, some as far away as London but mostly across the Thames Valley area where there was less direct competition. It was the heyday of farmers markets. In those days the farmers markets were great on a good day we could take 1,000 cash in the morning which meant money straight back in to build the business. Then Foot and Mouth came and for two months, everything ground to a halt.

I decided to go up to London and knock on doors. Jeremy is being a little disingenuous here. One of the doors he knocked on was Hamish Anderson, Head Sommelier and Wine Buyer for Tate Modern (who also orders the gallerys soft drinks). Hamish liked what he tasted and Tate Modern became Bensons first big customer, and still stocks Bensons now.

It was also an excellent sales pitch, opening many other doors. The business grew until Bensons was delivering to around 3500 independent retailers, as well as continuing with around ten farmers markets each month, and all the while Jeremy was maintaining Chris Burtons gardens.

It was getting ridiculous we didnt know whether we were distributors or manufacturers, so we handed the distribution over to two wholesalers and focussed on manufacturing, said Jeremy.

With the business growing, Jeremy approached the National Trust to see if they had any buildings they were willing to let. A lovely farmer called Peter Summers had some redundant farm buildings at Sherborne, which belonged to the National Trust, so we took them over.

It proved to be a great business decision for both parties. The National Trust likes to support its tenants and Bensons Totally Fruity is now stocked in all National Trust catering outlets. The values of the National Trust also fit well with those of Bensons.

While all this was going on, the farmers markets, although by this time less profitable, were still proving rich pickings for market research. We discovered mums were buying our juices and freezing them for their children so we decided to do the same and sell them.

Which is how Bensons hugely successful Chilly Billy range of ice lollies were born and mums bought them in shedloads. In fact they were so successful that at a trade show a couple of Dragons Den scouts approached them about appearing on the programme. They did appear, didnt get any funding, but for Jeremy that didnt matter. We didnt need it, we were just happy to get the PR that the show brought and on the back of the programme I was approached by Nandos, who have been our biggest customer ever since.

This year, Bensons have started making inroads into the flavoured water market with Joosed. Apart from Innocent, there is no other flavoured water in the market made with pure British juice, said Jeremy. Its also got a lot less sugar in it than other waters.

So will Bensons sell out like Innocent did? Not to Coca Cola, says Jeremy. His business plan is much simpler. We have some great products which are easy to sell and I love it. Weve been going twelve years and were just starting to see the benefits. If weve got a plan its just to build the business because if our four kids (aged 11, nine, seven and five) want it later in life its there.

Miss the life of a farmer then, Jeremy? Definitely not. Though its probably harder work and longer hours but a lot more fun. I expect the Benson family will drink to that.

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