Meet the boss of Boost Drinks who is investing millions as the brand celebrates 20 years

Twenty years after founding energy drinks firm Boost Drinks, Simon Gray is investing millions in revamping the brand to prepare for further growth, writes Lizzie Murphy.

Simon Gray, CEO of Boost Drinks

England may have lost Euro 2020, but the feelgood factor that Gareth Southgate and his team have delivered over the last few weeks has been good for business.

The sense of optimism combined with warm weather has helped Simon Gray’s energy drinks business.

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The self-styled ‘chief energising officer’ of Boost Drinks says: “We find there’s an uplift when there’s a feelgood factor in the country but the biggest uplift tends to come from the weather. The two together at this time of year, especially after what we’ve been through recently in terms of lockdown, will create a nice bounce.”

Recent figures showed that spending on energy drinks rose 13 per cent to £353m in the 12 months to March 2021. Experts suggest anxiety during the pandemic has caused sleep loss, with caffeine seen as a solution to tiredness.

Leeds-based Boost Drinks, which employs 34 staff, focuses on selling products through convenience stores and off-licenses, which paid off as people shopped locally during lockdowns.

“We weren’t seeing the traditional uplift through people commuting or doing sports but it was coming in through other areas as people were working from home and working harder than ever and home schooling at the same time,” Gray says.

Keeping on top of the supply chain and making sure products continue to be available has been key over the last 16 months. Luckily manufacturing, which is done in the UK, Eastern Europe, Belgium and Germany, hasn’t been interrupted.

Embracing technology at a time when travel is difficult has helped the business stay on track.

“As we come out of the pandemic, we need to keep all the best bits of working differently while at the same time getting back into the face-to-face meetings because that’s where the magic happens,” Gray says.

The company, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary, is expecting turnover to reach £50m this year, boosted by its first brokerage deal with the Rio soft drinks brand.

Boost Drinks took on full responsibility for sales, marketing and distribution of the Rio brand in February. It’s a model Gray would like to repeat with other brands.

The Rio deal introduced Boost to the hospitality sector. Future new markets could include the leisure sector and online platforms, Gray says, although the convenience sector will continue to be its heartland for growth.

On a like-for-like basis, turnover has remained flat over the last year. The volume of sales has fallen by 10 per cent due to the drop in retail footfall.

Last September, the company launched its biggest marketing campaign to date. Choose Now focused on living in the moment, while juggling multiple jobs and hobbies at once.

The £1.2m campaign, part of a £3m investment, spanned TV, digital, social media and out of home, plus a competition offering consumers the chance to win their share of £15,000.

“We had a very expensive brand plan in place for last year but with footfall being down we had to cut down on some of that,” says Gray. “That helped to protect our profit.”

Export, which currently accounts for seven per cent of the business, remains a long-term focus for the company, which exports to Sweden and parts of Spain, the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

“The current international business has held up pretty well,” says Gray. “Before the Brexit deadline at the end of 2020, we ensured we had enough stock so we didn’t have any border issues in the short term. In terms of new business opportunities it’s been a little bit more challenging but we are seeing that starting to open up a bit more again.

“We’ve also been bringing in additional resource into that department.”

The company, which produces about 40 different drinks within its energy, sports, protein and iced coffee ranges, is always on the look-out for new categories and flavours.

Recent products include its Caramel Latte flavoured iced coffee and mango energy drink.

Over the last 20 years there has been an element of trial and error with new products. Some of the less successful launches have included energy shots and mixers for the bars and clubs market.

“We believe that if you’re going to fail, fail fast, take your learnings from it and see it as a stepping stone for success,” says Gray. “We generally get more right than wrong thankfully.”

He adds: “I think we’ve put ourselves in a really strong position coming out of the pandemic. I think it’s challenging out there, we’ve got no divine right for success but we’ve got 20 years of loyalty behind us now and we’ve got really strong relationships at both end of the supply chain.”

Leeds Metropolitan University graduate Gray founded Boost Drinks at the age of 28 with the aim of providing a large, “re-sealable” range of energy drinks at a price that didn’t take your breath away.

Back in August 2001, he was a food and drink wholesaler who wanted to become his own boss. Initially, his plans were modest. He had a small firm’s loan from the bank, which he paid off within a year, and through prudent investing each year he grew the business, which initially targeted the student market.

The firms’ customer profile is now much broader than that. “Those students of 10-20 years ago are now in their thirties and forties so the demographic for people drinking sports energy drinks is changing so it has a broader appeal now,” says Gray.

Gray, now 48, says he drinks a Boost drink ‘maybe once or twice a week’ with his favourites being the sugar free energy drink and the new caramel latte iced coffee.

Reflecting on the last 20 years, he says: “It’s fair to say the business has delivered a lot more than I thought but at the start I didn’t really give much thought to what the business could become.”

The father of three daughters wonders whether any of them will enter the business in years to come. But having recently moved from managing director into the chief executive role, his focus is on the immediate future for now. “We’ve got a great leadership team who are excited to help deliver growth,” he says. “I think we’ve learned that it’s hard to predict the future but I really enjoy what we do so long may it continue.”

CURRICULUM VITAE

Title: Chief executive of Leeds-based energy drinks company Boost Drinks

Date of birth: May 30, 1973.

Education: A BA Hons European Marketing degree at Leeds Metropolitan University.

First Job: Food buyer.

Favourite song: Three Lions (Football’s Coming Home), by David Baddiel, Frank Skinner and The Lightning Seeds

Favourite film: The Usual Suspects, which starred Kevin Spacey.

Favourite holiday destination: Thailand.

Last book read: The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons in Creative Leadership from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company, by Bob Iger

Most proud of: My family and my brand at Boost Drinks.