Founded in 1997, Burts Crisps started out as a small, family-run crisp company selling exclusively to independent stores. But when Nick Hurst and Jonty White bought out co-founder Richard Burt in 2000, the brand went supersonic.
"We acquired the firm for just under £1m," says Hurst. "It was turning over around £0.5m and generally behaving like a small business. We wanted to grow the company so we spent £3m moving into new premises that were three times the size, spent £250,000 on a new line and nearly went bust!"
It was a bold move for the crisp company. Their overheads went through the roof: rent increased from £3,000 to £180,000 and output scaled rapidly.
"The margin was there but we needed volume," says Hurst. "The premium crisp industry is very competitive. There were a number of firms competing with us and the time was right to move into the multiples."
"The supermarkets had been asking for our product for number of years," continues the Burts Crisps MD. "We’d always refused. We’d wanted to be a voice for independent retailer and lobby their cause. It was all about selling things that were new and different; products you couldn’t get in the supermarkets, a point of difference. But the volume from that marketplace was not enough to sustain our own ambitions for the business. So we decided to go and dance with the devil."
The second phase of Hurst’s growth plan for the business was international expansion. He realised at the beginning of last year that the UK was beginning to suffer from recession. "I needed to find low-hanging fruit elsewhere," he says. "Rather than just react to enquiries from Europe, we began to be be proactive."
Whereas previously Burts would receive an order from the continent and simply whizz over a pallet without thinking about the end point of sale, the Devon-based firm began actively chasing leads.
"We employed a couple of specialists," says Hurst. "They were ex-Innocent Drinks and knew the European market very well. They moved the European business from £100,000 a year to £2m this year. Next year we’re predicting £3m from European sales alone."
Burts currently selles its crisps into 18 countries worldwide. In Holland, they are the leading premium crisp outselling Pringles, Sensations and Kettle Chips. "The Europeans are much more aware of artisan English products than ever before," says Hurst. "We are going into 24/7 production now to keep up with demand."
Turnover at the firm has gone from £2.8m in 2007 to a predicted £6m 2009 and £10m 2010. The brand is selling over 12 million packs of crisps every year. Not bad for a firm that still hand-cooks every one of its crisps in Devon.