Drinks trade heavyweights reveal how they made it to the top

Many of the biggest names in BWS started at the bottom. They explain why it is so important to nurture new talent. Christine Boggis reports

When you walk into your local off-licence – whether it’s a chain, convenience store or entrepreneurial independent – there are a few things you can expect to find. A juicy South American red wine, a good bottle of British ale, a chilled cider and a classy gin.

What you might also find is a future captain of the drinks trade. So many of the leading figures in today’s wine, beer, cider and spirits industries started their careers on the shop floors of Oddbins, Thresher and Majestic, or in lowly roles in the companies supplying those stores.

Their often winding career paths have taken them from those anonymous roles to become, if not household names, then at least well known in the trade, with regular appearances in the pages of Off Licence News and our sister magazine, Harpers Wine & Spirit.

And now they are telling us how vital it is to nurture talent coming up through the ranks.

Jo Wehring, UK market manager for Wines of South Africa, started on the shop floor with a part-time job in Victoria Wine as a student.

“The manager there encouraged me to try wine – my tipple of choice was a pint of lager in those days – and I grew partial to a cheeky little number called Spanish Oaky Red. I used to tell customers: ‘It really does taste oaky’,” she says.

Her interest in wine prompted her to join Majestic when she graduated, after which she moved to PR agency Westbury Communications then on to WOSA.

She says: “Talent and ambition go hand in hand and you can see the people who push themselves and want to progress. Nurturing talent is essential and ensuring you motivate people, encourage them and instil a sense of responsibility helps to develop that talent.”

“I spot and nurture talent by giving people the chance to deliver their ideas – the doers do and the talkers don’t,” says Rowan Gormley, chief executive of Majestic, who started out as an accountant and said two lucky breaks – meeting Richard Branson and getting fired – led to him setting up Naked Wines, which took him all the way to the top of Majestic.

Wines of Chile UK head Anita Jackson joined Oddbins’ finance department after having children and became the first person in her team to get the Wine & Spirit Education Trust certificate. She moved into buying and from there to Wines of Chile when Michael Cox set up the UK office in 2003.

She says: “Those with energy, passion, enthusiasm and dedication stand out a mile. These guys are the future of the wine trade and the impression you leave will always be there. Had it not been for the buyers in Oddbins seeing my enthusiasm it would have been a harder journey in the wine trade for me.”

Wine writer and broadcaster Olly Smith was inspired to join the trade after enjoying a free tasting in Oddbins. He got a job delivering wine and stacking the cellar at Orange & Co Vintners, and ended up winning Wine Idol, a Hardy’s-sponsored competition to find a new wine communicator, after a stint as a children’s TV writer when he wrote for programmes including Charlie & Lola, Wallace & Gromit and Pingu.

He says: “It’s vital for the industry to keep building on talent and attract real passion. To spot it these days social media, blogging, Youtube and, of course, in person are all direct chances to glimpse ability, dedication and support diverse new voices to find their way.”

Another top trade figure to start out at the bottom was Ian Harris, chief executive of the WSET. He took a low-paid job in the cellars of a London wine merchant when he left university in 1977.

“I went to university to study French and Spanish with a view to becoming a teacher, but I lived in Bordeaux for a year and discovered wine,” he says. “Somehow, the wine trade seemed more fun than teaching – so it is ironic that I am now chief executive of the biggest organisation in the world teaching people about wines and spirits. I got where I am today by a series of career jumps – mostly by being in the right place, at the right time, with the right skills, and by being flexible and willing.

“Nurturing talent is relatively easy in a growing organisation because new job opportunities are occurring as we grow, giving talented people a career path which they can see opening up before their eyes.”

David Cox was born into the drinks trade – his great-great grandfather was the Matthew Clark who founded Matthew Clark & Sons in 1810. Cox joined his twin brother Michael in the family firm in 1985, and worked there as export director before moving to Brown-Forman in 1995 and heading up New Zealand Winegrowers in Europe in 1999. He is now chief executive of drinks trade charity The Benevolent.

He says: “Organisations and managers succeed when they create an environment that encourages creativity and new ideas and allows employees to challenge the status quo. Society itself and social and business communications are changing fast and it is incumbent on the more mature leaders in our trade to embrace this and empower young talent to help business leaders develop new directions and strategies.

“Many employees do not necessarily have to be promoted to grow in their roles. Often they can grow and perform better just because they appear valued and are given a pat on the back regularly. This can bring out the best in many people yet is a rare trait in managers.”

Martin Thatcher, managing director of cidermaker Thatchers, was also born into his role. He had a thorough grounding in the whole business before taking over from his father as managing director in 1992.

He says: “As a cidermaking business we need staff with a huge range of skills – from orcharding and land management to cidermaking and process, through to IT, sales, marketing and office skills. Many of these are very specific to our industry so we go out of our way to train the next generation and make sure they are armed with the particular skills we require.”

“It all started in a restaurant  called The Black Olive on Stanley Street in Sydney,” says Paul Schaafsma, chief executive at Accolade Wines.

“We were having dinner with a friend of my wife’s who was in recruitment, and she asked me how my job was going. I explained that, although I was very grateful that I had received a scholarship from the Australian Chamber of Manufacturers to complete my business degree, working in planning and purchasing for a conveyor belt manufacturer was a little dull. She said we needed to fix this, and asked me: ‘What do you love?’ I said: ‘I like this red we’re drinking’.

“The following week I found myself being interviewed for a sales manager job at Mildara Blass. From there it has all been about hard work, strong relationships, listening and adapting to the needs of the market. In 2012,
I joined Accolade Wines.”

Schaafsma adds: “It is very important to nurture talent for the future success of any business. Recognising and rewarding talented individuals within the company inspires and motivates the team. Spotting talent is a mix of proven results and one’s own instinct. It is important that a person is talented but that they also fit with the ethos and the objectives for the business as a whole.

“I often say ‘hire the person not the position’. Quite often you can train someone into a role, but it is much more difficult to teach the right work ethic and behaviour.”

Jancis Robinson MW, broadcaster, Financial Times columnist and author, started out as an assistant editor on Wine & Spirit, a monthly trade magazine that merged into Harpers in 2008. She went on to be offered the job of wine correspondent for the Sunday Times and a book commission which tempted her to the freelance life she still enjoys.

She says: “It is hugely important to give others the breaks I have been lucky enough to have, even though there are so many more aspiring wine writers today than there were when I started out. I’m not sure I have spotted and nurtured enough talent but I am staggered to find that the jancisrobinson.com team is now 14-strong. To find talent, all I have to do is read.”

Hogs Back Brewery owner Rupert Thompson started out as a graduate trainee with Bass and wound his way through sales and marketing, pubs and brewing, to set up his own business, Refresh, which took on the Ushers brands Wychwood and Brakspear.

He sold Refresh to Marston’s in 2008 and bought Hogs Back Brewery, where he is chairman and managing director.

“I look for an entrepreneurial spark and the intellect to consider a range of options before acting,” he says. “Small businesses cannot succeed without leaders with those skills.”

Brewdog founder James Watt started out as a lawyer but couldn’t work up any passion for the career, so he teamed up with school pal Martin Dickie to do something he was passionate about, creating an alternative to the bland, fizzy lagers that seemed ubiquitous at the time.

They started out brewing in Dickie’s garage, but expanded rapidly to become Scotland’s largest independent brewery in just two years.

Watt says: “We look for individuals who have an uncompromising passion for craft beer, a willingness to take risks, an insatiable thirst to keep learning and the zeal to spread the message of the craft beer revolution to any and everyone. Finding people like this is the difference between surviving and thriving in the beer industry.”

Brigid Simmonds, chief executive of the British Beer & Pub Association, came to the role after a career spanning the army, architecture and trade body Business In Sport & Leisure.

She says: “When I joined the BBPA I undertook a fairly major restructuring of the organisation and combined our brewing and pubs policy teams into one. Nurturing talent needs more than just one person – it is a team effort.

“The fact that we are so active, have to move fast and conquer either bad policy proposals or convince others to back something we want to change, helps talent to come through.”

Tatiana Fokina, chief executive of Hedonism Wines, came into drinks from a background in luxury goods. She says: “True talent is always visible, you just need to have your eyes open and be attentive to people you work with.”

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