As his taxi lurched to a halt on the road near the Rwandan border, the young British passenger felt a surge of fear.
The car was surrounded by local militias brandishing a rocket-launcher. Then he felt the muzzle of an AK-47 against his temple.
Tim Warrillow, then 33, was a long way from his safe, middle-class existence in London.
Warrillow was not a mercenary or an aid worker. He was — and still is — a businessman, braving one of the most dangerous parts of Africa in search of Cinchona tree bark, a source of quinine. He needed more of the highest quality quinine to expand sales of the tonic water he’d developed with his business partner.
On that heart-stopping day back in 2008, he was no doubt rueing the fact that this prized ingredient was only to be found on a plantation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, one of the most lawless places on the planet.
Sparkling success: Tim Warrilow, left, and Charles Rolls toast Fever-Tree
Fortunately, the taxi driver kept his cool. He wound his window down a fraction and shoved a handful of notes through. The militias waved them on their way. ‘It was certainly quite an experience,’ Warrillow said.
And it was worth it. His quest for Congolese quinine is just one chapter in a remarkable story of how two men spotted an opportunity for upmarket tonic water that would shove market leaders, Schweppes and Britvic, off the shelves.
The company Warrillow set up with Charles Rolls — called Fever-Tree after the anti-malarial properties of the Cinchona bark — has made them both stupendously rich. Recently Rolls, a craggily handsome 59-year-old, cashed in £73 million of shares — but has £225 million left. Warrillow, 42, has £135 million worth of shares.
These figures may be head-spinning. But rather than grasping for the gin bottle in a fit of jealousy, we should raise a glass to the men who’ve made millions from middle- class mixers. For their achievements show the British entrepreneurial spirit is still bubbling irrepressibly. And despite their vast wealth, Rolls and Warrillow keep a low profile, fighting shy of any shred of ostentation.
Neither man is likely to be found on a yacht in Monte Carlo or on a neighbouring sun-lounger to the likes of Sir Philip Green in Barbados’s Sandy Lane Hotel.
These dedicated family men continue in a similar, comfortable lifestyle they enjoyed before Fever-Tree, not too far removed from many of their customers.
Warrillow, who lives in Putney, South-West London, has been on a break with wife Gemma and their four sons. As chief executive, his pay packet last year was £725,000 — a whopping sum, yes, but small by City standards.
Indeed, he was earning substantially less until Fever-Tree brought in salary consultants last year to overhaul bosses’ packages because they were considered too small.
As chief executive Mr Warrilow’s pay packet last year was £725,000
Rolls is cutting back on his four days a week as deputy chairman to take on a greater advisory role, giving him more time with his Canadian-born wife Jans, 52, at their waterfront home, with pool and tennis court, near Chichester.
The couple, who have four children, bought the home in 2002 for less than £700,000. Today, similar homes nearby fetch £2 million to £3 million.
Rolls has a couple of planes — a Piper Seneca V and a £1.4 million aircraft, owned through a limited liability partnership, according to corporate research group DueDil.
Jans, daughter of businessman, adventurer and philanthropist Sir Christopher Ondaatje and niece of Michael Ondaatje, who wrote The English Patient, is a cookery writer. Her latest book, The Bloomsbury Cookbook, is on the kitchen habits of Virginia Woolf and her coterie.
Rolls and Warrillow deserve their success, as what they have done is quite extraordinary. They have re-invented tonic water, once monopolised by big labels, and created a quintessential British brand, rather like the Mini or the Burberry trenchcoat. It’s an unlikely success story, all the more improbable as the two men were strangers when they had their first business meeting 14 years ago.
Warrillow, then an aspiring advertising executive, had sought out Rolls for advice on a possible gin venture. Within hours of sipping their first coffee in a London cafe, Rolls had convinced him the money was to be made reinventing tonic, not gin, and the pair agreed to start a company.
The recipe they developed made their tonic a hit with everyone from hipsters to housewives, despite costing around one-and-a-half times as much as an ordinary tonic water. A pack of four 200ml bottles from Ocado, for example, costs £3, in contrast with 12 150ml mini-cans of Schweppes, on sale for £4.
As well as quinine from Eastern Congo, Fever-Tree uses exotic elements including ginger from the Ivory Coast, South American angostura bark in its pink tonic, and lemon extract from Sicily.
But when Rolls and Warrillow started up, few thought they could compete with those long-established players. The iconic ‘Schhh . . . You Know Who’ advertisements for Schweppes, for example, starring William Franklyn, which ran from 1965 to 1973, are part of TV history.
Fever-Tree has also been a hit on the stock market since it floated in 2014
Rolls might well be still pinching himself over his mega-millionaire status, because there were few inklings of it in his early career. In the first few years after university, he bounced from job to job.
Brought up in Hampstead in North-West London, he studied engineering at Imperial College. He tried his hand at a mining firm in South Africa, working for a concrete manufacturer in Cornwall, and studying business at elite French business school Insead.
A foray into entrepreneurship in the Nineties selling exercise cycles called Rockabikes failed.
At 35, he was invited by a former colleague to become managing director of Plymouth Gin, then ailing. He sank his savings into it and turned it around, before selling it to the then owners of Absolut Vodka for £28 million.
It was his first big business win — and, more importantly, got him thinking there was a gap in the market for nicer-tasting tonic. ‘We would mix [gin] with Schweppes tonic and all you could taste was the Schweppes,’ he said.
‘The tonic is three-quarters of a drink and it was clear to me that there was a need for a really different tonic water that would enhance, rather than mask, all the flavours of these great gins.’
It took Rolls and Warrillow 18 months of scouring the globe for the best ingredients and laboriously testing out recipes.
But the diligence paid off. Within its first six months, Fever-Tree tonic was on shelves at Waitrose, a feat many companies slave for years to attain. Soon, it was being stocked at other upmarket emporia such as Fortnum & Mason, Harvey Nichols and Harrods.
Sainsbury’s and Tesco came after, followed by drinks trolleys at British Airways and easyJet. Another milestone was reached in 2005, when late pop artist Richard Hamilton, who became a devotee, sent a sample to his super-chef friend Ferran Adria. He put it in a sorbet — ‘Sopa de Fever-Tree Tonica’ — at world-famous elBulli restaurant, near Barcelona.
With that, the brand was thrust into the Spanish market, where ‘gin-tonic’ is a national obsession, setting it on the road to becoming a fully-fledged exporter.
More than half of Fever-Tree’s sales are now overseas, including the U.S. and throughout Europe.
Fever-Tree took Rolls and Warrillow 18 months of scouring the globe for the best ingredients and laboriously testing out recipes
Fever-Tree has also been a hit on the stock market since it floated in 2014, with its shares rising by a gravity-defying 900 per cent in the three years they’ve been trading.
Now it’s selling £100 million of mixers a year, and making healthy profits. But there’s a killjoy at every party, and some experts think this showing is too good to keep up for much longer.
‘I think they had a very good idea and a product that has grown amazingly, but the shares have gone up way beyond their realistic value,’ says stockbroker Justin Urquhart-Stewart of Seven Investment Management.
Who knows what the future holds. But many City observers suspect a global drinks giant such as Diageo may be tempted to buy the company. That would deliver its founders even more millions if they were prepared to sell out.
In the meantime, the cute Fever-Tree bottles continue to rack up huge sales overseas, and win new fans. Just the sort of great British business to keep the economy — and G&T lovers — in high spirits.