What happened next?

What happened after two former clients turned to Shaw & Co to save an award winning brand of rum?

After selling the recruitment business they built from scratch, Gloucestershire entrepreneurs James Strickland and Raymond Pugh came back to Shaw & Co to help them save a world-class rum brand from administration.

5 minutes
October 14, 2020
Paul Mills
Tim Gander Photography

James Strickland, Co-owner at Neptune Rum

Success in business often depends upon the ability to move quickly and decisively.

That was certainly the case earlier this year when COVID-19 forced Cheltenham-based Neptune Rum into administration. Local entrepreneurs James and Ray quickly stepped in to take over the ailing business, but their motivation went beyond the financial aspects. “It is a fantastic product that we believe in passionately,” explains James.

In fact it is the world’s most awarded rum for 2018/2019, with accolades including Best British Rum Brand, Best Barbados Rum, and Gold at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Distilled a long way from Cheltenham in Barbados, Neptune Rum is served at popular and prestigious watering holes across the country, as well as sold off- premises. Created using only the best and most natural ingredients and processes, it lives up to the Neptune Rum tagline, ‘We only do exceptional’. That commitment also applies to the environment, with the company involved in a number of unique projects actively reducing ocean pollution. But more on that later.

Image credit - Neptune Rum

Let’s first go back to 1998 when James and Ray, then in their twenties, started their own recruitment business. Their hard work over the years paid dividends and by 2018 they were leading Passionate About People, a company with £100m plus turnover. What was the secret to their success? “Trust and energy are really important and, having worked together as a team for so long, we can always rely on each other,” explains Ray. The pair also complement each other well, with James focusing on accounts and strategy while Ray devotes more time to operations and technology.

By 2018 the Passionate About People management team were ready to plan their exit and began visiting corporate advisers to see who could help them get the best deal. That was how they first met the team at Shaw & Co. Ray explains: “Jim Shaw is relentlessly passionate about being in the DNA of the business and we instantly gelled.”

“Once Neptune came on the radar, we asked Shaw & Co to help us again”

Working with the team at Shaw & Co, they devised a strategy to maximise value by making not one but two trade sales. Firstly, Passionate about People sold off its specialist engineering services recruitment division to US-based global engineering group Belcan LLC. Then the remaining businesses found a willing buyer in major UK recruitment and training group Staffline PLC. “Shaw & Co negotiated the best possible deal for the founders, despite some saying it would not be possible”, adds James.

With the exit done and dusted by the end of 2018, Ray and James were soon thinking about their next venture. James had some early experience in the drinks trade and was attracted to local brand Neptune Rum. “We’d enjoyed working with Jim and the team, so once Neptune Rum came on the radar, we asked Shaw & Co to help us again”, says James. And Ray adds: “They did an excellent job for us as we bought the company out of administration.”

So, after less than 12 weeks back in the hot seat, what do they like most about being business owners again? “It’s the flexibility to run things the way you want, supporting staff and charitable causes”, says James, adding that they have been able to bring former colleagues into the Neptune Rum fold as they put their plans into action. “There’s nothing more rewarding than building a business,” concludes Ray.

Raymond Pugh (left) and James Strickland | Image credit - Neptune Rum

The course of business rarely runs smooth, however, so what are the biggest challenges for owners? “There is always so much to do, from sales and marketing to strategy and accounts, with a constant pressure to be better and work harder,” explains Ray. James adds that one frustration is the way that smaller companies can sometimes be restricted by the attitudes of larger ones. “No matter how great your product or service, large corporates may not allow you into the supply chain, restricting your opportunities to grow.” Neither mention COVID-19 as their biggest challenge, perhaps because sales of Neptune Rum have picked up strongly since the Eat Out to Help Out scheme brought the public back to bars and restaurants, while off-premises sales continue to tick over nicely.

With a wealth of experience behind them, what advice would they pass on to someone starting a business today? “Cash flow is the number one priority and it’s vital to make sure your forecasting is bang on,” replies James. Ray adds that having a roadmap of what you want to achieve is crucial, so “produce a clear plan and stick to it.”

“We want to create a global brand and we want people to like our story and what it can do for our oceans”

Their plans for Neptune Rum are certainly clear. “We want to create a global brand and we want people to like our story and what it can do for our oceans,” they explain. Neptune was, of course, God of the sea, and the rum uses only the most sustainable ingredients and methods, so the connection is evident. But James and Ray are taking their commitment further through the Guardians of the Ocean Foundation. Neptune Rum uses this fund to support charities and initiatives that meet their mission, which is ‘To protect the ocean and waterways from pollution, particularly plastic, and to clean up the shores and coastline of litter’.

That is exactly what they are currently doing in partnership with environmental charity Our Only World in an ambitious project designed to have a major impact on Cornwall’s beautiful coastline. The aim is to reduce the number of plastic water bottles discarded by visitors during Britain’s increasingly sweltering summers. The project brings lateral thinking to this problem, installing refill stations in the Cornwall coastal locations of Rock and Polzeath so that bottles can be refilled rather than used once and thrown away. The 30,000 litres of water drawn so far off from these taps means that an estimated 60,000 fewer plastic bottles have been used and discarded across these two beaches alone. With around six million tourists visiting Cornwall during peak season, the plan is to extend this scheme further and keep our coastlines clean.

Whether it’s environmental sustainability, business planning or eight-year-aged rum, James and Ray are clearly thinking long term. Something we can all raise a glass to.

About Neptune Rum

Neptune Rum was founded in 2017 in Cheltenham, UK with the aim of producing truly exceptional quality rums and spirits. Inspired by the Roman God Neptune, god of water and seas, and with a passion for rum, quality and the world’s oceans, Neptune Rum was born.

Neptune Rum Barbados Gold was the first rum created, and due to its focus on exceptional quality it soon became the world’s most awarded rum of 2018 and 2019 and earning it’s place amongst the world’s greatest rums.

Neptune Rum is focused on sustainably producing the highest quality natural rums and drinks, and supporting the clean-up of the world’s oceans.

To find out more about Neptune Rum, visit www.neptunerum.com.

Paul Mills
Chief Marketing Officer
Paul Mills
's bio

Neptune Rum was recognised as the worlds’ most awarded rum of 2018/19, winning Best British rum brand and best Barbados rum. But when it went into administration, a former client asked us to help him save the business.

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