Irish drinks brand Vit Hit sold more than 30 million bottles worldwide last year and has now secured a major distribution deal with US giant Walgreens.
Chairman and founder Gary Lavin said that Sunday independent Sales were up 38 percent this year and he expects to sell 35 million bottles in 2022.
After a successful trial, the brand is now available in 300 Walgreens stores across the US. The chain has more than 7,000 stores and could potentially hit Vit be rolled out gradually to everyone, Lavin said.
“I’m confident we’ll end up in all 7,000 stores and it’s an absolutely huge opportunity for us,” he said. “To enter such a large retailer at such a level would be a real game changer.”
The former professional rugby player took 22 years to build the brand he founded after a knee injury ended his playing career with Harlequins in the 1990s.
His idea of a health-conscious, vitamin-rich alternative to sugary soft drinks almost failed when the financial crisis nearly destroyed the business before it could get a foothold.
“I was under so much pressure at the time that I couldn’t pay the bills and all those things,” he said.
“It was almost a relief when I lost my house. I just got in my car and drove across the country to try to rebuild the business. I think to be successful I had to get to the bottom of the barrel.”
But those days are long gone now, and Lavin said the brand’s compound annual growth has been 23 percent over the past eight years.
Vit Hit has taken a hit in its main Irish and UK markets in the early months of the pandemic.
“In the UK we had built up a sizeable business in the food service sector in cafes, universities, hospitals etc. That was literally wiped out and that was 25 per cent of our business in the UK and retail was down another 20 per cent,” he said.
But other countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands and Iceland have also grown strongly. Australia has “exploded” and is up 350 percent over the past year compared to 2020, he said.
“We will be selling three million bottles there this year, which translates to retail sales of around AUD 13 million,” he said.
In 2018, Lavin moved to Australia with his family for five months to focus on building a market for Vit Hit.
“I really believed that with their outdoor sports lifestyle there was a market for a product like ours.”
However, the brand was not an overnight success Down Under.
“My accountant told me last year to shut down Australia because we’re only handling around 900 cases a month, which just wasn’t good enough. But basically I’m an optimist and I never see failure. I wanted to prove that Vit Hit is a brand that can travel, that it’s not just something that people in Ireland and the UK might like. It just exploded last August and we’re out of stock at 20,000 cases.”
Vit Hit is still 100 percent privately owned, although Lavin has been attempted to sell on three separate occasions by others.
“A lot of companies are selling because they need cash, but we have very sustainable, self-paced growth and are profitable. So if I’m approached, I just tell them we don’t have to sell.”
Staying independent has many benefits, most notably the freedom to move quickly into new markets or new brands, he said.
“We have never taken capital from an outside party. We stood on our own two feet. We’re 5th in the top 30 drink brands in Ireland and I’m pretty sure we’re the only independent brand. Our model is sustainable because if Walgreens told us, for example, that they would put us in 7,000 stores, we could take out a stocking loan.
“We have a really good balance sheet and have been profitable for about nine years. So if we had an offer like that from Walgreens, I think even conservative Irish banks would be happy to support it.”
However, being independent can also have its downsides.
“Vit Hit is currently the best selling functional drink in the UK but we aim to be in the top 10 drinks on every level. What is holding us back is sales. We’re not Coca Cola that could just say, ‘Put our new brand on 20,000 shelves,’ when in fact we’re outselling bigger brands.”
Lavin said he often challenges retailers on how to build the next Innocent — the last truly successful independent brand to make it big. It’s getting harder and harder for independents to achieve that kind of success, but Lavin is confident that Vit Hit can pull off just that.
“Our sales rate is so good. We just need to get on more shelves. It’s really difficult to get a brand that actually sells, even for the big companies. We have an and I’m holding on to it for my life.”
https://www.independent.ie/business/gary-lavin-dreaming-big-as-irish-brand-vit-hit-secures-major-us-deal-41461548.html Gary Lavin dreams big as Irish brand Vit Hit secures a big US deal