25 July 2022

Maidstone Business Succes Story
Blue Reef’s John Wingate could never have predicted how a near-fatal accident would be the catalyst for turning his life’s passions into his dream business.

“I have a ‘yes mentality’ now – whereas most people worry about what could go wrong, I think about all the things that could go right.”

It was around 11 years ago that John Wingate started a casual side hustle alongside his main joinery business as a way of spending more time on his hobbies. Making and installing furniture for other companies meant he always had surplus materials left over, and he decided to put them to good use.


“I bought a Volkswagen campervan and thought I’d use the leftovers to build a new interior for it,” he explains. “It sparked off interest among other campervan owners so I thought it could be a nice little business. So we set up Blue Reef and just plodded on with it in the background.”


Although his joinery business was going well, John was beginning to lose his love for it. With a large team of staff and good profits, he became he says, ‘a money-chaser,’ all the while craving the opportunity to use his creativity.


It was then that fate intervened in the form of an horrific industrial accident – an event John says was, unbelievably, the best thing that ever happened to him.


“I broke all my ribs, lacerated my liver, broke vertebrae in my back and neck and was covered in cuts and bruises,” he says. “I actually died and was resuscitated in hospital. It was really traumatic and I spent a month in intensive care in King’s. But it was a real wakeup call. I felt like I’d been given a second chance and needed to get out there and enjoy life.”


So with no real plan other than to focus on his passion for all things surf and skate,  John decided to take on the cold store next door to his workshop on Loddington Farm.


“I didn’t know what to do with it, I just knew I wanted to create a business that I loved doing. I’m not a money person, I don’t want to be a millionaire, I would be happy to scrape a living if it’s something I enjoy,” he says, “So I just started making surfboards. Then lots of enquiries started coming in for skateboard gear so we began offering that as a service, too. Two doors down is a coffee-roasting business and the owner suggested our shop would be a good place to have coffee. I thought it was a great idea so in 2021, it also became a coffee, cake and skate shop.  It’s the best decision we ever made.”


With the help of his team, co-director and wife Liz, Elliot who manages the website, graphic design and works in the shop, and Matt who works alongside John in the workshop, Blue Reef quickly earned a reputation for its relaxed and welcoming atmosphere. It was somewhere that would lend itself well, John realised, to live music and helping him to work towards a long-held dream of running his own festival. Although other large events in the UK were sadly being cancelled due to covid, with restrictions coming to an end, John saw an opportunity to put on what initially was intended to be a small scale event, as he explains.


“It was only meant to be a party at the back of the shop but with everything else cancelled for the last two years, people were really keen and jumped on board,” he says. “Before we knew it, we’d sold 500 tickets. We realised it was going to be far bigger than we’d expected and that’s when James, who owns the farm offered us his 95 acre field. So we went for it – we put on this amazing show for the same price we were going to charge just to come to the back of the shop. We ended up selling 2,000 tickets.”


Amazed by the response, John knew he could build on the success of the event and wasted no time in planning for 2022. The result is the upcoming Blue Reef Fest on the 15th-17th July – two days of live music, food, camping and glamping at Loddington Farm, which aims to champion all that’s good about Kent.


“We’re really excited to have John Power, the lead singer from Cast performing but we’ve also handpicked lots of brilliant acts mainly from Maidstone and Medway,” he explains. “We’ve tried to keep it as local as we can and the council has been brilliant at helping us with that by introducing us to other businesses. We’ve chosen vendors and bands that fit the Blue Reef vibe – that’s what people come for. It’s a very relaxed, ‘surfy’ kind of atmosphere. There will be amazing local food and drink producers here too, like our neighbours, Musket Brewery.


“There are some really creative people on board. For example, we’ve got a well-known street artist involved who’s going to be doing some live art, using walls as his canvas. We’d love to partner with more local businesses though – people who want to sell their crafts and wares, and have got an interesting story. And we’re also offering sponsorship of our stage and skate ramps for any local businesses who fit well with our audience.”


And the farm, he says, is the perfect venue.


“I love it here, it’s like a second home for me. It’s still got that farm feel to it – it’s not too neat and pristine, so it’s still very charming. Luckily, James is really open to what we’re doing. He never questions anything, he knows us well enough to trust us to do a good job, be organised and tidy up after ourselves.”


With an Ibiza night at the shop in the pipeline and growing enquiries for using the space for events, John sees the success of the business as organic rather than the result of any obsessive planning.


“I’m more of a dreamer hippy, I’m not someone who sits down at the start of the year and plans everything out,” he says. “Blue Reef is evolving naturally – every day something occurs that changes its path. I never dreamt I’d be hosting Jack Bessant from Reef at my skate shop, which is what happened earlier this year, or standing on stage talking to 2,000 people at my own festival. I’ve stood in the pits with Motor GP legends and been backstage at rock concerts. It’s all thanks to my accident. I’m not afraid to put myself in positions where I could lose everything because often it leads to some of the best experiences I’ve ever had.”


With such an unconventional approach, what advice would he give to other business owners?


“When I was first taken into hospital, I was unconscious and the doctors had no way of finding out my name so they called me ‘Charlie Green’ – it was written on my wristband.  When I recovered, I felt like I’d been reborn, I had a totally different outlook.


“So I now have two tattoos on my arms – one says ‘Always be Charlie Green’ and the other, ‘We all have two lives – the second one starts when we realise we only have one.’ They sum up my attitude towards life and business. So my advice to anyone else would simply be do what you love without fear. If you have passion and keep the soul in what you do, people will want to be a part of it. And you never know where it might take you.”