Former hedge fund manager Mark Driver left the heady world of finance in 2010, and after a bit of soul-searching set up on his idea to build the UK’s biggest and greenest vineyard.
Set in the idyllic south downs, Driver tells Huff Post UK why English wine is much better than it used to be, how his daughter’s university choice led to his new career, and how much money he’ll personally be spending before he can sell his first bottle of fizz.
Tell us about your life before you entered the wine industry?
For about 15 years I was a stockbroker covering the Asian stockmarkets, and then for the 10 years leading up to my decision to work with wine I worked at a hedge fund called Horseman Capital Management. I was one of three directors – the firm was set up in 2000 and I left in 2009.
One of the other directors, John Horseman, had decided he’d had enough and wanted a slower pace of life. Initially, I was reluctant to leave but John was right. I was too young to retire, but was motivated to leave hedge funds by the fact the markets felt as though they were going to be difficult for a long time.
Was wine the first industry you looked at for a new career?
No, I was actually interested in the salad business first. There’s a real pull in the public for British produce at the moment. I considered a few non executive posts on some companies too.
My first experience with the wine industry was in the 1980s – I did a few courses and enjoyed learning about it and then when I was working as a stockbroker I travelled to New Zealand and saw their vineyards. I liked the idea of owning a vineyard in New Zealand for a while.
Then when my daughter was preparing to go to university I found myself looking through university courses with her and found viticulture and thought, why don’t I study in the UK? I didn’t study at the same uni as my daughter – I opted for Plumpton College, which has been teaching wine production for 150 years.
You must hear criticism about British wine all the time…
English wine makers are now winning top awards though, especially in sparkling wine, because our climate’s improved.
Just a one-degree increase in temperature means the geography’s moved from the traditional area of Champagne in France to the south coast of the UK. The terroir (a technical term for the quality and description of the soil the vines are planted in) is really similar to Champagne too – Rathfinny lies on the same chalk band as the Paris Basin.
An artist's impression of the the finished winery
What was your first step?
I completed a two-year foundation degree and started looking for land. Rathfinny in the East Sussex South Downs is just three miles from the sea, about 600 acres, and the slope of the land is perfect. The slope’s really important as it allows the frost to just roll off, and the area’s protected from the elements by another hill on the other side.
I found some consultants through my course who came and confirmed my initial thoughts by checking the soil was okay and so on, and so I bought the land. It is really rare that this sort of plot comes up, so I was lucky. We did look at another spot in Hampshire, but there was no building space, and we needed that for the bottling and the winery infrastructure.
How did you fund the venture?
All the funding came from my own personal savings – you’d never be able to get external funding from somewhere traditional like the banks – banks won’t look at this because it’s essentially a 20-year investment.
We had to source the vines 18 months ahead of planting, and then it’s another four years before we can start the production process. I’m hoping to be able to release the first few bottles of wine in 2016, maybe 2017, but I won’t be able to cover my operating costs until 2018 – then I might start seeing a return by 2020. And that’s not taking into account the frustrations of the weather.
What’s been your biggest lesson so far?
Planning! The planning laws in the UK are archaic. I had to pay for a QC to provide a legal opinion to prove that our business was an agricultural one in order to gain the planning permission we needed – the local council argued that it was an industrial business and that different planning laws applied. If we’d been forced down that route and not able to build the grain stores, bottling and other infrastructure on site, we’d have needed 200 lorries – hardly environmentally friendly.
The idyllic South Downs, where the Rathfinny Estate is set
There are so many reports to fill in too – consultants ones, environmental ones – all at £5,000 a go – I must have produced nearly a dozen and what for? A box-ticking exercise. It took a year and a half to get the planning permission for the winery and two years for a hostel building to house the seasonal workers.
We had another problem in that the area where we are in the South Downs is a national park – which was only established during our planning processes, so all of a sudden we fell under a different planning authority.
Now we’re employing people to help with our marketing plans and to look at our distribution models – it’s so important to find the right project managers and designers, the right people to work with.
When I’m struggling to keep going, I just go and look at the vineyard – all the vines are about four feet tall now.
How much will you have invested personally by time you can sell a bottle?
At least £10 million. Which is a lot of money, but it’s also been a lot of fun – and we’ll be creating a lot of jobs.
Most vineyards in the UK are around the one or two acre size, we’ve planted 50 acres in the first planting session. In the whole of the UK, there’s 1,300 hectares of vineyards, but in Champagne, France alone there’s 30,000 hectares.
Champagne’s also a huge employer – it currently provides jobs for 6,000 people.
What about the future hurdles?
Establishing a global brand will be one of them, getting the packaging and labeling right. And then there’s the operational and financial management. We’re recruiting a financial director at the moment.
What advice to you have for other entrepreneurs?
I know I was in a lucky position where I could stop work without worrying too much about the money – but I’d advise new entrepreneurs to always do the maths, look to the long-term and stick to what you’re good at - we’ve only invested in things we know and understand.
Make sure you do your research, and when people tell you you’re mad, don’t let it put you off – follow your gut.