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Devon businessman and family man, Nick Sprague talks about his journey to success

PUBLISHED: 09:43 09 February 2015 | UPDATED: 11:17 09 February 2015

Nick Sprague

Nick Sprague

Matt Austin Images 2013

From a childhood spent growing up in a council house near Plymouth, when excelling in boxing at school was his greatest achievement, Nick Sprague has risen rapidly through the business ranks to become the founder and co-owner of a £50 million-a-year turnover group, Cobell. NAOMI TOLLEY met him at his Exeter HQ and heard how true love, a six-year stint in the Army, and sheer determination have all played key roles in his journey to success.

Nick SpragueNick Sprague

It’s an unlikely story. From excelling in boxing as a teenager, to heading one of the fastest growing companies in the South West today. Nick Sprague is, quite simply, a rags-to-riches inspiration.

He is also proof that sheer determination, self-belief, and hard work can pay off. For him, that reward has come in the form of a £50-million-a-year turnover drinks business, Cobell, based at Marsh Barton, and his family: his beloved wife, Ali and two children, Jacob and Gabriella.

Nick is a businessman and a family man through and through. The name of his business was thought-up by his wife, uaing parts of their children’s names.

His is a love story with a more-than-happy ending and a business story laced with surefire success. No wonder Nick oozes an infectious zest for life and work and always seems to be smiling.

Nick's dogsNick's dogs

Born in Taunton, Nick’s family soon moved to the South Hams where he went to Yealmpton Primary School, then Ivybridge Comprehensive. Money was tight and living conditions difficult. An outbreak of TB hit the family hard and Nick, aged four, was very ill and nearly died, but overcame the odds.

Looking back at his school days he says: “I was quite sporty and I boxed for the school. Academically however, I was pretty poor. In hindsight I probably had the academic ability but when it came to books I would rather have been playing sport or out in the woods building camps and climbing trees.”

Nick left home at 16 and joined the Army. He recalls: “I was constantly learning; from how to shave and iron to working as a team, looking after each other for good and bad. It was a learning curve and self-discipline was an important part of that curve. The best part was the three square meals a day”

By the age of 22, Bombardier Sprague was “quite serious” about his girlfriend, Ali, a factor which was a central motivator in his decision to move into a civilian career.

Nick SpragueNick Sprague

“I had always been comfortable with people - that is one of my natural skills - the ability to communicate with people from a broad spectrum of backgrounds and I knew I wanted to use that skill. I’ve always liked and accepted people for what they are, not how much money they have.”

Nick left the Army on a resettlement course and trained to work in retail, marking a key point in his business career.It wasn’t long before Nick’s natural flair for business began to reveal itself. In 1989, when the supermarkets had started to offer more, varied lines, he launched a pre-internet version of what we now know as ‘online shopping’. He set up a business, printed a catalogue of everything that was in the shops and handed them to people.

“Customers would then pay us to do their shopping for them and deliver it to their doors. It was hard work, really hard work and after about six months I decided it was going to be quite difficult to build it up, so I sold my share.”

In 1990 Nick married Ali, who had a job offer in Ascot, Berkshire.

“So we moved,” remembers Nick. “Ali had a job and I didn’t and I started scouring London for work. I’d go down to Ascot station to get the train into the city. It wasn’t long before I noticed that a lot of business people had really dirty shoes, especially compared to standards in the military. So I set up a shoeshine stall at Ascot station and soon started making £200 to £240 a day, all before 9am.

“I realised there must be stations all over London which could benefit from a shoeshine stall, so I bought more shoeshine equipment and found other people to do the job at other stations.

“Little did I realise that these people hadn’t been in the military so their standards of shoe shining weren’t the same. Also I had no idea how many shoes they cleaned so keeping an eye on the cash was difficult. The business lasted for three months,” he says confidently, adding that it was fun but not the long term goal.

In late 1990, Nick started work for Sunbird Foods, a business which sold frozen vegetables to food manufacturers across the UK. Nick would travel throughout the country, pitching sales, and says: “The experience I gained in a B2B environment at this time was invaluable, giving me a great overview of the processes of a food ingredients company.”

Nick rose through the ranks quickly, from junior sales to sales executive and sales manager. After three-years, he took a sales manager job with a 100-year-old, traditional London-based company, Wilson and Mansfield. For the first 18 months he was overseas visiting growers and processors in South America, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Scandinavia. It was here he gleaned the contacts, fruit knowledge and experience he would rely on to set up Cobell.

He says: “I realised that, without the opportunity to be a shareholder, that I would never excel into being a partner or more than a low-ranking manager. So, I resigned, and went back to the veg company I had started working for in the beginning. After about 15 months, the owner, Roddy, who is a good friend and passionate Welshman, said I should have had the confidence to go it alone and gave me his full blessings and support. And, in late 1999, we relocated to Exeter and I took a leap of faith and started Cobell.”

With very modest savings, a lot of big ideas and the support of his wife, Nick founded Cobell from the hallway of their home. “We had no capital, no overdraft, but we had the contacts I had made overseas. It is funny because the people I really thought would support us didn’t - it was the ones I wasn’t sure of who really stuck by us in those important first years. Many of whom are still customers today”

In their first year, they had a turnover of £1.75 million and had taken on one employee, Julie Bowell, enabling Nick to move out of the hallway into the garden folly. In 2003 David Pearce joined Cobell with Nick selling him a 25 per cent share in the company. It wasn’t long before they moved to Marsh Barton. In early 2006 with a plan firmly built on strong sales growth Graham Holland and Ian Taylor joined the company as equal shareholders and a satellite office was opened in Bishop Stortford, near Stansted. By April 2007 the company was turning over £5.6 million a year. In 2008, they bought from the administrators Frobishers Fruit Juices Limited, a company which now has a £4.2 million turnover and supplys fruit juices across the UK and exports to Sweden, Finland, Dubai, India, Malaysia and Finland.

Cobell and Frobishers today turns over almost £50 million a year, employing 68 staff and ranking as 60th largest and fastest growth company in the South West, supplying products to some of the world’s largest brands, including Coca Cola, Tropicana, Heinz, and Stella Artois.

But even given this high-ranking business success, Nick has never forgotten his humble beginnings and his feet remain firmly on the ground and his heart with his family, in Devon.

Visit cobell.co.uk

Nick’s Devon

What do you do during your day off? Run with my two Labradors or do a workout at David Lloyd. Then grab Mrs Sprague and head to Salcombe for some sea air, a nice lunch, an afternoon mooch around the shops, followed by 40 winks, given the chance. Then dinner in Exeter and a nightcap at Abode.

What’s your favourite restaurant and why?

We are lucky to be close to town and have a lot of variety. I really enjoy Lloyds Kitchen, Rendezvous and Harrys Grill Bar. I can’t choose one as they are all fab. Out of town you can’t beat Jack in the Green.

What’s your favourite beach and why?

Mothecombe as this is where I used to go as a child and still enjoy today. The private and public beaches are unspoilt and have great views.

Your favourite city/ town?

Exeter. It’s got a really positive feel and has so much to offer. The business environment and the recreational facilities are first-class. I’m also a big Chiefs fan and enjoy the on-going success that has come from good planning and hard work. There are also great connections to London via train or the new Flybe flights is perfect.

How would you spend a day out in the country?

In the warmer months I would drive out in our convertible car and have a picnic overlooking the sea with some indulgent provisions and a glass of fizz. In the colder months, I would throw the ‘Labs’ in the Range Rover and head to Bovey Castle and do an hour’s walk around their grounds before heading to the Brasserie for some comfort food, a beer, a nap by one of their open fires and remind myself how lucky I am to have health and a loving family. I’m not the easiest man to live with and I’m delighted to be celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary next year (2nd June, 2015) with my darling wife who saved and continues to save me.

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