How Hilltop Honey built a brand around bees

Hilltop Honey’s raw honey brand has built a huge following in its first few years. Leveraging business support, trade shows and local knowledge founder Scott Davies started exporting, has just opened a new factory and doubled turnover every years he’s been trading. We spoke to Davies about what made the business work.

Why did you decide to start the business and what were you doing at the time?

I started the business because I was out of work through injury. It had always had this burning desire to run my own business, I was forever coming up with ideas but never made the jump as I was comfortable earning decent money at 22-years-old. 

During my time off I started to research into three potential businesses, I absolutely loved keeping them and decided that honey locally and nationally was poorly branded, so I set about expanding my hives in early 2011.

In September 2011, I had built up to 12 hives and then decided to turn it into a business. I ran out of honey in less than a month and was left with no product, so set about buying honey off local beekeepers. I only keep just over 40 hives now after three years, but sell tonnes a week buying from beekeepers all over the country.

What funding was used to launch the business and how difficult did you find this process?

I took out a £5,000 overdraft and that was all I had as I’d been on statuary sick pay for a year. I received help from Antur Business at the time in the form of courses to set up a business plan properly. I literally walked out of there with business plan in hand and the bank, who were more than happy to provide me with a £5,000 overdraft, to the shock of my mentor at Antur Business.

How important have markets and trade shows been to building the business?

Extremely important. I wouldn’t have branded my honey as raw if I hadn’t attended food festivals. Those three letters are why I have got this far, I was two years ahead of all the other honey brands. 

Food festivals provide that much need cash injection. In the wholesale business it’s all about terms of trade and cash sales always helps the cash flow. Trade shows have also been key, as meeting buyers face-to-face is hugely valuable in my opinion. I wouldn’t have been listed by Holland & Barrett if I hadn’t attended Speciality & Fine Food Fair. 

Are you currently selling to any supermarket chains? How have you found this process and what are the barriers?

We don’t currently stock any supermarkets. We stock Holland & Barrett nationwide and other small chains like Planet Organic in London, but no supermarkets. Having said that, we are meant to be stocking Sainsbury’s Wales in the coming months. 

Selling to big retailers is always hard as they are very well aware of their value to you. Having said that, it’s their products that make them what they are, so you have to stick by your guns and be confident in your product and price. If they don’t like it, move on and find someone who does as there is no point in doing it if it doesn’t work for you as well as them.

I noticed you mention Selfridges on Twitter, how did you come across this opportunity?

I met Selfridges representatives at a trade show. Well, I stopped them and said: “What honey do you have in your food halls?” They said Italian and I said: “That isn’t good enough; you wouldn’t go to Italian food halls and only find British honey.” He agreed and three weeks later we were on the shelves.

How easy was it to build relationships with other beekeepers and ensure you had sufficient supply?

Hard. I was young an unheard of in what in reality is a very small community of professionals. I had poor terms to start until relationships grew which made cash flow a huge problem. I also had to compete on price with competitors buying it in 300 kg barrels while I was buying it in 30 lb tubs. The price difference was huge but I had to stay focused and be determined I would get to 300 kg barrels one day and when that day happened I would be making much better margins. Ensuring supply is also really difficult as producing honey is so volatile. 

When did you open the factory, how was this supported financially and what did it mean for the business?

I moved from my mum and dad’s kitchen in January 2013 to a very small premises, which was helped by a 50:50 capital grant from Powys County Council. I then moved into a premise five times the size in January 2014 funded by a Welsh government expansion grant and a Finance Wales loan. 

As silly as it seems our rapid growth has made it financially difficult for us. We have had to constantly by new machinery and employee new people, so we have never been able to build up cash reserves. If I would have started this business with £50,000 to £100,000 it would be a lot different. 

How important are online sales and what have you done to promote this side of the business? 

Sales off our own website aren’t a huge part of the business, but Amazon is a big part as we are the number one best-selling honey on there. We also sell a lot through Ocado, the online supermarket. Everything is going and growing online now, you can’t ignore it.

What enterprise support did the business receive?

I have taken advice where ever I could get it from. Antur Business, Menter a Busnes, Cywain, Business Wales and my peers. I have attended courses where needed, especially at the beginning of the business. It’s great advice and free, what’s not to like?

What’s next for the business and what growth trajectory are you aiming for over the next few years?

Exports are growing organically very well for us, so I expect to see consistent growth to new counties. We are launching new products all the time and expect to be stocked in a supermarket within the next 12 months. As a projection we plan to grow turnover 300 per cent from last year. We have achieved growth of over 250 per cent each year since I started the business.

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