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Thursday, 22 April 2021
VANESSA HEARN and her husband Chris are the founders and owners of the Loddon Brewery in Dunsden Green. She was born and raised in Didcot and is a qualified nursery nurse. She and Chris, who has spent his entire career in brewing, met in the Three Horseshoes pub in Benson and the couple now live in the village. Their two sons both work for the business and one of their two daughters works at the brewery at weekends. Vanessa is a talented crafter and keen gardener. Chris’s hobbies are beer and rugby and despite suffering a serious illness last year, he is still very “hands on” at work.
Describe your business
We are an independent brewery producing six different bottled beers as well as our award-winning craft and keg beers. We have a bottle shop which also stocks a huge variety of local produce and a taproom bar with plenty of outdoor seating serving our beers and tea, hot chocolate and cakes, which attracts lots of walkers and cyclists, especially at weekends. We supply establishments throughout the Chilterns and the Cotswolds, Surrey, Hampshire and Wiltshire and offer a home delivery service.
How many people does it employ?
Seven full-time employees and six who work part-time in the busy times of the year.
What did you do before you started this business?
I worked for a local costumier, repairing and altering costumes for TV and film. After Chris and I married and had children, I would nurse at night. Once they were all in school I worked at a nursery and then as a painter and decorator as we set up the business. Chris worked as a brewer for Brakspear in Henley for many years and then for a couple of other breweries in sales.
When did you start your business?
We leased the premises, which is part of the beautiful Phillimore Estate, in 2002. It was a semi-derelict barn and we spent a year preparing everything. We produced our first beer in July 2003. Lord Phillimore has given us incredible support throughout our journey.
What was your objective?
To fulfil a long-held dream to run a successful business and produce a really good beer. Brakspear pulling out of brewing in Henley was a factor too.
Who or what influenced you?
Stephen Brown, who was a head brewer at Brakspear with Chris and part of our team from 2002 to 2018. The then government made a significant change to small beer duty rates, which made the project more viable.
Do you have a mentor or role model?
Chris’s dad, who had a successful career in the pharmaceutical industry, gave us valuable help in developing our business plan.
What would you do differently if you could start again?
A year ago, I would have said that we should have built a bespoke industrial unit but this year we have been so fortunate to be on a beautiful farm with lots of outside space on a popular walking route.
What impact is the coronavirus pandemic having on your business?
At first we had to close and furlough all the staff except me and Chris. We were only able to keep home delivery going but that did help our cash flow. When we were allowed to re-open on July 4 we were incredibly busy in the shop and taproom and it has been the same every weekend since. However, the substantial part of our business is supplying beer to pubs and clubs and that has been severely hit.
Do you compare on a regular basis?
Historically we review performance and set targets on a monthly basis but at the moment it’s week to week.
How do you market your business?
Social media and old media, using specific magazine advertising, newsletters and leaflet drops. Word of mouth brings us lots of new customers.
What’s the best thing about running your own business?
Self-determination, being our own boss and having the satisfaction of happy customers.
How important are online sales?
More than ever. We are currently building a new website.
What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned?
How important it is to maintain consistency of product — beer is only as good as our last batch. And paying attention to trends as the market changes constantly.
What advice would you offer someone starting a business?
Have a watertight plan and ensure you have experience and expertise in your chosen market as well as passion.
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made?
We were too slow to spot and react to the emergence of craft beers and micro-breweries about 10 years ago and it took us time to catch up.
What three qualities are most important to success?
Determination, knowing how to develop quality products and being willing to accept criticism and listen to feedback.
What’s the secret of your success?
Hiring the right people, hard work and passion.
How organised are you?
How do you dress for work each day?
We all go smart casual.
What can’t you be without every day?
Coffee and the camaraderie we have here.
Lunch at your desk or going out?
My desk, although that’s not ideal.
Do you continue to study?
I had to learn how to do book-keeping when we started and now I need to keep up with market trends.
What do you read?
When on holiday I can devour eight books in two weeks, mainly period drama. The rest of the year I read newspapers, including the Henley Standard, which is a great asset.
How are you planning for retirement?
Because our sons are in the business we will eventually be able to step back.
02 November 2020
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