Things are looking up for Merrydown

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After a year in charge Nigel Freer is confident about the future for Merrydown. Merrydown's past few years have been turbulent, to say the...

After a year in charge Nigel Freer is confident about the future for Merrydown.

Merrydown's past few years have been turbulent, to say the least.

Looking back just over a year ago the company, based in the village of Horam, East Sussex, rarely failed to miss the headlines when profits plummeted and jobs were subsequently axed.

The final nail in the coffin came when sales of its alcopop Two Dogs slumped due to the overall decline of the market and in December 1997 Merrydown bosses looked seriously at the option of selling up.

But a board restructuring early last year appears to have done the trick and after a year of planning and forward-thinking, the business genuinely looks to be on the up.

New chief executive Nigel Freer is everything you would expect from a man who has been brought in to shake-up a company which this time last year was losing some £1.5m.

He's got the industry know-how having been responsible for building Scrumpy Jack when he was managing director of Symonds Cider, he's got a clear focus on brand building and corporate image and above all else he is relishing his new challenges and even goes as far to say his job is "fun".

Freer readily admits that the company has messed up in the past — trying to take on board too many projects and cater for too many consumers. "We have now learned to say 'no'," he claims.

One of Freer's first tasks when he joined in June 1998 was to make over half of the 140 workforce redundant — a difficult introduction but one that was necessary to stop the company from going under entirely, he claims.

Now after a year of settling into his new role, Freer is confident about the future.

"Our turnover to the end of May will be £20m. We will return a profit this year, albeit a small one, but it will be a complete turnaround from last year when we were losing around £1.5m.

"There will be no fireworks in the short term but things will be steadily improving. In the long-term there is no reason why our business shouldn't be bigger than Bulmers."

This will be achieved, says Freer, through a clearly defined strategy concentrating on building the strongest brands and gradually introducing new ones.

He says Merrydown cider is widely recognised as a quality brand, with potential to be up there with the "big boys" but lack of focus and proper distribution has weakened it.

"For too long the company's core products have been neglected and abused," he said.

"The problem was we had a constant changing of strategy. The company would put everything on hold and give its full attention to any new toy that came its way.

"Two Dogs was one of those new toys. It was something the company needed at that time and bought the business another couple of years but while the business focus was on Two Dogs, good brands like Vintage Cider were neglected."

Freer has learned from the company's past mistakes and now has a very firm strategy for the coming years. Emphasis for the short term will be on Merrydown's two strongest brands Vintage cider and soft drink Shloer — both much bigger in the off-trade than on.

The company has recently carried out consumer research into both brands and as a result has improved taste and packaging to meet demands.

"Vintage was a brand that was extremely neglected and it is quite extraordinary that it survived the market at all," said Freer.

"What it has lacked is innovation and creativity in the same way as the lager and bitter boys give to their products. We have re-designed the packaging for the off-trade and are closely looking at what we can do on draught.

"Only about five per cent of our business is in the on-trade and we are currently in about 600 pubs. I would like to see this rise to about 5,000 which, although a modest number compared with Scrumpy's 15,000, will undoubtedly transform our business.

"We are also looking at giving draught a different name and we will start experiments in May with a view to a roll-out in the autumn."

Shloer is also a key focus for Merrydown and again, although much bigger in the off-trade, plans are afoot for pubs. The product is to be trialled in the Shepherd Neame estate — Robert Neame is a non-executive director of Merrydown — before a planned roll-out before Christmas.

Through innovation and good marketing Freer wants to boost these two brands before moving on to other projects.

And these other projects could well expand away from the current cider and soft drink portfolio.

"As long as the product is a premium, high-quality beverage there is no reason why we shouldn't look at it as long as we can make what we do highly accountable. We could even see ourselves moving into coffee.

"We do not want to be directly competing with the Bulmers and Matthew Clarks — we want to be doing something different that is going to add value to consumers and the industry."

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