On the up · 25 October 2017

Conker Spirit founder: From bored chartered surveyor to successful Harvey Nichols supplier

Two of Holloway's gins have won major industry awards
Two of Holloway’s gins have won major industry awards

Until around two years ago, Rupert Holloway was donning a hard hat and hi-vis jacket in his previous life as a chartered surveyor.

But, after realising his career hadn’t made him happy for as long as he cared to remember, Holloway decided it was time for a drastic change.

He wanted to work for himself, and build a business that inspired him, so he set about launching Dorset’s first gin distillery, Conker Spirit.

Holloway’s decision to launch Conker Spirit has so far paid off. At 28-years old, he’s won major listings with Fortnum & Mason and Harvey Nichols, and his two bestselling products – Dorset Dry Gin and Conker Cold Brew – have won major industry awards.

Holloway himself has been named as a brand ambassador for Crew Clothing, and has appeared on ITV’s Countrywise. The entrepreneur spoke to Business Advice about his journey so far.

(1) Who are you and what’s your business?

My name is Rupert Holloway. I am the founder and head “conkerer” at Conker Spirit, Dorset’s first gin distillery, based in Bournemouth.

(2) How long have you been around for?

The gin soaked lightbulb moment to set up Conker Spirit landed in November 2013. After beavering away for a year and a half, we launched our Dorset Dry Gin in April 2015.

(3) Where did the idea for a gin business come from?

My dream initially was just to do my own thing and break away from a career that was making me miserable. So, I was searching for something I could call my own, pour my heart into and take back control of my life.

Then, I landed on the idea of a locally produced gin. It was perfect. I basically realised you could get a whole range of local ales, and yet when it came down to ordering a G&T, you had just the big blue or green bottle to choose from.

I had always loved gin and thought being a distiller was such a mysterious and romantic job. I never dreamed I would actually become one.

(4) What was key in terms of getting started?

As soon as I realised that ‘if I don’t do this someone else will’, there was no going back. I was so convinced by the premise of a Dorset Dry gin produced locally in Bournemouth that for me it was a no-brainer.

So, I got to work on everything from developing branding, sourcing financial backing and, of course, developing the Dorset Dry recipe in my kitchen after work.

(5) Were you nervous about jumping into entrepreneurship at a young age?

My age didn’t once cross my mind to be honest. If anything, I wish the lightbulb to do my own thing had arrived years ago. What did make me nervous was turning my back on a career ladder I had spent seven years (and thousands of pounds) climbing up.

It turns out that it was the best move I’ve ever made. I would recommend anyone to follow their heart to do their own thing rather than plug away at something you don’t believe in.

(6) How did you get the attention of Fortnum & Mason and Harvey Nichols, and become their supplier?

Rather than focussing on individual customers we just built a great brand around a top notch tasty product.  So, we took ourselves to every foody market and trade show around and got our name out there. Pretty soon people where asking their local wine shop if they stocked our products, and the ball started rolling from there.

(7) How do you make social media work for your business? Which platforms do you use?

We use social media to tell our story as it is, unpolished, without marketing gimmicks or the hard sell. We simply use Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to offer a window into our working week, foraging and distilling, to hand signing every bottle.

As a result, people have bought into what we do and why we do it – they are on board from the beginning and are joining us on our journey.

8)  What setbacks have you had along the way?

It really is hard to pull out a particular setback to be honest. When you run a business, you are constantly rolling with the punches, but that really is the reason why you are in the game – every day is different and exciting and the very definition of creativity.

That said our first distillery premises fell through after spending weeks fitting it out… that sticks in my mind as a setback.

9)  What one tip would you give to others starting out?

Lean in, take the leap and learn later. You will always find a reason not to do something, so you have just got to listen to your gut as to whether it’s the right decision. With the internet as your tool, it’s never been so easy to access information and or have your voice heard.

Today really is the best time in history to run your own business or pursue a new career in something you love doing.

10)   In five years’ time, I will be…

Happy. I’m doing this to give me the life I wanted with my fiancée and two little daughters. The day job can be a bit of a monster, but so as long as I’m still enjoying the ride then that’s the most important thing. If your work ambitions don’t align with your life ambitions then you’re in trouble!

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Fred Heritage is deputy editor at Business Advice. He has a BA in politics and international relations from the University of Kent and an MA in international conflict from Kings College London. He previously worked as a reporter at Global Trade Review magazine.

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