The CA at the helm of the UK’s largest independent cider maker
James Ellis CA, Finance Director of Aston Manor Cider, speaks to CA magazine about joining his family cider firm and the future of the industry.
James Ellis CA is the Finance Director at Aston Manor Cider, based on the outskirts of Birmingham, although as he puts it: “I don’t always think of myself as just a Finance Director.”
His role at Aston Manor, the UK’s largest independent cider maker, encompasses strategy, IT and overseeing a range of support services within the business, as well as leading the finance team.
An added factor is that Aston Manor is a family-owned business, founded by James' grandfather Doug – who is a former chairman of Aston Villa FC – and father Peter, who is now the company’s executive chairman.
From Big Four to cider firm
Despite the family connection, it was not a foregone conclusion that James would end up at Aston Manor.
He trained as a CA with EY in Birmingham, subsequently spending three years with software house Misys. He then moved to KPMG in London, working in an advisory role for financial services clients.
At the age of 30, James recalls: “I had reached a crossroads. I was looking for the next step, and at the same time my father was looking to do a little less, and Aston Manor was beginning to rocket.”
Aston Manor Cider, formerly named Aston Manor Brewery, began as a beer producer but started making cider in 1996. It now exclusively produces cider and trades as Aston Manor Cider.
The business has a broad product portfolio covering most occasions and consumer types, and produces value, mainstream and premium cider, including Frosty Jack’s, Kingstone Press and Knights.
Aston Manor is also the leading producer of own-label cider for retailers and is looking to expand into the on-trade sector.
Managing rapid growth
By the time James joined as FD, in 2009, the company was turning over around £45m and, since then, turnover has risen to £128m. It’s been a success story in a sector in which overall market volumes have been declining but, as James stresses, rapid growth brings its own challenges.
Our counterparts in other businesses simply cannot do the same, on account of having to wade through months of corporate and bureaucratic treacle to get to the same decision.
A key part of his role as FD is to ensure that the company’s information and control systems are fit for purpose.
As he puts it: “Previously we had no infrastructure; we didn’t have good control systems. This is where having different skill sets within a business comes into its own; I was able to help take some of the risk and volatility out of it.”
One of the key steps was to commission and install an SAP (systems applications and products) management information system. James says: “From the point when we appointed an SAP partner, we went live nine months later, with relatively few hitches. That was one of my proudest moments.
“It reflected the togetherness of our staff and their willingness to participate. It was a huge testimony to the wider ‘family’ ethos of the business, not just the Ellis family but the Aston Manor family.”
In 2011 the management team was joined by Gordon Johncox, who came in as Managing Director.
James says: “He’s a great guy and we work very well together. It’s good to have that external sounding board, and even more important to have the right person. Gordon brought in significant industry knowledge, having operated in this sector at the highest level for many years.
“The reason it works for us is that we both bring something to the table, we have complementary skills, and together we are able to make the right decisions quickly. Our counterparts in other businesses simply cannot do the same, on account of having to wade through months of corporate and bureaucratic treacle to get to the same decision.”
Investing in the future
James believes the fact that Aston Manor is a family business with just two shareholders gives staff a greater degree of confidence in the long-term strategy of the operation.
The company is certainly investing for the future, with capital expenditure of £30m over the past five years to increase capacity and capability across the business. This includes a new apple mill, upgrading the lorry fleet and a new HQ and distribution centre. Its flagship cider, Kingstone Press, is also sponsoring England Rugby League and the outdoor endurance challenge, Tough Mudder.
Its long-term vision is also demonstrated in a series of 25-year contracts with farmers to grow apple trees over 1,000 acres of new orchards in Herefordshire and Worcestershire to secure future supply for the business.
Very conservatively, the contracts to the farmers will be worth more than £50m over the term they are in force.
James says: “It is a massive investment in the rural economy and it bridges generations. I have met every farmer personally, and their families. It’s been very much a family affair.”
This article was first featured in the February 2017 edition of CA magazine.