A Welsh brickie who failed nearly all his GCSEs and was told by his business studies teacher he’d go nowhere is now running a honey business turning over more than £11m a year.
Scott Davies set up Hilltop Honey aged 22 after being laid off as a brickie and has built it into the 26th fastest-growing company in the whole of the UK.
Despite being a “nightmare” in school and ending up bagging coal for a living, Scott now has his honey products in nearly every supermarket in Britain.
It’s not a bad effort for someone who started out by selling jars of honey by knocking on his neighbours’ doors around his home village in Newtown because he “really liked honey”.
But it was a “complete fluke” which set Scott on his way to making millions and he still feels “queasy” when he thinks back to a chance encounter that saw his home start up transformed into a global operation.
Making his naive concept into a business was more out a necessity than anything else, said Scott, now 32, looking back to his teenage self.
“I left school and didn’t really know what to do,” he said.
“I never really thought past tomorrow and I just thought, I’ll do bricklaying, did some construction work and then the credit crunch happened in 2011, pretty much all the work dried up and I ended up in a coal merchants in Newtown just bagging coal and driving a digger round.”
But then a slipped disc in his back left Scott unable to work and even worse, play his beloved rugby. By 22, he’d had everything taken away from him and no one would offer him a job.
Growing up on a sheep farm in Powys, he was a shy boy – he had to get his mum to phone up for his car insurance – and knew he’d never do an office job. A gift of a beehive from his parents proved to be the turning point in his life.
Pushed by his mum, Scott signed up to several half day courses in accounting, marketing and business and ended up writing about a theoretical business plan for selling honey from his few hives.
“Once I’d written it, I jumped straight out the meeting and went to the bank,” said Scott.
“But the bank manager said: ‘Look Scott, you’ve got no business experience. We’ll give you a £5,000 overdraft’.”
Scott can laugh about it now but on that September day in 2011, the 22-year-old Scott had no idea where Hilltop would take him. He had just created his own business and it had become real.
“It’s like having a child on the way – you know it’s there but doesn’t dawn on you until the moment you’re holding your child in your own hands,” said the married dad of one, with another baby due this year.
He cobbled together some branded jars, bought some honey and a few more beehives and headed out selling to his neighbours for £5 a jar.
It was a “soul searching mission” he said.
Collecting honey from local people and using his parents’ house to pack jars by hand, Scott was barely able to make a living, taking around £2,000 a year.
“What I found was a glutton of people happy to sell me honey because they couldn’t be bothered to sell it in jars and I could sell it better,” he said.
“I just started jarring by hand in there – one Christmas, I had seven or eight of my family members all helping me out to cap stuff and label things.
“I turned over £23,000 in first year, £84,000 in the second year and £234,000 in the third – but I was making diddly squat.”
It was hard for the young proud man to swallow: “The negativity started creeping in. I thought: ‘I’m not making any money and I’ve just given three years of my life to this and I’m in my mid-twenties with no salary’. I told myself I had to make it work.”
But then, in the fourth year of his fledgling business, Scott had a lucky break when he made the rash decision to head to London for a four-day Welsh Government trade show. He could only afford one day so picked the Tuesday, paid his £400 and headed down on the train.
“It was so much money, I was late and it was horrible and I was devastated,” said Scott. But then health retailer Holland and Barrett passed his stand and showed some interest in his honey.
Nine months later, they put an order in for 25,000 jars. At that point, Scott was still jarring and labelling everything by hand and his mini production line went into overdrive.
“I spent that next Christmas just putting music on, all day every day, just in there just labelling and jarring,” explained Scott.
“I didn’t want to commit to anything in case they let me down. I thought I’d do it as I was then and if it all paid off, then great.
“If I had chosen any other day they (Holland and Barrett) wouldn’t have come. They were only there one day. Now, saying that, it makes me feel a bit queasy because if I had chosen Sunday or Monday I might not be where I am right now.
“You make your own luck, but it was unbelievable.”
In 2015, Scott turned over £600,000 and he realised he could make some decent money.
“It was four years of pure pain and heartache and absolutely no money,” laughed Scott.
“Any sane person would’ve given up because it was brutal, it was horrible -I had no friends or social life. I didn’t have a plan B, I had to make plan A work. That’s what made me see those four years out – sheer determination, I was hell bent on the fact it was going to work.”
He started employing people and moved into a proper industrial unit and then Tesco came calling.
“I always explain it as starting at the top of hill with a very small snowball,” said Scott about the moment he realised he’d made it.
“When you start pushing it, it’s really hard work at the start because it’s so small and all of a sudden the thing starts picking up momentum by itself and then it becomes a bit easier and then all of a sudden the momentum came in and we got orders with Tesco.”
The once-shy boy tells how he went to Tesco, the biggest retailer in the country, and said to their head buyer: “You’re a British retailer but you’re not selling any British honey – what the hell is that about?”
Scott wasn’t prepared for their response, saying: “T he buyer said I totally agree with you – can you launch these two lines in 500 stores.
“And I went: ‘Oh my days’ but said ‘Yes, 100%’. I went back to my little village and my tiny unit and said ‘Right guys, we’ve got to do an obscene amount of jars for Tesco now.”
That new found confidence was “borne of the surrounding I’d built around myself” said Scott.
On the phone, Scott talks confidently and assertively while at the same time sounding like he doesn’t quite know how he got to be in charge of a business bringing in millions.
He doesn’t think back to the shy uncertain 15-year-old any more, but if he did, he’d tell him: “Carry on believing in yourself, everybody else around you doesn’t see what’s inside your head, nobody else believes your own capabilities.”
“Anyone’s got it in them if they really want to,” continued Scott.
“You’ve just got to have pure 100% unwavering confidence and belief in your own abilities. That’s all I can ever say.
“I wasn’t always like this and I’m not great in massive social circles but you have to remember it’s not about anybody else but just proving it to yourself.
“If I’m not like this then it won’t work. I’d almost say I’m a facade: I have to be what I have to be to make this work and that’s the way it had to be. I’m leading 50 to 60 people and I can’t be quivering in my decision making -I’ve got to lead from the front.
“It’s a confidence thing – once you realise your dreams can come true and what you saw on paper will be real then that instils self-belief.”
He is wary of sounding obnoxious and very much hopes he doesn’t come across like that. It’s the very last thing you would call Scott, who is humble and genuinely more surprised about his own success than anybody else.
“If you listen to every single person’s opinion, you’ll never take that first step forward,” he added.
“If I was to have known the crap I would have to go through to get to here there’s no way in hell I would’ve started it.”
It’s because of the hard-fought battles to get his honey on the shelves of all the major supermarkets that Scott isn’t one for getting nostalgic and patting himself on the back. When he sees his jars while he’s doing his weekly shop, he doesn’t get misty-eyed about his journey.
“If I had woken up one day and someone said: ‘Hey Scott, you’ve got all your products in Tesco’, I would have gone, ‘Oh my days’, but now I just look at it and think: ‘Thank God’. I am proud but also, because it all gets lost in the trenches and the fight for everything, it just has to be there
“It’s not a nicety, its a necessity. It is a nice thought but I’m just not that nostalgic. I don’t look back, I always look forward. I’m never one to celebrate a milestone and just be happy. I start thinking how we can get another line into Tesco. That’s probably the reason why we’re the 26th fastest growing country in UK according to the Sunday Times Fast Track 100 league.”
Being ranked so highly was one of the greatest “wow moments” for Scott since he started his business venture.
“I had always read about these companies,” said Scott.
“To pick it up nine years later from a standing start and a five grand overdraft, you do think how the hell did that happen.”
Scott has little time for bees anymore. Hilltop is the second biggest honey supplier in the UK and sources honey from all over the world. Yet he is far from happy to sit back and enjoy his success and is expanding the business into maple syrup, agave nectar and the beauty industry. And even though he is now able to pay himself more than £2,000 a year, most of the profits are ploughed back into the business.
“I’m so tight it’s unbelievable,” Scott said with a self-deprecating laugh. He admits to having splashed out on a nice electric car, but that’s about it.
“It’s all going back into the business because we’re nowhere near where we can be yet,” he added.
“There’s so much for us still to go at.”