Odds and ends and new beginnings

27 July, 2007

oddbins' andy gadsby talks to graham holter about future plans

As you read this, Andy Gadsby is likely to be on a motorway somewhere as part of a six-week mission to meet Oddbins managers face to face. He will be explaining why so many stores are either closing or transferring to Nicolas - a policy which has confounded many staff across the estate, not to mention the wider industry.

As sales director, Gadsby is not the man who took the decision to axe Oddbins branches, but he is the man charged with making the plan work. In a sense, he is merely obeying orders - but even though he admits to some surprise at the extent of the Nicolas expansion, he expresses enthusiasm for the programme. And crucially, he says he has faith in Castel's commitment to the Oddbins name, even though there is widespread scepticism in the trade.

Gadsby has spent 14 years with Oddbins, so is hardly a Castel placeman. Candid and affable, he talks openly about the state of play with the business, acknowledging past mistakes, but bristles visibly at the suggestion that managers and staff have not been communicated with well enough. Oddbins shares information with employees "more than ever before", he insists.

"I know how hard and passionately I'm working, and how hard people in the business are working," he says. "You hear this negativity and it upsets you a little bit.

We definitely had to do something fairly radical, because it's change or die time now.

"I would rather transfer to Nicolas than close a shop. That's what we've done and it's an ongoing process.

"For the next six weeks I'll be seeing every single store that I can get to. I'm going out saying, 'this is the state of play and this is how we're doing it'.

"We've got nothing to hide.

My job is to make every store that Oddbins runs profitabl e. It's no secret that Pierre Castel runs a chain of 500 stores, which is a good business, and Nicolas in the UK has been


for him as well.

"We're in the process of transferring about 50 stores to Nicolas, and 35 to 40

we would probably have had to dispose of."

Has there been any internal friction as a result of the new policy? "Of course there has. We've probably transferred more than I thought would be the case, but the reality is it is a business and I have to see everything make a profit. In some sites it probably hasn't been the right idea." In such locations, he says, there is the theoretical option of reversing the decision, although it's hard to see Castel going to the expense of reopening an unprofitable Oddbins.

Some managers complain that under the Nicolas format they are no longer able to attract the "beer and fags" customers. "But the point is we weren't making any money out of beer and fags," counters Gadsby.

"We lost millions of pounds last year and obviously that's unacceptable. But the past is the past."

Looking ahead

The future of the almost-merged Oddbins and Nicolas effectively begins next year - for now, the focus is on sorting out the estate. It's possible that the sales functions will eventually be unified - Gadsby is not yet convinced by the idea, but accepts there are synergies available.

"We've got to run this as two brands under one company. Going forward we will be working as the two brands together: finance, property, credit control, that kind of thing.

"As a business it will become almost as Thresher runs Wine Rack, but we won't be replicating ranges or anything like that."

Might there be a French section in Oddbins branded as Nicolas, and a "rest of the world" fixture in Nicolas carrying the Oddbins logo?

It's detail that has yet to be decided. "We're in the very early stages of working together so I don't really discount anything," says Gadsby. "We've only really just got into the thinking of one company. This whole disposal of stores and transfers takes a lot of time.

"I'm quite excited by what we're doing and how we're doing it.

"We will look to open a store where we think it's the right area but with the disposals and transfers it's probably a job for 2008."

Gadsby concedes that aspects of drinks retailing generally have "gone a bit sterile" and smiles at the memory of slightly chaotic Oddbins branches staffed by scruffy graduates. "I hope we don't lose the quirkiness

- all the talkers and stock cards are still hand

written," he says. But as always, the conversation returns to profitability and Gadsby refuses to drag Oddbins back

to what some see as the chain's golden age.

"Everyone has an affection for Oddbins. Everybody has got an opinion and half of them wanted my job," he says.

"We had a good June on wine, the shops are looking smarter , we're building the trade side of the business and we've moved away from price promotions."

New Oddbins sites will typically appear in locations where larger retail units, with parking, can be secured - the new Reading store is big enough for floor palettes.

The fact that new Oddbins stores are opening at all is evidence, Gadsby argues, that Castel is committed. "I'm told we like the Oddbins brand and we're keeping the Oddbins brand," he says. He can go even further: unlike his own oddly muggy office, 15 of the stores are being kitted out with the rare privelege of air conditioning. "If that doesn't show commitment," he says, "I don't know what does."

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