For this edition of Country Profiles we asked Stuart Vass, who runs a specialist wine business from a small Yorkshire village, about his experiences of running business from the countryside.
Many years ago your Webmaster occasionally travelled through the small village of Sheriff Hutton where York Wines is based. From memory it was a quiet and sleepy little place with the remains of an old ruined castle and the odd chicken strutting across the dusty main road which cut through the village. Now, thanks to the Web, Sheriff Hutton is on the map.
Stuart, it seems unusual to find a wine merchant operating from a small Yorkshire village. Tell us about how your business started...
My career started in catering and as I changed jobs, and began to work more commercially, so wine became a bigger part of my job - my last job was as the Catering Manager at the College of Ripon & York St. John. The more I became involved the more I was invited to tastings, and from that the more I learnt and enjoyed about wine.
About 15 years ago I started York Wines as a very small business venture stroke hobby, with a friend I had met at University. We started by buying wine that we liked, and enjoyed, and then tried to find customers. Friends and relatives at first, and then progressing by personal contact into selling to small businesses and eventually into small shops. There was no 'real' selling involved - more a case of an extension of personal contacts.
How has the business developed in the time you've run it?
After about three years the business was growing fairly well and it was at this point that we moved from our York City terraced house to our present home in Sheriff Hutton village.
I saw the possibilities of extending the business, since we have fairly large premises with lots of storage, a cellar, and a very small shop tucked on the end of the house. On the other hand my wife, Tessa, saw the nice house, big garden and stables - a bonus for my children who had both started horse riding.
Anyway, we got a licence for the shop and opened in a very small way, with very restricted opening hours and selling wine only as a showpiece for our wholesale business. It was at this point the business started to snowball and after a while I found I was doing two full time jobs! So, it was time for change. Tessa got a full time job, I gave up my job at the College and, since I didn't want to work for anyone but myself, I dissolved the partnership. This all sounds fine, but the next few years were very difficult times - a debt for buying out my ex-partner and then the very difficult 'black Wednesday' when our currency effectively devalued. This meant my prices were well out of line and that I was paying higher prices for wines I had already sold!
What are the particular problems or advantages you face as a rural business?
I suppose the biggest problems are distance - in that to gain enough custom to succeed you either have to induce business to come to you or you have to go to them. In the end, to a certain extent, these problems sort themselves out over a period of time.
First of all, by selling a product or service that is different, people will come to you and, secondly, in order to survive you need to diversify. By that I mean sell in any which way you can, which is exactly what we do in our case.
What have been your successes or failures in marketing?
I suppose our biggest failures have been in selling to anybody larger than we currently sell to - so no really big customers - but I feel this is because I will never compromise quality for price. Our success is in providing an individual personal service based on quality.
What plans do you have for the future of the business?
As and when the right opportunities or people arise my preferred area for expansion is to have more York Wines Franchises. These are York Wines Shops owned and run by interested parties from their own, preferably rural premises, with people who have an interest in wine and would like to attach a wine shop and second income to what they currently do.
Last year we also put a lot of work into designing and promoting our website and other people's. Business is slow to come but we will improve and so will the business. So I will devote more time in this area and at the end of the day it is a superb way of presenting your price list.
You mentioned franchising York Wines. Would this be just in Yorkshire or across the country? And what are the plusses of franchising from your point of view?
Initially franchising York Wines is wherever we can logistically supply and control. This does nus ot limit to North Yorkshire but it would be a strain if we extended to Cornwall for instance. I believe most things are possible but do not want to spend all my days delivering; but if a supply route is viable then okay. For York Wines franchising would allow us to expand the business without too much cost and, conversely, allows franchisees their own independance but with some security. From a wine point of view it allows franchisees to buy wine not normally available to them with the protection of an image - York Wines - while running their own business and maintaining independance.
What, if any, assistance have you been able to obtain from government, local, or EC bodies?
Very little. A few years ago I gained some advice from a small business advice centre but found that they were learning from me rather than assisting me. This was the professional advice I had sought in establishing our Franchise Business.
That's not the first time that sentiment has been aired. Can you give us an example of where YOU ended up doing the teaching?
The professional adviser really had no idea about franchises, and I found that with the information I had given. Later I found the Adviser had enrolled on the course I had previously attended. If I had not been careful I would have found myself going on the same course as my Adviser!
Are there any government initiatives that you'd like to see for rural businesses?
I see a continual decline in small shops in rural communities and I feel that more and more small shops and post offices will be forced to sell. The way forward, I feel, is in specialist shops that provide a limited range but of more specialist items. In other words farms selling meat and veg direct, delicatessens specialising in local produce, wine shops with a specialist range and providing a full service (by that I mean sale or return, glasses loan, free delivery, expert advice and so on). These businesses need help in order to be able to provide this service with minimal overheads through things like reduced rates and small business grants.
How do you perceive the general public regards the rural business community?
Lovely to visit when taking a trip to the country, and great to use when they want service, personal advice, and delivery. But when it comes to weekly shopping on a wet Wednesday in January, then thank you very much but I'll travel by car on my way home from work and go to Sainsburys.
What tips or advice do you have for anyone who is thinking of setting up business in the countryside?
Let's see... If you have to borrow money to start - don't. Don't give up your day job until you've established and part-proven your business. Have a product that is special, and will attract the Customer - without advertising. Have a partner who works outside the business and brings in an additional income. Love and enjoy the Countryside, have dogs and horses, buy lots of thick clothing and wellies, and bring your kids up in this environment and you'll have a great life!
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