Words by Colin Bradbury
For Joe Healey, father to a growing family and co-director of one of Cornwall’s most successful businesses, life is most certainly for living.
Joe Healey may be responsible for one of Cornwall’s biggest businesses, but he’s slightly distracted this morning by the large patches of skin missing from his right shoulder, hip and leg. Competing in a bike race in Exeter the previous evening, Joe found himself going downhill into a corner at 35mph in the rain and, well, you can guess the rest. Cyclists have a phrase – ‘road rash’ – for what happens when you hit the tarmac at high speed and that’s what we have a severe case of here.
Because as well as being joint Managing Director of Healeys Cornish Cyder Farm, Joe is also a competitive bike rider, part of Cornwall’s first Elite level cycling team Saint Piran Pro Cycling. Throw in his roles as husband and father and he’s a busy man. We’re meeting in the large but cosy restaurant at Penhallow, between St Agnes and Newquay, where the apples are grown, the cider made and the bottles filled and labelled. It’s one of Cornwall’s biggest business success stories.
Joe and older brother Sam took over the day-to day running of the family enterprise about five years ago and have overseen a huge expansion of the 33-year-old operation. A staggering 50,000 bottles and 500 kegs of Rattler cider now roll off the production line each and every day. With its sunglasses-wearing rattlesnake adorning the label, the iconic brand is sold in 1,000 pubs and all major supermarkets across the UK.
The story of how the Healeys got into the cider business started almost 40 years ago and shows that the entrepreneurial spirit runs in the family blood. Joe’s father, David decided to conduct a bit of ad-hoc market research at the off-licence he owned. He re-labelled some bottles of cider with a ‘Cornish’ brand and put it on the shelves next to the original product. When it outsold the other brand by some way, he saw an opportunity. He bought a smallholding near St Austell, installed a cider press and, as Joe says, “became the first person to make Cornish cider.”
In 1986, David and his wife Kay took a huge financial gamble and bought the bankrupt dairy farm that is now Healey’s Cornish Cyder Farm, with a plan to plant some orchards and start producing cider on a larger scale. Joe was just two weeks old, and his brother 11 months, when the family moved in.
“Everyone told my Dad he was a crackpot,” laughs Joe. “There was no water or electricity and most of the buildings had no roofs.” But with the support of David’s father and the unwavering faith of his wife, he took the plunge, planted the first apple trees and the rest is history.
Along the way, the family decided that as well as producing cider, they would also turn the farm into a visitor attraction. To say that has been a success would be a massive understatement. Some 400,000 people a year now come to see cider being made (and to taste it of course), tour the orchards, meet the farm’s animal residents and enjoy homemade food in the restaurant. That makes Healeys one of Cornwall’s leading visitor attractions. And Joe is keen to stress that it’s not just for tourists. He wants Healeys to be somewhere that locals come to eat and drink as well (something they back up by offering a discount to Cornish residents).
Healeys remains a family business, and the next generation is now very much in charge. Joe and Sam started their entrepreneurial lives early when, as six year-olds, they collected apples from the orchard and sold them to the tourists to feed the animals. As Joe says, “That was our first business – it was great fun!” While school holidays were spent working at the farm, there was no assumption that the two sons would eventually take over the organisation.
To get some experience of life outside the family business, Joe went to Bath University and then on to work for Coke Enterprises. The highlight was his role as venue supervisor at the 2012 London Olympics for the American soft drinks giant where he was lucky enough to get into the stadium for Great Britain’s famous three gold medal ‘Super Saturday’ evening.
But the bright lights of London couldn’t keep him away from Cornwall and he rejoined Healey’s soon after. With Joe as MD of Trading and brother Sam in charge of Operations (“he makes it, I sell it”, is how Joe sums up their respective roles), Dad threw them in at the deep end in 2014, handing them the responsibility for the project that transformed the business into what it is today. Building a new visitor centre and restaurant, and taking the manufacturing facility from producing 3,000 bottles of cider a day to 6,500 per hour was a huge ask and Joe says it took a couple of years to get everything running smoothly.
Joe and Sam now run the business with their spouses. Joe’s wife Lara manages all drinks sales to pubs across the country while Sam’s other half Georgie deals with another business, off-site holiday accommodation. That includes a 200-acre site on the edge of Truro at Tresillian where they have just planted 12,000 vines as a first step into the wine business. They are hoping to launch their first sparkling wine in 2020, with the aid of an operations manager who just happens to be a former New Zealand ‘Winemaker of the Year’.
With all this going on (Joe and Lara are also expecting their second child in the autumn), last year Joe joined the Elite level Cornish cycling team, Saint Piran. Joe was a sporty youth – mainly rugby as befits a true Cornishman – but had also dabbled in triathlons. Although since that included tackling the famously brutal ‘Ironman’ discipline, ‘dabbled’ is something of an understatement.
A fateful meeting with Cornish bike industry legend Richard Pascoe set him on the path to a parallel life as a competitive cyclist. Pascoe – known to all as ‘Ricci’ – owns the long established Bike Chain shop in Redruth, as well as a café and bike hire business on the Mineral Tramway at Bissoe. Three years ago he established the Saint Piran team to give Cornish riders a chance to develop their talents and compete on the national stage.
It didn’t take much for Ricci to persuade someone as competitive and focused as Joe to try road racing, and in his first season he progressed rapidly through the ranks. He also appreciated the team’s emphasis on developing Cornish talent, so it was a natural step for Healey’s to start sponsoring Saint Piran. With its specially branded cider, sporting a distinctive race jersey label, Healeys joins a long list of local businesses – from Furniss Biscuits to Cornish Coffee, Tregothnan Tea and luxury property company Rohrs & Rowe – in supporting Pascoe’s vision.
The team burst onto the national scene in June, with an appearance in the seven race Ovo Energy Tour Series, receiving extensive national TV coverage. In an ingenious bit of marketing, the tops of the riders’ helmets featured the Rattler logo, so that every time a team member put their head down to sprint for the line, the Healey’s rattlesnake was grinning at the TV cameras.
Joe also joined forces with Saint Piran to launch the Rattler Pro Ride, giving local cyclists the unique opportunity to hit the road with the team’s professionals. Last autumn’s inaugural event, which started and finished at Healeys Cider Farm, attracted 200 participants. It was such a success that it is being repeated his year on Saturday 7th September, with the goal of doubling the number of riders. Three routes are available – 25, 50 and 100 miles – so there’s something to suit everyone. With all proceeds going to fund Saint Piran’s development, the organisers see it as a great opportunity for the local cycling and business community to get behind the Cornish team.
And Joe sees Healeys’ role in the broader context of that Cornish community. With 65 full-time staff, rising to 120 in peak visitor season, the company is a major local employer. “People think there are no ‘proper jobs’ in Cornwall”, he says. “But here, under one roof we have jobs in sales, marketing, production, finance and logistics.”
He is proud that they are now big enough to provide talented people with career opportunities. “For example, someone who started with us on the sampling counter nine years ago is now Head of Sales and was instrumental in getting our products into national supermarkets across the country.”
Ultimately though, Healeys is still a family business, and Joe wouldn’t have it any other way. “We’re here all day, every day. It’s our surname over the door. If a label’s not on straight, if the smile at the welcome desk isn’t right or if the grass on the verges isn’t cut, it all reflects on us.” And despite recent rapid growth, Healeys remains a 100% Cornish business. Joe says, “Some people think we’ve grown so large that we make our cider elsewhere. No. Everything has always, and will always be produced on site here in Cornwall from our family farm.”