Following a 20-year stint at Treasury Wine Estates, Michelle Brampton stepped into the chief executive role at the Wine & Spirit Education Trust earlier this year. She tells Lucy Britner what the trade can expect from her tenure
“Communication is absolutely the bedrock. An organisation is just a group of people who communicate together to make things happen, isn’t it?” Michelle Brampton is talking about what learnings she’s bringing to her new role, and communication “at all levels internally, externally, formally, informally” is number one.
Second is fostering an inclusive culture, and third is developing a clear vision for the WSET. “That’s a piece of work I’m focused on with the leadership team,” she says. “We’ve been getting really clear on what our purpose is, particularly because we’re not-for-profit. Purpose feels really powerful.”
This involves what Brampton calls strategic imperatives: “What are the six do or die things that we need to do?” she asks. These imperatives include ensuring people feel valued, that the organisation is inclusive, and the learning experience is inspiring. On a more practical note, Brampton talks about wanting to overcome the challenge of being “a very paper-based organisation” as well as creating a meaningful environmental, social and governance agenda.
“It’s about how we evolve the organisation from a customer service perspective,” she adds. “We’re here to provide inspiring learning experiences to empower people, whether that’s for them to get into the trade, to enhance their enjoyment or to get a promotion. Whatever it might be, it’s there for the individual impact, and so our ambition is to grow that impact.”
Brampton’s predecessor, Ian Harris, is often credited with putting the WSET on the world stage, and Brampton says the breadth and depth of the WSET’s offer includes nine courses in 15 languages, with more than 800 providers. Going forward, Brampton says she wants to understand more about people’s learning experiences and how the courses can be more accessible – whether that’s audio books, more languages or different formats.
“People’s expectations of how they learn have changed, as well as their working environment,” she says of the effects of lockdowns and beyond.
“It’s online, it’s potentially less structured. People learn in all sorts of different ways, so we want to understand that whole learning experience so we can continue to evolve and enhance that.” She also talks about improving the organisation’s infrastructure, especially in the wake of the pandemic and after being “locked out of China due to administrative issues for 18 months”.
Looking to the wider industry, Brampton highlights the many challenges facing the drinks trade, including global supply chain disruption, economic recession and climate change.
“Systems, processes, people who can adapt to a changing environment – flexibility is key,” she says. “It’s easier in some industries than others, and supply chains are long. For example, in wine, by the time you’ve planted a vine all the way through to it reaching the shelves, it’s a really long time and the world is changing really quickly. So, I think the only way to address it is to be clear on what’s impacting individual businesses and try to be as flexible as possible to adapt.”
For Brampton, the changing regulatory landscape and political volatility are among the chief concerns when it comes to operating in multiple markets, getting funding, and staying compliant.
“There’s a question of how long alcohol will be tolerated in some markets, how much you can talk about it, whether we’re considered to be promoting it,” she explains.
Sustainability is also a stalwart of the global drinks trade agenda these days and Brampton says it formed part of the Diploma exam topics this year. The question for her organisation now is how it looks at sustainability education more broadly.
The more immediate future might mean a brand evolution, as the WSET seeks to add to its remit. It has been mooted before that the WSET is considering a beer qualification and the new chief executive says it’s still on the cards.
“We’re widening the drinks offer. Beer is on the horizon but we’re still in the planning phase,” she says, without giving away any more information.
MAKING AN IMPACT
Five years from now, Brampton hopes her WSET will be “bigger, more efficient and more known for the impact that it’s having”.
And while we’ve spent the previous half an hour looking at the future of the WSET and the industry, we spend the final few minutes looking back at what advice Brampton would give to her younger self at the start of her career with TWE.
“With hindsight, I wish I’d got into the industry a bit quicker,” she says. “When I joined Treasury there were people who had done degrees in viticulture in Australia, and I had no idea things like that existed.”
Brampton would also have told her younger self to move around. “I had a fantastic career at Treasury, and I loved it. I stayed for lots of good reasons, and I did lots of different jobs internally, but probably going external and experiencing different companies and different categories within the drinks trade would have been really interesting and beneficial along the way.”
Finally, she highlights the importance of getting out there and meeting people. After all, the people are why many of us stay in the industry for so long.