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Meet the boss: Norwich brewery chief on a mission

PUBLISHED: 13:26 19 March 2019 | UPDATED: 14:54 19 March 2019

Managing Director of Redwell brewery in Trowse, Ben Hopkins. Picture: Ella Wilkinson

Managing Director of Redwell brewery in Trowse, Ben Hopkins. Picture: Ella Wilkinson

He rescued Virgin Wines from the brink and now he's bossing a Norwich brewery with plans to double its sales to £1.5m this year. CAROLINE CULOT spoke to Ben Hopkins, the new MD of Redwell Brewing.

The team at Redwell brewery in Trowse. From left to right: Ben Hopkins (Managing director), William Cornish, Marcel Liput, Steven Dobinson, Belinda Jennings (Head Brewer), Peter Reeve and Laura Handford. Picture: Ella WilkinsonThe team at Redwell brewery in Trowse. From left to right: Ben Hopkins (Managing director), William Cornish, Marcel Liput, Steven Dobinson, Belinda Jennings (Head Brewer), Peter Reeve and Laura Handford. Picture: Ella Wilkinson

He might be saying “cheers” now but Ben Hopkins has worked for every drop of success.

When you ask him how he managed to reverse the fortunes of businesses like Virgin Wines, which he helped take from making £1m-a-year loss to a £20m turnover, he’ll tell you “application, determination and luck”.

He said: “When things get tough, you get your head down and go on for the next level, there have been times I’ve had to fight for my position, but I can say I’ve turned something around and driven the results that made the difference.”

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The brewing team at Redwell brewery in Trowse. From left to right: Steven Dobinson, Belinda Jennigs (Head Brewer), Marcel Liput and William Cornish. Picture: Ella WilkinsonThe brewing team at Redwell brewery in Trowse. From left to right: Steven Dobinson, Belinda Jennigs (Head Brewer), Marcel Liput and William Cornish. Picture: Ella Wilkinson

Ben, 41, has gone from grape to grain. He became managing director of Redwell Brewing four months ago. Situated beneath the Trowse arches, the firm was bought out of administration in 2017.

He doesn’t profess to know everything about making craft beer (but he’s proud to be working with head brewer Belinda Jennings who does) but he comes with a track record of being able to turn businesses around – and it’s not just from magical “unicorn tears” but hard graft. He’s got big plans for Redwell this year, aiming to treble can sales to 80,000 a month and raise keg sales tenfold a month.

Already in Aldi, Ben wants to get the beer into another big supermarket and work with wholesalers to expand distribution. “I’m more than happy to be in Wetherspoons or any pub chain that will have it,” he added.

A former Hewett School and City College Norwich student, Ben started work on a youth trainee scheme in insurance claims before being recruited by Virgin Wines.

Cans ready to be filled at Redwell brewery in Trowse. Picture: Ella WilkinsonCans ready to be filled at Redwell brewery in Trowse. Picture: Ella Wilkinson

“I didn’t do anything normal, I went down and banged on the door until someone spoke to me, I said I want to work for you, I’ve written in and not heard back so here I am. That got me the interview. I didn’t know anything about wine but they wanted new blood.”

That was 2004 and Ben, who lives in Thorpe, was promoted. “We had a team of 150 at its peak but when funding was pulled, they gave us six weeks to turn it around, when we didn’t, we lost two thirds of the staff. It was awful but then I got the opportunity to go into management, all these 25 year olds like me with the right spirit were offered quite senior roles. So over the next two years, we really turned it around.”

In 2008 Ben left to set up from scratch Naked Wines in Norwich. He grew customers to a staggering half a million, using a subscription model to invest in independent winemakers and in return get better wines for less.

“After four years we had 130,000 customers investing £20 a month in to their wine accounts,” he recalled.

However, in 2013 he left Naked, selling his stake in the business to help fund his two young children and set up his own business growth consultancy.

Ben secured contracts for big firms, like Hotel Chocolat, outfitters Charles Tyrwhitt, and food businesses like Hello Fresh and Gousto helping them recruit customers.

“I had about 25 customers, 50pc who were well known and I created a good level of income. I feel quite proud of that but it’s a solitary existence, I really like the team feel, which is what we have here.”

Ben is looking at ways of saving on current costs such as labelling and adding more beer clubs like Beer52, whereby you get small batch brews delivered to your home.

“My plans are not to change the online sales immediately but the biggest challenges are time, connections and our focus: it’s so easy to get distracted but there is a time when you have to knuckle down so we need to focus on getting keg sales into pubs and building up relationships with pub chains and wholesalers.

“We need to be in as many places where people can enjoy the beer, I’m not precious, it’s about getting to consumers, wherever they might be.”

Already signs are positive, with Redwell making a small profit over January and February after investing heavily last year into a new cooling system and putting in the Tap Room, their own pub costing £30,000. He’s looking to increase sales from £630,000 last year to £1.5m before raising extra investment from crowdfunding to raise £250,000 for a 7.5% stake in the business.

This has already raised £62,800 from 73 people.

“What really appeals to me is working with something I love, beer is a fun product to talk about. I joined Redwell because I liked the product, the opportunity was great because the beer, which is vegan and gluten free, is great and if the beer is that good, people are going to get into it. But when I’d been here for three hours, I thought the team is why I’m staying.”

To learn more about Redwell’s crowd funding click here.

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