James Espey was born in Zambia and educated in South Africa before moving to London in 1977. For many years he worked for international drinks companies, developing brands such as Malibu, Baileys and Johnnie Walker Blue Label.
For the past two decades he has been an entrepreneur in his own right, as well as a mentor to others. He is a client of Julius Baer, which is also a sponsor of The Shaw Mind Foundation, a charity founded by Adam Shaw and James to support mental health sufferers and their families.
James is the author of Making Your Marque, subtitled ‘100 tips to Build your Personal Brand and Succeed in Business’ — and he has an aphorism for every aspect of starting and building a business. ‘It takes twice as long, and twice as much money as you ever thought, to break even,’ he says. ‘It takes ten years to build a proper brand: “Fashion goes but style stays forever.” Never forget: turnover is for vanity, profit for sanity but only cash is reality.’
He has been strategically involved in numerous startup ventures, including Mimecast, a cloud-based email security provider which he chaired for its first six years. Now a global success story with 1,200 staff, it floated on the Nasdaq market in 2016 and is valued at $2.5 billion.
His own 100 per cent creation (with long-time business partner Tom Jago) is The Last Drop Distillers, which calls itself ‘the world’s most exclusive spirits company’ and specialises in seeking out and marketing ‘hidden parcels’ of very rare, old whisky, port and cognac. The founders sold The Last Drop to New Orleans-based distillers Sazerac in 2016, but continue to run the business, now with their daughters at the helm. When it comes to selling a company, James says: ‘Don’t get greedy about price: it’s like the share market, you can never call the “top”. If you’re nervous about the future, be satisfied when you’ve found a buyer who’ll invest in what you’ve created and can see 20 to 30 years ahead.’
He believes business should always leave room for personal expression and wellbeing: ‘No one on their deathbed ever said they wish they’d spent more time in the office.’ As to angel investing: ‘I like to back young people. We’ve got to help the next generation.’ When entrepreneurs ask him to help: ‘I look at their eyes, not their balance sheets. I want to know they’re really committed, that they’ve got skin in the game, and they’re team players. And I want to understand the vision and the long-term exit strategy. Is there a simple, sustainable path to profit?’
We’ll explore some of those issues in more detail in the rest of this series. In the meantime, entries have now closed for The Spectator’s Economic Disruptor of the Year Awards, sponsored by Julius Baer. We’re grateful to all the entrepreneurs — from across the UK, in a great variety of business sectors — who have taken the time to enter. We’ll be picking the regional finalists in the next few weeks: more news soon.
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