x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

John Nichols is a man with Vimto and vigour

John Nichols has had a lifetime in soft drink - in his case Vimto, the purple tonic that is particularly popular across the Middle East.

John Nichols is deeply attached to the soft drink Vimto. It has been a part of his life for as long as he can remember.

The tonic, made of a blend of blackcurrant, raspberry and a tightly held secret mix of 29 herbs and spices, is an integral part of his daily routine.

But perhaps that is inevitable when your grandfather was John Noel Nichols, who invented Vimto more than 100 years ago. As a result, Mr Nichols's childhood memories are peppered with visits to the family factory.

"My father used to go into work on Saturdays in those days, back in the mid-to-late '60s, and so there was a fascination," he says on a visit to Dubai. "And in those days my grandfather, who invented the product in the beginning, was still around.

"So I can still remember visiting him and he was still interested in what was going on in the business, even in his early 60s."

Years later, Mr Nichols, now 60 himself, heads Nichols PLC, which has blossomed from humble beginnings as a herbalist store in Manchester, England, into a global company that sells Vimto in more than 60 countries and has a turnover of more than £70 million (Dh415.1m).

It is an impressive track record, especially for someone who had never considered himself a good student and who has had very little formal business education.

Sitting in the Emaar business park offices of Aujan Industries in a grey suit, he has the air of an accomplished but laid-back business executive.

The now non-executive chairman of Nichols still wears the Longines watch he bought in Dubai more than 30 years ago. And no BlackBerry or iPhone for him. He still uses the simple mobile phone he has had for about a decade.

Mr Nichols learnt the ropes the old-fashioned way, from the bottom up.

His first job in the company involved shifting boxes of stock and making deliveries around the Manchester area. Sheikh Adel Aujan, the chairman of Aujan Industries, which has been distributing Vimto in the region for more than 30 years, remembers seeing a young Mr Nichols working the factory floor.

"I was sitting with his uncle, who was in charge of international, and his father Peter, who was in charge of the production and the domestic market," says Sheikh Adel.

"Whenever I would visit, we would take a walk around the plant and I remember seeing him physically loading a truck. And they said 'oh, that's John. Peter's son.'

"And he didn't stop either, he kept going. But if they hadn't have told me that was Peter's son, I wouldn't have known. I thought, that's good. So I made my son do the same thing."

Mr Nichols later went to the University of Leicester and studied chemistry. Was he a good student? "Never," he says with a laugh.

"Now, everybody was amazed that I got my degree. I just enjoyed, as anybody does, student life. Just got to be careful it doesn't go on too long … It was an honest degree, but only just."

Shortly after he graduated, he jumped in at the deep end as the general manager of Nichols, overseeing a switch to a new Vimto factory.

"It was a move to a new building and we put a new production line in," Mr Nichols says. "And while being a bit naive straight from university, I had to employ people and set the production running and have it all up and running before the old factory closed down.

"And then they moved the line in. It was a steep learning curve, that one … it was a terrific experience for me."

From there he worked his way up the corporate ladder, becoming a director and eventually the managing director in 1986. By 1999, Mr Nichols was the chairman.

He says he inherited his knowledge and business savvy from his relatives in the company and other predecessors.

"I didn't have any further sort of business education, so I was learning from my father and his brother and the other directors in the business," he says.

Today the family owns about 30 per cent of Nichols, which went public in 1961. It still has the feel of a family business, with Mr Nichols's sons following in his footsteps, but they do keep in mind outside interests.

"With the whole family shareholding, that does help to make decisions in a way easier but we still have to toe the line and be aware of other shareholders," Mr Nichols says.

"But I think if you have a successful business and it's growing, it's all moving in the right direction, it's amazing how supportive shareholders will be. Especially in the times that we're in at the moment."

Although business has soured for many global companies over the last two years, it has been sweet for Nichols. Consumers the world over have been cutting back on luxuries such as jewellery and designer fashion but snacks and soft drinks remain popular.

And Vimto, originally called Vim Tonic, has a loyal following, particularly in the Middle East where it is seen as a traditional beverage with which to break the day's fast during Ramadan.

Nichols ended last year with group sales of £72.4m, up 29 per cent on the year before. Profit before tax rose 22 per cent to £12.2m compared with 2008.

This year, results so far have continued the trend. The company posted first-half pre-tax profits that were up by 39 per cent on the same period last year, in part because of the earlier holy month this year.

Nichols's global sales for the first six months rose 17.6 per cent to £44.2m from £37.5m in the same period last year. But at 38.6 per cent its international sales rose by more than double that, driven by sales in Africa, Europe and the Middle East.

The region has been a key focus for the company and, as a result, the Nichols family has grown up alongside the Aujan family.

For about 30 years now, Mr Nichols has met Sheikh Adel in the region every year - starting long before today's soaring towers and gleaming shopping centres were commonplace.

"There was more desert than anything. No high-rise buildings, just one or two hotels along the creek. I remember we used to walk down the creek, didn't we?" Mr Nichols says to Sheikh Adel. "And you would see Vimto being put on to the dhows to go abroad to other places."

But on occasion, the old friends enjoy a more leisurely get-together, says Sheikh Adel. "Sometimes we've had an 'emergency meeting' on a tropical island off the coast of Africa," he says.

Their sons also work side by side, he adds.

Mr Nichols is one of just three people who know the full recipe for Vimto. The other two are technical staff who work in the factory that produces the purple cordial. When Nichols stopped producing Vimto itself, in 2003, it went to extreme measures to transport the recipe from the factory to its executive offices, for security and marketing reasons.

It could have been a scene from a James Bond film: Mr Nichols, flanked by security guards, left his office clutching a Vimto-branded briefcase. He placed the case in an armoured van and jumped in an accompanying car. Police officers on motorbikes led the convoy, escorting the van and ensuring its safe arrival at the new site.

The handwritten recipe is still locked away in a safe, Mr Nichols says.

Over the past couple of years, he has started to wind down his role in the company, switching to non-executive chairman in 2007, as his sons James and Matthew begin to take the reins. James looks after some of the marketing and sales in the UK while Matthew focuses on the international arm of the business, mainly in Africa.

While their father always had an inkling he would make a career of selling his grandfather's concoction, he did not ask the same of his children.

"I made a point of not encouraging them," Mr Nichols says. "I thought it was fair for them to see what they wanted to do. And they both came in at different times, and under different circumstances.

"And they seem to be enjoying it, they're working pretty hard. I think their view is, if they are going to work hard, they might as well work hard for something that they can see an end result for."

Mr Nichols now enjoys spending his free time engaging in outdoor pursuits, sailing or walking with his two dogs, George and Harvey.

"When you got a surname like Nichols, you've got to have a Harvey," he says with a smile.

aligaya@thenational.ae