Crisp boss wants 10% of the market

By Nicholas Robinson

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Lay's Asda

Tags Crisps founder John Tague plans to become a snacks magnate
Tags Crisps founder John Tague plans to become a snacks magnate
Founding a brand is easy, John Tague tells Nicholas Robinson, but getting into the multiples is difficult.

Key points

If variety is the spice of life, then Tags Crisps founder John Tague is full of flavour. The 49 year-old’s CV reads like the Yellow Pages, as he’s held around 15 senior positions in various top companies since 1989.

Although he has bags of md and commercial management experience, it hasn't always been food-based. “I started out life wanting to be an electrician, but when I finished my apprenticeship I didn’t like it anymore,” ​he says. “I turned to sales and was fortunate enough to get a position with Rothmans Cigarettes, before moving to Weetabix to work on the ‘Have You Had Your Weetabix’ campaign.”

After jumping between consumables, tobacco and even phone companies for a few years after Weetabix, Tague found his groove in food when a business manager’s role at Jacob’s became available. Following Jacob’s he moved to Disney International as the sales and marketing director, where he was in charge of marketing over £1.3bn worth of branded foods and products in UK supermarkets.

But why and how did Tague end up launching his own crisp brand in 2012? “I landed a job as commercial director at Seabrook Crisps in the Midlands in 2008 and transformed its turnover from £11M to £30M in just three years,”​ he says in his heavy scouse accent.

Gap in the market (Return to top)

Seabrook was established in 1945, and although it already had a good following, Tague spotted a major gap in the market for the crinkle cut crisp brand. “The execution of my plan drove the dramatic shift in turnover. We had a great product and a great brand, but it was surviving as a regional product in regional stores,”​ he explains.

The crinkle cut crisp was relatively novel in 2008 and a variety that the major brands, such as Walkers, had not yet ventured into.

“The plan was to push Seabrook into as many of the major multiples as possible”, ​says Tague. “Morrisons was the first big player to take it national, which gave the other supermarkets the courage to follow.”​ Once in Morrisons, Asda took a “leap of faith”​ at the end of 2008, which pushed Tesco to sell Seabrook from its bigger regional stores up and down the country.

Following Tesco, some of the discounters added Seabrook as a line in their stores, which put £40,000 a week into the business in terms of sales “and the momentum just developed from there”​, he says as he taps the table as if to demonstrate the regular rhythm of the business racking up.

“We picked up 160 Waitrose stores in the south and it just kept coming in. We kept the momentum going by continually investing in the factory to keep it efficient the whole picture just came together.”

His hard work at Seabrook stemmed the company’s decline and earned Tague the position of md. Word of the ambitious turnaround also got out into the wider industry and he was nominated for Food Manufacture's Personality of the Year award in 2011 and won the Yorkshire Post’s Excellence in Business award in 2010.

“So, basically, my time and experience at Seabrook gave me the confidence to push forward with my own brand,”​ he adds.

Similarities with Seabrook (Return to top)

Admittedly, Tague says it would have been easier to launch a new brand four years ago, but he is still ambitious his family enterprise has the legs to stand strong in supermarkets, the same way Seabrook does now.

As a matter of fact, Seabrook and Tags have a lot in common, he says. “Like Seabrook was, we’re popular within our own region, so in and around Liverpool, Wales and a little further out.”

Much of the 160t of Tags crisps sold so far have been from small independent shops and restaurants, such as his wife's Liverpool-based restaurant Pod, which is where Tague agreed to meet for the interview. “Where our product goes it sells – we’ve got over 200 local stores, bars and restaurants stocking it,”​ he says. “We’ve just done a deal to supply crisps to Liverpool’s first outdoor cinema this summer too.”

Van sales will continue to be a big focus for the brand and Tague has plans to boost the number of independent stockists from 200 to 400 and then 1,000 within three years. The business has a projected turnover of £1M this year, £3M the following and then £7M the year after, he claims.

However, Tague won’t be able to grow a multi-million pound business by focusing on the independent sector alone. “That’s true and it’s not our plan to sustain the business in this way,”​ he agrees.

As with the sales model he used at Seabrook, Tague will target the big four supermarkets to grow the brand. But getting into the major multiples this time round isn’t as straightforward as it was in 2008, he admits.

Problem (Return to top)

Part of the problem lies with the major brands already on the shelves, which dominate the £3bn crisp market. Walkers alone holds 56% of the market, presenting brands like Tags with a major problem. “Once you get one listing with a major multiple and go into a number of stores, then your turnover will go up naturally, otherwise the product won't survive.

“But the likes of Walkers are only getting bigger and that's not right,”​ he argues. “There needs to be more variety on the shelves, not only for the customers, but to give entrepreneurs and new brands like mine a chance at the market.”

Ultimately, Tague is waiting for what he calls a “leap of faith​” from one of the major multiples. Yet, Tags has already had a spot on one of the big four’s shelves. “Last year we were in Tesco for the eight weeks leading up to Christmas, but pulled off the shelves afterwards and I don’t know whether we’re going back on.”

Tesco had agreed to trial Tags’s three flavours – premium mature cheddar and red onion, malt vinegar and sea salt, and sweet chilli – over the festive period, giving the brand a fixture in 47 of its stores including Belfast, Devon and Edinburgh.

Retailers (Return to top)

There may have been no news from Tesco after Christmas, but Tague continued to chip away at other retailers and recently landed a test deal with Asda. “It’s part of a initiative called ‘Trade My Deal’ where Asda sees how its customers react to a new product,” he explains. “It’s one way of getting into a major multiple without having to go down the listings route, which can be time-consuming.”

It’s opportunities such as this that keep Tague going, who “honestly thought it would be easier to get into the market. I really did”​. But, he genuinely believes there is an opportunity and market for more crisp brands on the supermarket shelves.

We can compete with the likes of Walkers, I don’t have the overheads and I don't have to answer to the shareholders,”​ he says.

“I want 10% of the crisp market eventually. We’re not scratching that yet, but it’s not unrealistic, we just need that leap of faith.”

Some may call him over ambitious, others just ambitious, but by 2025 Tague believes he will hold 10% of the crisp market. He has a vision that he, his wife Clare and their four children are starting a long-standing new crisp brand that will provide future generations of Tagues – as well as locals – with jobs in the coming years. “Our biggest want is to have the biggest family-owned snack business in the country!”​ he laughs.

However, Tague’s focus has shifted from one project to another in the past, so will Tags be his ultimate job? “No,”​ he blasts. “I’m an entrepreneur and I like to do different things. I’m setting this up because there’s a genuine gap in the market, it’s for my family and their future. I’m still eager to try to do new things.”

Watch our video with Tague​ in which he likened the £3bn crisp market to a battle of David and Goliath and explained why he believes there's enough room for more brands.

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