Published on July 10, 2019 | by Alastair Gilmour0
From front room to front line
One of the country’s most efficient drinks businesses is based in the region. Alastair Gilmour takes a look
A business that started out in a County Durham front room is now posting a turnover of nearly £82m. Tony and Veronica Cleary sat down at home in 1980 and founded Lanchester Wines. It grew into an office in Lanchester, then a bigger one, then a bonded warehouse then a bigger bonded warehouse.
The Lanchester group of companies – still privately-owned – now comprises wine businesses, gifts and hampers, luxury confectionary, green energy, bottling and property management, with headquarters in Annfield Plain.
Where there once was a unit with a corrugated iron roof that leaked like a sieve, an array of solar panels produces enough clean electricity to cover day-to-day use.
Tony Cleary points to four massive wind turbines on the 440,000sq ft industrial site near Stanley producing an annual 5.5 million kilowatt hours of clean, renewable energy to run a massive bottling plant (soon to be overtaken by an even more ambitious one). Heat pump technology uses water from disused mines that could change the way energy is captured worldwide, plus a cutting-edge project that will use wine to heat the new £20m bottling facility equates to a mind-blowing achievement and indicates a real drive for positive change.
It looks like a breeze on paper but when Tony Cleary talks through the story of his working life, it all seems to fall into place. He is such a character that you’re scooped up with his enthusiasm and made to realise there are people around who can do things you never thought possible. He brings out positivity in others.
Tony’s early career has obviously had a tremendous influence on him, stirring a curiosity about how people operate and how business works. It’s a lesson in tenacity and the ability to be inspired by contemporaries which, in doing so, inspires others.
And another thing, employ people who are smarter than you and give them enough scope to get on with the job you hired them for in the first place.
“You’ve got to bring people along with you,” says Tony “I started my career at Whitbreads Brewery in Castle Eden in 1971 which produced Nimmos (Pale Ale). I went for an interview for a rep’s job that involved dealing with working men’s clubs. Harry Moffat, who was interviewing me, must have seen something and said, ‘with the greatest respect, you seem a nice young chap but you’ll get eaten alive’.
“I said ‘I can stand up for myself you know’. He said, ‘I’m going to ring you up in a month’s time and bring you back’. He wouldn’t tell me why.
“As good as his word, he came on the phone and said ‘we’ve got a job for you’. It shows you how long ago it was – they were just about to bring out Heineken in cans. The job involved selling to supermarkets and the off-trade. At that time you could approach individual stores like the Co-op; the managers all had autonomy in those days, you could negotiate a price. I was there for three years and went through the ranks.”
Then came a spell with Domecq Sherry, following that, United Rum – who hadn’t advertised a position but advised him to apply – said “we want somebody we like”. “It was the most peculiar interview,” says Tony. “I think I said yes about six times and that was it. They said, ‘you’ve got the job’. Domecq was one of the top spirits companies back in the day and I was there for seven years. I enjoyed it, it was a great job. I even had to have special insurance for the company car as I was only 21.”
Then a new boss came in and it quickly became clear he didn’t know anything about the business, and not a nice character, by all accounts.
Tony says: “Ten of us left within a matter of six months. That was at the time where you could just walk into another job, but it pushed me into starting up my own business. I always wanted to have a go on my own anyway. We started up Lanchester Wines in 1980 literally in the front room of our house.”
It wasn’t plain sailing; he had brought two people into the business which over a period proved to be a drain on resources and not what you want in a fledgling company.
But if the Clearys of them hadn’t gone through that experience, would he now be talking about 100,000 solar panels on a 300-metre by 60-metre roof and collaborating with global companies to develop more efficient batteries for storing electricity?
Would the most modern wine bottling facility in Europe – if not the world – with an unsurpassed reputation for quality, have been developed in County Durham?
Could they have been able to invest £4.5m in three new wind turbines and on-site substations, which now provide the vast majority of electrical power for the site, with any surplus fed into the National Grid?
Would they have been able to lure Julian Critchlow, the director general for energy transformation and clean growth at the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), out of London at the first time of asking to observe the advances made at Stanley?
“These things normally take a few months to organise,” says Tony, “but he came straight away. I think it was from the sustainability point. He was really keen on supporting us. His way of seeing it was that what you guys are doing, everybody should be doing. County Durham Council are really good too, they’ll anything to do to help in growing businesses and making things stronger.
“Our investments have been substantial, using the best materials and taking our time to do it right. We’re a family business looking to the future so it’s imperative we do things once and do them well.
“We believe that being carbon neutral is just the beginning. The group will continue to produce more clean renewable energy than we use, which we believe makes us carbon minus.
“As a business, we continue to make choices about our long-term sustainability which go above and beyond both legislation and common practice.
“As a privately-owned, family business, employing 400 people we are in a largely unique position which enables us to experiment and take risks in order to find new solutions, and we want others to emulate our successes. We believe what is good for the environment is good for us all.”
Tony Cleary might have been taken aback when told all these years ago that working men’s club committees would eat him alive, but the attitude that says, “I can look after myself, you know” has stood him and his family in good stead.
He describes the director general for energy transformation and clean growth at BEIS as “a very, very smart lad”. It takes one to know one.
THE LANCHESTER GROUP
The Lanchester Group comprises Lanchester Wine Cellars (including Lanchester Gifts), Greencroft Bottling Company, Lanchester Energy, Lanchester Properties, Spicers of Hythe, The Wine Fusion, and Bon Bons luxury confectionary business.
The company operates eight sites across the UK spanning the North East, North West, Yorkshire, London and the South Coast, including 920,000 ft2 (285,500m2) of bonded warehouse capacity.