Entrepreneurial spirits

James Espey is an entrepreneur, marketing guru, investor and philanthropist who has spent a lifetime in the spirits business. He developed premium whiskies such as Johnnie Walker Blue Label and exotic liqueurs such as Malibu, and launched his own company to market consignments of rare old whisky, port and cognac. We sat down for a conversation with James Espey, in which he distils his wisdom on what it takes to build a brand and a business — and how to recognise the right time to sell.

James Espey was born in Zambia in 1943, the son of a police officer, and educated in South Africa before moving to London in 1977. He started his working life in the Spar grocery chain before moving into the liquor industry, in which he worked for many years for major companies. This included International Distillers & Vintners (IDV), which together with United Distillers, in 1997 merged to become the world’s number one liquor company, Diageo. Afterwards he had a stint working as Chairman of Chivas Bros. During this phase of his career, he had a hand in the development of premium whiskies such as Johnnie Walker Blue Label and Chivas Regal 18 Year Old, as well as original drink concepts such as Bailey’s, the blend of Irish whiskey and cream, and Malibu, the coconut-flavoured rum liqueur.

It tastes like heaven
He recalls the invention and promotion of Malibu as “especially great fun. At the time IDV was a very innovative organisation and the South African subsidiary created a coconut-flavoured drink called Coco Rico.” Espey, as the Global Head of Marketing thought it had worldwide potential. The problem was that South Africa was a ‘pariah country’ under the apartheid regime and with Nelson Mandela in jail. So, Espey and his partner in innovation, Tom Jago, changed the name to Malibu, imported it from South Africa and called it ‘Caribbean style rum’. They then came up with the slogan ‘it comes from paradise and tastes like heaven.’ The rest is history. It now has a major distillery in Barbados and must be worth several billion dollars.

For the past two decades, Espey has been an entrepreneur in his own right, as well as a mentor to others. In 2013, James was awarded an Order of the British Empire for services to the whisky industry. Having also received a lifetime achievement award from his peers, he is particularly proud to have been involved in the creation of The Keepers of the Quaich, a society that honours those who make particular contributions to the world of whisky.

Fashion goes but style stays
An irrepressible communicator, James is the author of Making Your Marque, subtitled ‘100 Tips to Build your Personal Brand and Succeed in Business’. In contrast to most books on management, it is deliberately simple in style, though he says it took him 20 years to write. In essence, it’s a collection of anecdotes and bullet-point memoranda covering every aspect of starting and building a business, from cash flow and brand-building to punctuality and good manners. When you talk to him in person, he soon starts rattling off the kind of aphorisms that fill the book: “I always say it takes twice as long, and twice as much money as you ever thought, to break even… It takes ten years to build a proper brand: ‘fashion goes but style stays forever’. Never forget: turnover is for vanity, profit for sanity but only cash is reality… And if you’re not early, you’re late.”


But his expertise has by no means been limited to the liquor industry and its spin-offs: among the start-up ventures in which he has been strategically involved is Mimecast, a cloud-based email security provider which he chaired for its first six years. Now a global success story with 1,200 staff, it floated on the Nasdaq market in 2016 and is valued at USD 2.5 billion. He has also been a non-executive director of companies ranging from the London brewer Fuller Smith & Turner and the Scottish soft drinks group AG Barr (maker of Irn-Bru) to Church’s Shoes, the classic English brand which he helped sell to Prada in 1999.

His own 100 per cent creation (with long-time business partner Tom Jago) is The Last Drop Distillers, which calls itself ‘the world’s most exclusive spirits company’ and specialises in seeking out and marketing ‘hidden parcels’ of very rare, old whisky, port and cognac. The founders sold The Last Drop to New Orleans-based distiller Sazerac in 2016, but continue to keep an eye on the business, where their daughters Beanie Espey and Rebecca Jago are now at the helm.

Today, James is President of The Shaw Mind Foundation, his last major brand project. The fastest growing mental health charity in the UK, the foundation supports the one in four people in today’s world suffering from mental health issues and aims to significantly reduce suicide globally.

Don’t get greedy
Taking a business from fragile start-up to solid success is very much the theme of Making Your Marque, but Espey also has pithy advice to offer on when and how to sell a company. “Don’t get greedy about price,” he says. “It’s like the share market, you can never call the ‘top’. If you’re nervous about the future, be satisfied when you’ve found a buyer who’ll invest in what you’ve created and can see 20 to 30 years ahead.”


As to investing as an ‘angel’ in other people’s start-ups, “I like to back young people, we’ve got to help the next generation.” He believes the right approach as a manager or investor is always to encourage and delegate rather than interfere too closely: “You have to allow people to express themselves in business.”

Look into their eyes
But when entrepreneurs ask him to help, he knows what he’s looking for. “I look into their eyes, not their balance sheets. I want to know they’re really committed, they’ve got skin in the game, and they’re team players. And I want to understand the vision and the long-term exit strategy. Is there a simple, sustainable path to profit?”

Finally, after more than fifty years in business, James Espey believes you should always leave room for wellbeing: “No one on their deathbed ever said they wish they’d spent more time in the office!”

After developing a groundbreaking innovation and launching a successful start-up to market said product ̶ what’s next? For some entrepreneurs, that itch to innovate and create new business opportunities just never seems to go away. This profile is part of our series ‘Starting up again’, which features serial entrepreneurs who have taken the fruits of their success and have gone on to sow new ventures ̶ long after attracting their first few million in seed capital.

This article was written by Martin Vander Weyer and originally appeared on Julius Baer

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