Each month, FoodBev will be interviewing a business leader from a different corner of the food and beverage industry. October’s featured leader is Gary Lavin, CEO of Vithit. After breaking into the soft drinks category, Lavin strove for his products to become the most sought-after sugar-free beverages on the market.
The inspiration to setting up Vithit came after Lavin experienced an injury, meaning that he could no longer progress as a professional rugby player. This gave him insight into the world of nutrition – vitamins, in particular. This knowledge is something that he embeds in every product in the Vithit range.
Why did you decide to set up Vithit?
For a good few years, I was a professional rugby player. I got injured, and it was a bit of a shock to me because it was my only job, but I’d come through the amateur period.
This was at a time when you were unpaid to play rugby, so I had to have an income to back that up. When I got injured, I had to put myself into something 100%, so I started to sell vitamins and proteins first.
Back then, men never spent money on themselves, so I couldn’t stay in that business for long. I then got into women’s vitamins, and from there I’d been in that business for around four or five years.
I had never really enjoyed taking tablets myself, and I always wanted to see something a little bit different to deliver these vitamins. It was then that I started thinking about how to incorporate them into drinks, which is where the motivation for Vithit came from.
Do consumers still care about vitamins now they have drinks with protein and probiotics in them?
Vitamins are something that people have known about in this part of the world since the Second World War, so it’s definitely something that’s in the consumer psyche and is certainly not a fad.
Things like protein and probiotic intake, which both currently make up a very strong range of products, may not be around in 70 or 80 years’ time, but I know that the goodness of vitamins will prevail and just keeps getting stronger. They’ve certainly risen in popularity in more recent times.
The one thing that has been proven with the rise of protein and probiotics is that people are more knowledgeable about health and wellbeing than ever before. People are finding out that things like vitamin C is good for protection, zinc is good for keeping colds away. People are a lot more educated now and are seeing everywhere that vitamins are good for you.
How have you found competing in the functional drinks space – is it an overcrowded market?
When I started a few years ago, we were the only functional drink out there and we were competing with the bigger soft drinks companies such as Coca-Cola. I think every business is competitive, and you have to do something that is unique to you to make yourself get noticed.
Your product has to taste incredible, otherwise people will move on to sugary treats. Consumers in the UK and Ireland have high standards when it comes to taste, and Vithit only has natural sugars from ingredients such as fruits. It took us probably 18 months to get the flavours right, and then we had to make the packaging look great for the consumer so the products are attractive.
Clean ingredients are also important – you can’t fool the modern public, who know about preservatives, calories and sugar intake.
What do you think sets you apart from other functional beverages?
Vitamins are only part of the story. Vithit was built around no added sugar with just 6g per bottle coming from juice. Our mission has remained the same, “to reduce sugar intake and improve the health of our customers”. There are still vitamin drinks on the shelves with over 20g of sugar per bottle and we don’t think that’s right. We also blend various teas into each of our bottles, which give enormous health benefits. Vithit is very low in calories, with less than 35kcal in each bottle. People can have a great-tasting treat without worrying about their waistline.
Finally, Vithit tastes great; we wanted to be a really easy transition to move away from sugared drinks. Now that the sugar tax is taking prevalence in the UK, the public consciousness has come to meet our ethos and retailers are looking to reduce the sugar on their shelves to meet increased demand.
With the introduction of the sugar tax, Lavin says that this aligns well with the company’s ethos.
How important is flavour to you?
I think it is one of our top priorities. It has to taste just as well as, if not better than, any sugary drink out there. We do make sure to spend a lot of time ensuring that the taste is not too bitter, and not too sweet. Taste is everything to the UK and Irish market – if they dislike it, the consumer can simply move back to another product that tastes better.
How do you envision Vithit growing in future?
For the last few years we’ve been focusing on our core markets, and then 50% of our focus has been on expanding.
We will up the ante a little as we’ve just launched in Belgium and are also launching in the UAE and Australia. We’re very ambitious and would like to grow even more. You never know what’s around the corner; we could begin to grow and then face a setback in the future. But it’s looking promising, that’s for sure!
We are launching in Australia on the 1 November, and if that is successful, which I think it will be, we could be up by 30%. If the UAE goes well, which I think it will, then we will be up by 40%. So we put in growth targets, but they’re very elastic.
We decided to launch in Australia to be able to push sales through the winter too, as people tend to buy us to keep refreshed, even though vitamins are important to have throughout the year to curb illnesses.
Over the next 7-8 years, we plan to be the market leader in every country we enter. We believe that we will be the functional drinks leader in the UK, for instance, within the next 18 months. Maybe even before that.
Has anything surprised you about leading a beverage start-up?
I think that – and this isn’t a criticism of big retail, it’s just a fact – big retail tries to move away from sugar, however a lot of their revenue comes from it. Their ‘unicorn’ would be a product that can sell, which doesn’t have sugar in it.
When I moved to the UK five years ago, I was presenting our product as the answer to this issue. As they hadn’t really heard of us, which I understand as they are probably getting 100 different companies coming to them every week, they didn’t know if I would sell or not.
Then we became listed with Tesco and proved to be a big sell, which led to Boots, Sainsbury’s and W H Smith taking us on, and we are about to be taken on by another big retailer.
What we had to do was to put an anchor in the ground and build a case with one customer to get noticed, and now we are doing well. One retail company is averaging at 160 units of Vithit per store per week, which is incredible.
Gary Lavin was talking to FoodBev Media’s Harriet Jachec.
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