At the start of 2020 Italian drinks distributor Illva Saronno launched its UK subsidiary, Disaronno International UK.
DR caught up with managing director Neil Jardine to find out how he – together with marketing director Miranda Osborne – set about hiring 21 new members of staff remotely to build up a business from scratch.
Setting up a UK subsidiary is not new for a distributor but doing so during a lockdown is pretty challenging, as Jardine confirms.
He says: “Everything the team are doing in the UK is new but luckily we are all very passionate about it. It helps when you work for an Italian business because passion is on your business card, so we are kind of swimming in a sea of passion.
“Recruitment during a lockdown was one element I thought was going to be far more challenging than it turned out to be. It was a process of looking far more at people’s DNA and values rather than skill sets when you have to conduct interviews via Zoom and can’t meet in person.
“And ultimately we have ended up with a team that I can say, hand on heart, is the most talented, passionate and energetic team I have ever worked with in my life.”
The new subsidiary was set up to be fully responsible for the distribution, sales and marketing of Illva Saronno brands in the UK, ending the 20-year partnership between the Italian company and William Grant & Sons.
From the start its strategy was also to host a series of new innovations, scheduled for 2020 and 2021. This started in April 2020 when it launched cream liqueur Disaronno Velvet.
Jardine says: “Disaronno waited 500 years for its first innovation, so we definitely won’t be keeping that same rhythm and waiting that long to go again.
“The point everyone latched on to is that this was true innovation and totally moving into a new category. We ended 2020 with about 85% distribution in the grocery multiples, which in a pandemic and with lockdowns is outstanding.”
Jardine confirms NPD will continue through 2021.
He says: “We are heavily focused on innovation. We have invested in our distillery in Ireland and the Busker Irish whiskey brand, which was rolled out in the US last year.
“Innovation will continue around our core brands and around the RTD sector. We also have three wine brands from Sicily that we will bring to market in a way that hopefully unlocks the Italian Sicilian wine market for consumers and makes it a bit easier to engage with.”
The programme of NPD continued but the company did face a number of other challenges last year, as Jardine explains.
He says: “Our two core brands (Disaronno and coffee liqueur Tia Maria) have huge exposure to the on-trade and massive distribution and love from our customer base, so clearly we had to adjust our plans very quickly last year.”
In contrast, sales through the off-trade rocketed. Jardine says: “Trends like cocktail making at home have clearly been good for us as a business but I think it gives the on-trade an impetus – when it opens up again – that hopefully there will be a broader repertoire of consumers who are engaged in cocktails.
“In the off-trade we have also seen consumer behaviour shift. The fact Disaronno and Tia Maria are so well-known felt safe for consumers in a time where there is so much that isn’t normal. Strong brands got stronger in 2020. We have a history, we have been around, and we have provenance. I think consumers have gravitated towards that in difficult times.
“As a market we ended the year in double digit growth in the off-trade for both our core brands, and then NPD added incremental sales.
“The business now has to get into its rhythm and start operating with an enormous turnover. We have a core business that we need to nurture and grow off the back of a phenomenal year of success, as well as all the innovation that sits around it.
“And we are heavily focused on being able to give our support to the hospitality sector as and when that is able to open up later in the year.”