The right financial leadership has been critical for early-stage companies such as Four Pillars Gin to navigate the economic uncertainty brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Matt Jones, co-founder and Brand Director of Australia’s world-renowned craft gin distillery Four Pillars sat down in the new Four Pillars Laboratory in Sydney’s Surrey Hills to talk to the Sheldon Harris team about how the business navigated the past few months. He reflected on how things could have gone quite differently had Four Pillars not sought out the right financial leadership for the business last year.
Rewind 12 months to their home in Healeville in Melbourne’s Yarra Valley and Four Pillars were selling their range of gins across Australia and into more than 30 countries worldwide, led by their flagship Rare Dry Gin and their iconic Bloody Shiraz Gin. They had also just secured a major strategic partner in Australian brewers Lion, who had seen the potential in the craft gin business. And they were soon to be named International Gin Producer of the Year at the Internal Wine & Spirits Compeition in London. Things couldn’t have been going better.
Matt and his co-founders were reflecting proudly on their achievements to date but knew that to scale the business and ensure sustainable growth they were going to have to add new skills to their existing mix. They recognised that what had got them this far would not alone be enough to take the business to the next level. As Matt would jokingly say, he and his co-founders were the three legs of a stool:
“Cam, Stu and I have been (not entirely inaccurately) referred to as the tinker, the drinker and the thinker. There’s some truth in that. Cameron has been the driving force behind our gin from day one, Stuart has built relationships and opened doors that have created unique opportunities for us, and my job has been to back up the gins and the relationships with a brand and creativity to match.”
But now facing into a more complex world with strong expectations from stakeholders and customers alike to continue to grow and innovate, the Co-Founders recognised that they needed another leg to the stool – a fourth pillar. They needed to add commercial acumen to the business without losing their craft leadership. And while that would necessitate a number of new hires to the Senior Leadership team, at the heart of that challenge was to find the right Finance Director.
The business had built a great brand and was regularly lauded for its innovation. It was selling globally and into leading liquor retailers like Dan Murphy’s nationally. The Healesville Distillery had become a must-visit on any tour in the Yarra Valley. But there were concerns. While revenues were going in the right direction, was it sustainable? Was Four Pillars selling the right product into the right market at the right margins? Moreover, did it have the systems and reporting frameworks to effectively analyse, report and track its performance and ensure its future ambitions (including the Four PIllars Laboratory in Sydney) were secure?
While recognising the need to find the right person, Matt and his co-founders were adamant they wanted Four Pillars to stay true to its craft traditions and not be burdened with unnecessary bureaucracy and process that could stymie creativity and growth of the business. But who to trust with finding the right person? Matt didn’t feel a big global outfit would truly understand the needs of a SME. They needed a partner who in many senses had faced the issues they needed to address and shared their mindset.
“When Andrew and Deb from Sheldon Harris were introduced to us it became immediately apparent that they understood what we were trying to achieve. Working with us they drew together the threads of what we required – a Finance Director who could keep the score while keeping an eye on the horizon, a diplomat who could balance the competing demands of a craft business and would understand what it means to be truly craft-led, and a doer with the commercial acuity to ensure that the deals signed were the right ones and the willingness, as with any SME business, to roll the sleeves up and get things done. Basically, a unicorn.”
With the appointment of Caroline Hodgson as the company’s new Finance Director, her worth was quickly demonstrated. While there were equally well-qualified individuals it was her ability to accept that things were not perfect and to put together a program to implement the right processes, structures and reporting frameworks that made her perfect for Four Pillars. She also quickly recognised that resources were often tight or limited and that she would have to roll her sleeves up and muck in as required, while also working seamlessly with the core finance and operations team that had brilliantly steered Four Pillars to this point, from its start-up days back in 2013.
But her true worth has really been proven over the last four months as Four Pillars stood on the precipice of the pandemic. Like many gin distilleries, Four Pillars quickly pivoted into the production of hand sanitiser and restructured the company cost base to weather the storm.
“Without Caroline’s strong financial leadership through this period we would not be sitting in this Lab today. She put in place the contingencies and buffers and made sure we quickly altered course to survive and that we understood the implications of each decision at every moment. “
Having the right talent at the right time in the right role has proven to be critical.
“But none of this would have been possible if we hadn’t chosen to work with the right partner. Andrew and Deb from Sheldon Harris understood us completely. They recognised that we had limited resources and were even prepared to share in the risk of the appointment. In recognition of their contribution we made a gin together – Sheldon Harris: 2019 Chairman’s Choice. It was a great drop, but I think the 2020 batch will be even better!”
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