As the founder of Heroes Drinks Company, the UK’s first not-for-profit organisation in the alcoholic drinks industry, Chris Gillan’s main aim is not to chase financial gain but to help military veterans’ charities and employment prospects.
I liked the idea of selling vodka...That’s when I said, ‘why don’t we make our own?
Chris, a military veteran himself, is not too proud to admit he has received help from military charities. During his 2008 tour of Afghanistan he was a member of a unit attached to the SAS, the British Army’s elite forces unit. Two years later the father-of-three, who also completed two tours of Iraq, found himself in civvy street completely broke and facing homelessness.
His story of creating Heroes Vodka, which is now available in Asda, is one of a man who reached the highest military standing, hit rock bottom and is now helping others before himself.
The vodka idea
Chris liked the idea of selling vodka. Mainly because it has a long shelf life but how could he make it stand out from other Vodka brands?
“I thought about what we’d want from our own brand and was adamant it would be of the highest quality to reflect military standards which are world-renowned." says Chris. "I didn’t want a cheap, gimmicky charity product - it had to raise money so had to taste great. I wanted to create a super-premium brand with an accessible price."
How hard could it be?
Very hard. Chris faced fierce opposition from those who believed the ferociously competitive market had no room for not-for-profit products. But after winning a £60,000 investment from Resilient Scotland, Chris improved his premium vodka from triple-distilled to seven-times distilled and rebranded his range.
Funding the brand
Now Chris had a great tasting vodka, he needed help with selling it. Asda turned his dreams into a reality as Heroes Drinks received access to a £100,000 loan from the Asda Community Capital scheme as well as a further £150,000 of finance from Social Investment Scotland, meaning Chris could take Heroes Vodka from creation to a supermarket listing.
Chris says, "The Social Investment Scotland initiative with Asda is pioneering for social enterprises like Heroes Vodka. It’s the first of its kind, and hopefully we’re one of many more to come. It has made an incredible difference. It will enable me to provide full-time employment for three veterans and two part-time veterans by the end of the year.
“It’s also allowed me to place two veterans on a sales training work placement and we’ll do the same for 12 more this year. And there are more drinks in the pipeline.”
It's really important for Chris to allow veterans to be able to get back into the workplace after being in the military. He knows how hard it can be.
“When I trained with the SAS I spent up to 18 hours a day running up hills. I wasn’t a high-ranking officer but was on the ground, in the thick of it. Surviving that made me feel I could achieve anything. Later when I tried to join the police force, I couldn’t undertake the fitness test because my leg injury meant I couldn’t run. And I was crushed. My relatively minor injury seriously hampered my employment opportunities,” says Chris.
He suffered a serious financial set-back when his ex MoD house in Lincoln was flooded by an undetected burst water main, making his agreed house sale collapse. The flood happened during a very short spell just before the sale completion when his house was uninsured. He had to pay for the repairs and sell at a loss.
Relocating to Edinburgh to be nearer his daughters Shannon, now 18; Miya, 17, and ten-year-old son Brendan, Chris had no option but to ask the city council for help. “I was put in a tenement building in Leith which had no heating. I couldn’t afford curtains, carpet or a shower so had to wash my hair using a bucket. And it was minus 20 outside. Thankfully my kids live elsewhere in Edinburgh with their mother but my partner is from Brazil and to her it was hell on earth.
The forces charities
Chris had to rely on the forces charities to get by.
“It wasn’t easy turning to the forces charities. I’d always donated a percentage of my wage to them, never thinking one day I’d need their help. The compassion they showed me is something I’ll never forget. I made up my mind that I would pay them back.”
Chris wondered how many more veterans faced similar problems and became passionate about creating something that would bridge the funding gap.
“I wanted to give hope to veterans who felt they lost their pride and dignity. Because for me, and many others, lying on my belt buckle searching for explosive devises in 50-degree heat in Afghanistan was preferable to my situation on civvy street.
“The military had always given me a focus. Helping those veterans became my new sense of purpose.”
Donating first production bottles for charity auctions and supporting over 50 fundraising events has left little for Chris.
He says: “I'm yet to take an income from the company and have no qualms in saying I have been surviving on working tax credits of £52 a week and family hand-outs. I’d regularly visit my local Asda between 7.30pm and 8pm when the price of soon-to-expire food is reduced and to save what little money we had. But things are improving so I avoid that time slot now so I’m not taking discount food from others who need it.”
Heroes, the drinks company formed by a single military veteran rather than a huge corporation, is well and truly off the ground thanks to the support from Asda.
Chris says: “At last I can make my children proud. I now know our company’s future ambitions, which include setting up a drink awareness campaign for military families, are within reach. And I now see the time I had to ask for charity help as a good thing, because it exposed me to the huge demands on military charities and gave me the focus to help.
“I’m delighted to hear so many people enjoy the product. And it feels fantastic to finally help the unsung heroes living among us all.”
Article by Julie Mccaffrey
Like the sound of Heroes Vodka? Pop into your local store to pick up a bottle