Me and My Partner: 'We still go out and have a beer'

Kieron Barton and Gareth Whittle liked drinking the Peruvian beer Cusqueña so much, they set up Chilli Marketing Promotions to start importing it into the UK in 2004. Today, the company employs five people and turns over £2m
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The Independent Online

Kieron Barton

I've always had an entrepreneurial side. My dad was an engineer by trade, but he lost his job and was unemployed for almost two years. He instilled in me the belief that anything is achievable, but you've got to go out and get it yourself, not just wait for things to happen.

I met Gareth at university. We were both on the same course. We got on very well and we worked well together and we thought, if the right project comes up, wouldn't it be great to try and do something together.

Gareth's got qualities that I don't have. He's much better at planning. He maps things out from A to Z. He's quite a logical thinker, whereas I tend to be more creative and impulsive. I'll come up with an idea, but he'll be the one to figure out how we can make it work.

I hate paper. I have things written down and planned in diaries, but I hate paperwork. My desk is always a mess. I think it's the only way that my brain can function. Gareth, on the other hand, is much more organised. He has his pile of work in front of him and his desk is always neatly arranged.

I was travelling with my girlfriend in Peru when I first came across Cusqueña. I thought it could be the business idea that Gareth and I had been looking for. I did a bit of research and found out they didn't have a distributor in the UK, so I phoned Gareth and sent him a couple of bottles. When I got back to the UK, we did some tastings with bartenders in top bars, and everyone loved it. That gave us the reassurance that we were on to something and we took it from there.

It can be tricky working with friends. People will always give you a lot of horror stories about it ruining your friendship, but it is a big positive for me. Gareth is a genuinely nice, warm human being. I think the most important thing is that you trust someone and I trust him completely. We can sit down and be honest with each other but we can still go and have a beer afterwards. I think that's why our relationship works.

We spend about 75 per cent of the working week together, but I'm away quite a lot. I often go down to London during the week. I like that because it gets the alpha part of my brain working. I find being stuck in the office so restrictive. I'm trying to push us to spend more time out of the office because that's where you come up with the best ideas, when you are out there meeting the customers and seeing how the business works on the ground. Everyone's opinion counts when the business is still this small. You need to listen to as many people as possible and then make a decision.

Gareth Whittle

We had always talked about working together but hadn't found the right thing. Then Kieron rang up from Peru to say he may have found what we'd been looking for.

We're like yin and yang. We both share the same driving ambition and we are both determined, but Kieron's more creative and more sales led, whereas I'm more commercial; an organiser. Put that together and we are quite an effective team, each complementing the other. I handle the practical stuff - the shipping, the distribution and the commercial issues. Kieron looks after the creative side, such as executing the marketing strategy and coming up with concepts and ideas.

Our roles are pretty well defined now, but it is not a division of labour that we sat down and drew up. We have naturally fallen into this way of working, each playing to our strengths; although when you are running a small business, you have to be prepared to be flexible and jump in where you are needed.

We've both gone through very steep learning curves. Neither of us had worked in the industry before, never imported anything before or ever run a business, so we had to learn everything from scratch with a lot of trial and error. Fortunately, there haven't been too many serious errors and we've got through it. Of course, there are still gaps in our expertise. We are not in a position to employ all the skills that are necessary, so we do what we can between us and get outside help where we need it.

We have not had any big rows. We have situations where we are under a lot of pressure and we both tend to get quite ratty sometimes. When you know someone so well, it is very easy to start falling out. It's like a marriage. You take your frustrations out on each other. But we have not had any major blow-ups. We still go out together and have a few beers but our time is more precious now.

I would hate to think that there will come a point when we can't jointly decide on the strategic direction of the business. I think that is very important. Whatever success we have had to date, it's been because we both agreed on it and we've been able to implement those decisions effectively. Once you start making those kinds of decisions independently, problems can arise. People get resentful or communication deteriorates and you can't agree in which direction to take the company. We said from the start that any major decisions about the direction of the business will be jointly made and that is what we have done.