Fold Woman: Annabel Thomas

Fold Woman: Annabel Thomas
October 22, 2019 Marie

On her childhood: I grew up in Essex and went to boarding school in Northamptonshire from the age of 10. I didn’t know a soul; I was daunted and homesick and didn’t settle into boarding life until my mid-teens. I never had a particular career path in mind – I used to tell everyone that I wanted to “go into business” without really understanding what that meant. I took a gap year, worked for a small, London-based PR agency to earn some money, then studied history at Cambridge University. I was worried that it would be far too academic and boring for me but my father, who had studied there too, convinced me that I’d love it – and he was right. I did an internship with LEK Consulting in the summer before my final year then joined Bain & Company as a strategy consultant when I graduated in 2005.

On her early career: The work-hard, play-hard culture at Bain really suited me. During my eight-year stint there, I spent 14 months in the innovation team at innocent drinks and I took three unpaid mini sabbaticals. The first was a trip to New Zealand with my now-husband. The second was a ski instructor course in Verbier, Switzerland. And the third was a “whisky road trip” around the west coast of Scotland. My family had always had a pipe dream to build a distillery on our family farm out there – and I decided to research what it would take to do it. I found that all the distilleries were steeped in tradition; they were doing things the way they’d always been done and there was a real opportunity to shake up the industry. I put together a business plan for an independent distillery called Nc’nean [an abbreviation of Neachneohain, the Queen of Spirits in Gaelic legend] that would produce 100% organic whisky, using renewable energy and recycling all our waste. In the summer of 2013, I quit Bain and took the plunge.

On her toughest challenges: I needed to raise £5m just to build the distillery and had to find investors who were in it for the long haul as whisky takes a minimum of three years to mature. I asked every single person I knew if they’d invest. It took two years of patience and perseverance to raise the capital, and then there was a further six-month delay over grant funding which caused our contractors to pull out. It took serious powers of persuasion to convince them to come back on board. (I have ‘How to win friends and influence people’ by Dale Carnegie to thank for that.) There were loads of other challenges along the way, from setting up our biomass boiler to sourcing organic Scottish barley. We finally started distilling in March 2017.

On growing the business: We now have a team of six working at Nc’nean. While our whisky won’t be ready until 2020, we did launch own Botanical Spirit last year – our unaged whisky spirit redistilled with ten botanicals, including wild bog myrtle, sorrel, heather and thyme. It’s now sold in cocktail bars and specialist retailers across the UK and Italy, and was listed as a “top 10 innovative spirit release of 2018” by the Spirits Business, which felt like a great validation of everything we’d been working on. Ultimately, I want to change the way we make and drink Scotch and be a torch-bearer of sustainability in the industry.

On her go-to style: It’s rarely warm on Scotland’s Morvern peninsula, where Nc’nean is based, and it’s thoroughly impractical to wear heels so you’ll usually find me in a cosy jumper, Paige jeans and a pair of hardy boots. For meetings, I’ll go for a dress or tailored trousers with a pretty blouse.

On her inspirations: I love listening to podcasts such as How I Built This, Secret Leaders and Desert Island Discs, and I’m always inspired by entrepreneur stories. I’m a big fan of the innocent founders, Adam Balon, Richard Reed and Jon Wright (who also started his career at Bain) – they were disruptive, innovative and wanted to use business as a force for good, not greed.

On staying sane: My husband (a corporate lawyer) and I both have big jobs and we have a one-year old daughter, Emilia. Our nanny definitely keeps us sane! I split my time between London and Scotland but try to squeeze in an exercise class whenever I can. I’ll do anything from spinning to barre for an endorphin boost. My new year’s resolution was to read more fiction but I’ve failed miserably on that one!

On her most powerful piece of advice to other women: Don’t be afraid to tell your own story.

Interview: Kate Bassett

Photography: Ciaran Spencer

Accessories: Annabel’s own

Shot at The Hari


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