“I wish someone had told me that”: Steve Timmis, Fossey’s Gin
At a glance
Here’s a snapshot of the advice from our interviewee:
- Cultivate staff loyalty.
- Maintain the online platform you built up over the pandemic
- If you’re in a rural or regional location, think about ways you can make your product more accessible.
- Make a roadmap, and spend time on your budget and forecasting so you are prepared for the unexpected.
In Propsa’s ‘I wish someone had told me that’ series, we speak with seasoned small business owners to hear their advice on growing a business and what they wish they were told along the way. Click here to read the rest of the ‘I wish someone had told me that’ series.
It started as a bit of fun
I’ve been in business my whole life both in Australia and internationally – sometimes flying by the seat of my pants and always willing to give something a go.
This will show my age, but originally I was a winemaker in the 1970s and it wasn’t until about 18 years ago that distilling popped up on my radar. I was intrigued by the science of making gin – it seemed the next level up from making wine. So I had a bit of play around with that for a while.
I’d sold a couple of businesses and, when I bought the building that used to be the old men’s only Mildura Settlers Club about eight years ago, I had in mind a lifestyle business, something to have some fun with.
I’ll work a few hours every Thursday, I thought. We’ll set up the function room, sell a bit of gin.
It very quickly evolved into more than that. I knew the potential was there – we were coming in early on the gin craze. When I saw it could be a serious business, I ramped things up with an external review, a roadmap of where we wanted to take the business, a revamped website, and a lot of budgeting and forecasting.
Now Fossey’s Gin has a bar and beer garden, and a small still from which we produce all our gin. It gives the place a steampunk kind of vibe! And it makes a beautiful aroma. We also have a distribution centre here where all the orders go out from, and a cellar on the edge of town where we keep our whiskey barrels, bottles and event equipment.
I have a team of 15 employees and we’ve achieved 40% growth year-on-year since we opened – even during the pandemic.
We had eight different lockdowns in Victoria. It was tough. For my employees there was real worry, even panic. As a business owner, you know there’s going to be ups and downs but as an employee you expect some consistency and security. And that just went straight out the window.
I did everything I could do to make sure my staff were looked after, including keeping up their hours when it was hurting me financially. JobKeeper made a big difference and we got some support from the state government. It wasn’t huge but every bit added up.
Even though we were closed, I got the staff to come in to keep up camaraderie and maintain our sense of social wellbeing. It was better than sitting at home watching Netflix all day. There was always plenty to get done even without the bar operating. And it made a big difference. That loyalty is now being repaid by my staff as we rebuild and look for fresh ways to grow the business.
Fortunately, online sales were strong enough to see us through. We make a big point of engaging with our online customers and over the lockdowns we did some virtual tasting events that were really fun. It was a great way to cheer people up and build customer loyalty at the same time. Now we’re focusing on cultivating that online presence. People are back in the bar for the real thing now but maintaining that digital connection is really important.
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Working with what you’ve got
When the pandemic hit, we pivoted fast into hand sanitiser. There was such a huge demand and our biggest problem was a shortage of plastic containers, so I took a punt and bought a big order from China, paying more than a dollar each for something that usually cost 20c.
We knew the hand sanitiser problem would come to an end at some point, we just didn’t know when. We were all in unchartered waters. So you just make the best decision you can make at the time.
Unfortunately, it means I’ve still got a warehouse full of plastic spray bottles! At least they don’t go flat or off or out of date. And I’ve got a few ideas for them.
“The best decision the government ever made”
In 2021 the Federal Government announced that the excise relief cap for spirits would be lifted from $100k to $350k. I think it’s the best decision this government has made. In the time I’ve been in business, we’ve had 11 tax increases, so this is a real shot in the arm, especially for boutique producers like us. It means that we don’t have to pay tax on roughly the first 14,000 bottles we sell.
To maximise the benefit, we need to increase sales, even at a lower margin. Previously we’d focused mostly on B2C, getting full retail price where we could. But this change means we can be a bit more comfortable increasing our volume and making the most of the new relief cap.
Looking forward – and looking for staff
Normally we’d have every weekend booked up with events – food and wine festivals, concerts, dinners, farmers’ markets, you name it. The pandemic dried that up overnight. So it’s exciting to see it all coming back. It’s not always easy to staff events – I usually end up doing it. But they’re a lot of fun and it’s an important revenue stream for us. Because we’re located in a rural area, we have to bring our product to people, not just rely on them coming to us.
I’m lucky to have a steady group of local staff here in Mildura. A lot of them are women, some single mums, and they just get on with it. I leave the staff to manage their own rosters and communicate with each other about who needs what afternoons off. I think it’s testament to the culture of trust and loyalty we’ve built that it works like that.
We are planning to replicate our Mildura model on Lygon Street in Melbourne and at The Mill in Castlemaine (about 40km out of Bendigo) over the next year. The biggest challenge will be finding staff and being a long way away – everyone I talk to in the industry flags that as a risk. So my goal at the moment is to get that upper management structure in place so I don’t have to be doing a six-hour drive every week to check how things are going. But we’re not going to rush it. I’ll watch the pennies for a bit, and go with the flow as we come out of this pandemic.
When you get to my age, you know that there are always going to be so many things you don’t know when you start a new business. Starting the business is how you find out! You’re fully aware there will be lessons – some will be far more expensive than others. Right now I’m trying to learn the lessons from the pandemic, specifically, how to make the most of the online engagement we’ve built up and keep it growing. I don’t want to look back and realise I’ve missed a valuable opportunity.
When you’re a small business in a regional town, you need to be thinking outside the square all the time and coming up with different revenue streams. And that’s the challenge that keeps me bursting out of bed at 5.30 every morning. It’s not about the money. Sure, it has to pay, but the satisfaction for me comes in successfully identifying and navigating a challenge. And I usually do it in a slightly unconventional way!
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