Ben Hulme: The Lidl boy who grew up
"If you’d told me five years ago I would be in this position now I wouldn’t have believed you.” At just 27, Lidl UK’s head of beers, wines and spirits, Ben Hulme is by far the youngest person in OLN’s 100 Most Influential People In Wine list.
And he was modestly surprised to storm into the top 10 at number eight, quickly picking up copies of the magazine at the London Wine Fair to send home to his mum.
Hulme, who has so far been kept somewhat under wraps by the German chain, has certainly made his mark in his short career and played a key role in changing Lidl’s reputation from downmarket discounter to destination store for wine.
He joined Lidl’s graduate programme in 2010 after leaving the University of Birmingham with joint honours in English and German, and swiftly moved up the ranks to be responsible for BWS, sauces, spices, condiments, ketchups and non-prescription medicines.
He has since managed to delegate everything except alcohol, but when we meet at Lidl’s Christmas briefing – where, on the hottest day of the year so far, we chat to a soundtrack of yuletide favourites including Slade, Wizzard and Cliff Richard – there are still some chutneys and mayonnaises of his own devising on show.
More to the point, there is a new range of aged Scotch whiskies and a small selection of wines designed to summarise some of the work Hulme has been doing on the retailer’s rotating Wine Cellar, which this year has been adding 36-48 wines a quarter to the fixed 60-strong range. From next year it will do the same six times.
The wines are sourced from parcels ranging from 6,000 to 60,000 bottles and the concept, which was Hulme’s own brainchild, has helped boost Lidl’s wine sales by 38% in the past year – outstripping the company’s overall growth rate of 23%.
Hulme says: “Historically there has been this idea that Lidl is a centrally dominated company on the buying side. Maybe a decade ago that would have been the case, but we are now in a situation where we have a very competent buying team which is 100% responsible for the products stocked in the UK – it’s not decided by any office in Germany.
“The Wine Cellar concept is a UK- specific concept I came up with – it is my pride and joy. Other Lidl countries have their own concepts, but I’m not sure another has put the same investment into a wine concept as we have.”
Hulme does work with his counterparts across Europe to share ideas and strategies, as well as sourcing wines through local offices in countries including Portugal and France.
He also works with a team of three masters of wine – Richard Bampfield, Caroline Gilby and Ed Adams. They consult with Hulme on ranging and sourcing, and taste and rate all of Lidl’s Wine Cellar wines before they go on sale.
If the wines score less than 80 out of 100 the order is cancelled or work is done to bring them up to scratch.
Hulme says: “They add credibility to what we are doing. It is all very well Lidl saying this is a great selection, but if an MW rates your selection you should take it seriously.”
The MWs have also helped Hulme with his wine knowledge – which so far has been entirely self-taught. When he wasn’t sourcing wines and condiments he would study wine books late into the night, including the World Atlas of Wine, which he says he has read cover to cover at least twice.
“The philosophy of the company is learning by doing,” Hulme says. “When I got the category I was determined to make it work, so I digested as many books as I possibly could. Now, ironically, I’m being put on a Wine & Spirit Education Trust course. I think I have a substantial and comprehensive knowledge of wine, but the WSET is the industry standard so it is good to get some formal training.”
When Hulme is not working or ingesting weighty wine tomes, he helps out regularly at a food bank near his home in Wandsworth, and he remains close to his family, who he credits as his mentors. His dad originally encouraged him to go into buying, thinking his verbal communication skills, persistence, common sense and determination would suit the field.
Lidl’s next Wine Cellar, which launches on September 3, is a French showcase, following on from the success of the very first French Wine Cellar last year. It includes 40 wines ranging in price from £4.99 to £16.99.
The collection will feature some lesser-known wines, including Arbois, Jurançon, a white Châteauneuf-du-Pape and a Pinot Noir from Alsace. A 40-page brochure will go into stores and national newspapers to teach consumers a little about the wines and give them an incentive to trade up.
“We are taking well-known regions but lesser-known styles. I have tried to make it a really interesting collection and hope people agree with that,” says Hulme.
“I have been given creative licence to build ranges, and that is the most fun part of my job – I get a big kick out of that.”
He adds: “I’m pleased with where we are going. I think we are able to offer customers really interesting, great value selections of wine that punch well above their weight. With this collection, the fact that we have had success gives us the confidence to try out a few other things. Our customers have got an appetite for it.”
Alongside Wine Cellar, Lidl’s fixed range aims to cover off all the bases of a standard wine range – but without duplication – and it has won a number of awards in the past year, including in the IWC and the IWSC.
“Our company philosophy is that we have to be the best value in the market. We keep the listed section quite tight but never take our eyes off it. Certain retailers will have 20 Aussie Chardonnays, but I have only one, so we have to get it right. If it isn’t right, people will never buy it again.”
Hulme puts Lidl’s success in the UK – along with its compatriot, Aldi, it has been rapidly stealing share from the big four – down to this tightness of range. He says: “The reason customers have flocked to us is that it is clear what our model is and what our strategy is. We don’t mess around with crazy high-low promotions – our concept is everyday low prices and the market message is that we want to be the best value every day – there is no smoke and mirrors.
“We don’t have a wine at £10 [for a few weeks] and then most of the year it is £5, and say it is a good deal – we would have it at £5 for 365 days a year. That simplicity and honesty is what customers like.
“It is a stress-free experience with a tight range. You are not confronted with 100 types of ham and 500 types of cheese. We have one mature cheddar, one smoked wafer-thin ham and one pack of chicken breasts.
“I think British people are starting to understand the concept of Lidl and that just because it is cheap doesn’t mean it is nasty – we just have a different model from other retailers. We don’t staff to the same level, a lot of products are displayed in their cases, there are not as many checkouts. As people realise how they are getting the savings, and that we really don’t cut corners on quality, customers are warming to our concept and understanding it a bit more.”
Hulme also says he finds the term “discounter” misleading.
“We are not actually the ones doing the discounts – our prices are low all year round,” he says.
“We would consider ourselves a supermarket with a limited range – although it is debatable now whether we would even call ourselves limited range, because gone are the days where you can’t get full week’s shop at Lidl. You can get that and then some.”
Certainly the drinks section has been significantly beefed up in recent months.
In June Lidl launched its Brewery bay, which includes beers and ciders ranging from local brews in eight regions, through national to international craft products and world beers, and Hulme says it has had a great reception.
“The main compliment I have had is that our operations team is struggling to keep up because sales are so good. It is a different concept for us with a lot more products than we would have had in the past. Cider has been a good one for us. The cider market has come back in the past year and we have had quite a lot of success.
“The best thing about beer and cider is that they are so accessible. You only need to spend one or two pounds to try something really spectacular.”
He adds: “The craft beer scene is really cool. Getting involved in that with the Brewery concept has been exciting, especially seeing how many brewers were interested in talking to us. The hard thing was that some of the guys we spoke to are such craft producers there was no way they would be able to supply us. There is experimentation going on in all corners of the UK and we really wanted to go into that with the Brewery range.”
This Christmas stores will have a dedicated spirits bay, which Hulme would like to see on a permanent basis.
He has sourced a range of aged Scotch whiskies for Christmas, and is developing a new gin and vodka with Lidl’s chef-in-residence, former store manager Kevin Love.
“Aged whisky is not very easy to come by these days, so I’m really delighted to get them in,” he says. “It is great to be able to offer these to Lidl customers – it means you don’t have to go to a boutique shop to get a 28-year-old Speyside.”
Port, sherry and liqueurs are all in Hulme’s sights as he works to keep up the momentum his department has gathered over the past months.
He is also working on the New World wine range and sourcing “a few interesting parcels” from countries such as Chile.
“There is a bit of a discrepancy between the European selection, which has grown about 57% over the past year, and the New World, which grew 19%. Wherever there is an area of improvement we jump on it and never rest on our laurels,” says Hulme.
So where next for him?
“I feel blessed to be in this position,” he says. “I’m very ambitious and I want to go far. Lidl is a good place for me at the moment . It is allowing me to develop things and has shown a lot of faith in me, and I am just trying to repay that faith.
“In five years’ time I don’t know exactly where I will be but I hope I will be somewhere where I’m enjoying what I’m doing as much as I’m enjoying what I’m doing now. These are exciting times to be working for Lidl.”