‘Lovely’ is a word which Pev Manners uses frequently, and it often pops up on his drinks company’s website too – so should we read anything into that? The answer has to be a resounding yes because Pev has turned Belvoir Fruit Farms – the table top business started quite innocently by his parents Lord John and Lady Mary Manners in the early 1980s – into a £15 million success story.
Refreshingly, there’s even more good news to come. In April, his 65-strong workforce will switch to a new complex costing £4 million, in Barkestone Lane, Bottesford, about two-and-a-half miles from its current home in the beautiful Vale of Belvoir.
“My late parents would never have imagined we would be where we are today, but I started making changes from the moment I joined the business and we’ve never stopped. We’re in a highly-competitive market and it is essential to keep innovating.”
So everything’s “looking lovely” for the business, then? “It is very exciting, it’s just a case of working hard to get everything to come together on the new site. For instance, we have three working shifts and we are having to ensure that we make sufficient quantities of our drinks to see us through the changeover period. We are already testing one of our two production lines,” Pev said.
“Ideally, I’d like to invest further and eventually add photovoltaic panels to the south and east faces of our new building, possibly install a biomass boiler and also create a reed bed for waste water, but with the cost of our capital build threatening to rise daily, we will have to do these other things in stages.
“However, one thing I am particularly proud of the fact that our investment will bring everything together within premises which we own, rather than lease, and that they are being constructed in a way which will allow for further expansion,” said Pev.
Belvoir Fruit Farms, which now exports £2 million worth of drinks to about 30 countries as well as having a strong UK following, is continually seeking out and tapping into further sales opportunities. So how did it get to where it is today and where does the business go from here?
It was in 1984 that Lady Mary Manners made and sold her first batch of Elderflower Cordial, which gradually grew in popularity, to the point where the business started producing commercially.
“In 1984, my parents sold 1,056 full-sized bottles of Elderflower Cordial. In 1991, they produced 50,000 bottles and I joined them in 1992,” said Pev. “Five years later, as managing director, I really started changing things. We launched a new cordial every year and by 1997 we were selling seven different flavours. I also saw the potential in making sparkling drinks, so that year I bought a small carbonating machine and our Elderflower Presse was born.”
Of course, success breeds success, and Belvoir Fruit Farms has gone on to expand and offer an amazing range of 10 Presses (sold in smaller bottles) and 11 varieties, offered in family-sized bottles. Four years ago, the Belvoir team went on to add a couple of mulled wine punches for Christmas and the business now also offers Summer punches – a “lovely” addition, and just right for promoting at UK festivals, as well as overseas trade shows.
“I think that our unique selling point and the key to our success, is that everything is made on site, from the point of preparing and cooking the raw elderflowers, ginger or other ingredients for our drinks. The only thing we buy in is some fruit juices. We also recognise that it is vital to maintain high quality standards,” said Pev.
Ensuring that you play to your strengths within such a tough sector of the food industry means you have to pay constant attention to your product and also come up with fresh ideas.
“I get together with our new product development manager, technical manager and marketing manager and we brainstorm ideas. I might come up with some suggestions and they also voice their ideas.
“The importance of this development work is highlighted by the fact that we are building a full-sized development lab in our new complex where we can refine our ideas and produce new lines.
“The competition has got hotter. If you don’t continue to invest in new products, you can easily end up going backwards. You always need to remember that it is not that difficult to start making drinks and there are always new people keen to break into the market.”
Belvoir Fruit Farms started turning its attention to overseas markets in 1996 when Pev attended a trade fair in France, but the company actually clinched its first export order in 1998.
“We now sell to about 30 overseas countries, but there are still plenty of opportunities to go for. For instance, in March I am visiting America, and sales colleagues are going to Japan and China,” said Pev.
Belvoir’s drinks can be spotted on UK supermarket shelves and are also asked for in bars and eateries across the UK. “The Belvoir team will always have as it main target, selling to the finest food retailers, cafes, restaurants and pubs in the UK, but now we have two people selling overseas with some exciting new opportunities opening up,” said Pev.
Meanwhile, back on home territory the Belvoir team is looking forward to moving to the company’s new premises. These will offer it five times its current working capacity.
“We are creating a really effective workspace, which includes an arrival point for empty bottles, massive vats for our drinks, filler machinery, a new packaging machine, labelling, laboratory and despatch areas. It also includes specific areas for chilled ingredients and dry goods, such as pallets of boxes, sugar, bottles and caps.
“We have been planning our move for two years, although we have actually wanted to do it for four. We knew we had outgrown our existing site and this was the way forward.
“As a business we have grown 20 percent year-on-year and that’s simply down to the fact that we make really lovely drinks [there goes that word again!] and of course ensures that we maintain standards,” said Pev.
But some things never change. It is traditional for Belvoir Fruit Farms, which has its own elderflower trees, to invite people to get into the spirit of the spring season and pick their own elderflowers and supply them to the business (from the end of May to the end of June) – for the reward of £2 per kg. Last year they delivered 51 tonnes of the stuff — and the way Belvoir Fruit Farms is going, they’d welcome even more this time around.
This feature interview was first published in issue 19 of the Lincolnshire Business weekly magazine.