Nick Sprague is an entrepreneur at heart. This can be seen in his previous career: He finished school at the age of 16 and joined the army, where he learned a lot about teamwork and self-discipline, as he tells it. After six years, he left the military and started his first operation – printing catalogs for supermarkets and delivering on order. He then opened a shoe polishing stand in the London subway, which he soon expanded to several stations with employees. Finally he returned to the food industry, worked as a salesman for frozen vegetables and at another company for fruit. He traveled around the world, visiting farmers and production companies in South America, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. Finally, with his knowledge of the raw materials and the market, he founded the company Cobell together with his wife Ali in 1999. The company name stems from the names of his two children: Jacob and Gabriella.
“It all sounds a bit jumbled, but every step of the way has helped me to understand the business in all its facets,” says Nick Sprague, sitting in the Cobell meeting room in Exeter (southwest England) with a ginger soda. He looks at the bottle and thinks briefly. “And you can’t argue with success,” he says with a laugh. The 50-year-old has played a key role in Cobell’s success. In just 18 years, he built up the company – without any missteps or declines – from GBP 1.75 million in annual sales in the first year to about GBP 60 million today with nearly 60 employees. He has accomplished this together with his colleagues and friends David Pearce, Graham Holland and Ian Taylor, who joined the company as equal partners over the years. In the early years, they could be found doing tasks like cleaning the beverage mixing tanks.
“We always delivered exactly what the client needed, in every conceivable mixture, right on time.”
“We come from a market share of under 1 % and are now all of a sudden the market leader in juices and purees.”
Head of Symrise UK
This dedication to the job is a key to the company’s success along with several other factors: innovation, in-depth knowledge of the raw materials and good access to the UK markets. Right from the start, the company stood out with a clever idea that raised the level of service in the industry to new heights. Sprague had observed that expensive products would regularly be wasted at his old company, which imported juices from all over the world. Why? “For instance, some customers needed exactly 177 liters of lemon juice for their recipes. But the juice was only available in containers of 200 liters. These customers did not want the excess juice, nor did they want to pay for it.”
Entrepreneurship and a love of experimentation
Sprague had the idea, with Cobell, of calculating and supplying the exact quantities of juices and purees that were needed. He would then sell the remaining materials in smaller containers. “We always delivered exactly what the client needed, in every conceivable mixture, right on time.” On top of that, Cobell produced customized containers or bags for its clients. “We always tried to be flexible and versatile in producing the perfect product for the requirements.” This also included delivering on weekends or carrying specialties, which no one else offered. “This allowed us to occupy a niche,” recalls Sprague.
Another clever aspect of the fast-growing company: “We regularly challenged our customers to try out new compositions and recipes. This brought us very close to them.” And thereby supplied a strong reason for Symrise to purchase Cobell. “We are a good match because we share the same mindset on entrepreneurship and a love of experimentation,” explains Nick Sprague.
Sitting across from him is Nick Russell. “That’s true, and this was a key reason why we were always happy to work with Cobell,” says the Head of Symrise UK, who can name a number of reasons why the acquisition makes sense. The sales potential for the beverage ingredients that Cobell and Symrise can jointly supply – including vegetable and fruit juices, concentrates, extracts, flavors, colors and taste-balance solutions – is vast. “Symrise has a lot of room for growth here,” says Nick Russell. “We come from a market share of under 1 % and are now all of a sudden the market leader in juices and purees.” But the numbers alone are not the only thing for the manager, who has been working in the industry for 30 years. “Consumers expect natural ingredients more and more, for example in their soft drinks. With Cobell, we have access to a whole range of sustainable suppliers around the world whose products we can purchase transparently and with high traceability.” The same applies to the other end of the value chain. “Cobell has very good customer relationships in the UK, which we can now share,” says Russell.
With the help of Cobell, we intend to sell more valuable products such as natural flavors, food colorings and extracts in the UK and thereby also strengthen our market position.Dirk Bennwitz, Head of Flavors EAME
Dirk Bennwitz is similarly pleased with the move. As Head of Flavors EAME (which also includes the UK) at Symrise, he points to the synergy effects arising from the acquisition. “In Purchasing, for example, we have already been able to save a significant amount of money within three months simply by utilizing each other’s contacts. As we merge the two companies, we are forming a new team out of all the colleagues that will be even more effective than before.”
However, one of the main benefits for him is the innovative synergy between the two companies, which have become stronger together. “The deep production and composition know-how as well as the raw material expertise that both companies possess will lead to even better products that we can present to our customers,” says Bennwitz. Higher sales are not the only priority here: “With the help of Cobell, we intend to sell more valuable products such as natural flavors, food colorings and extracts in the UK and thereby also strengthen our market position.”
Innovations that fit the market
Raw material procurement, development and sales are bundled at Cobell, explains Bennwitz. “Symrise will contribute production technologies and the entire flavor and taste balance portfolio. In this way, we can address topics like sugar reduction, which is becoming increasingly important in the UK.” Additionally, some standardized complete solutions should be implemented – for example, for flavored water, fruit-based soft drinks, colas, instant drinks, smoothies and alcoholic beverages.
The highly diversified British market is occupied by 20 groups and 500 smaller companies…
… These are regularly joined by start-ups with new beverage concepts.
Speed is key when it comes to launching new beverage concepts.
Innovations that fit the market are a guarantee for success anywhere in the world. On the island, however, they are particularly important. In the UK, major supermarket chains and bottlers are the main market drivers. They have their own departments that develop products and therefore help shape trends. “Speed is crucial here. Sometimes we have less than three days to introduce a new beverage concept,” says Nick Russell. “Together with Cobell, we can take a new step forward in the market with all the beverage concepts that Symrise can offer and that satisfy the tastes of the British.”
Nick Sprague knows these tastes well. That’s why he tries to impress beverage manufacturers with as many good ideas as possible. “We don’t wait for anyone to approach us. We take action on our own initiative,” explains Sprague, while walking across the parking lot to a colorfully decorated van. The slogan “Decoding drinks, crafting desire” stands alongside the Cobell and Symrise logos as well as drawings of various fruits. “We have been presenting the shared ideas of Symrise and Cobell this way since the first day of our collaboration,” says Sprague. “It has been very well received and places our know-how right where it belongs: With the customer, who can try our innovations directly.”