McGovern talks the Aussie talk

For a woman who has just taken over the running of the London-based outpost of Wine Australia – a job that looks like a chalice brimming with hemlock – Lisa McGovern is remarkably relaxed. She even seems to relish the pressure. Two days into her new post, she chaired the AGM of UK importers at Australia House, listening to the views of 60 people and setting out her own vision of where Australia goes next.

“I can talk Australian,” is how she puts it. She’s clearly not scared of a challenge, or of hard work. Immediately after graduation, McGovern spent a year Down Under, pulling pints in a pub in George Town and selling hamburgers at the Sydney Royal Agricultural Show, as well as drinking wine from a 4-litre coolibah to relax. Precious is the last thing you’d call her.

But can she cope with the pressures of such a job? Some of the problems facing Australia – drought, over?supply and the declining share price of several of the biggest producing companies, to name only three – are out of her hands, but re-establishing Australia as a force in the UK is very much her focus. It is still ahead of its competitors, with 21.6% and 22.8% of the market by volume and value, respectively, but Australia is losing share.

McGovern sees two immediate priorities. First

y, to “evolve the positioning of Australia from an every?day to an every?day and special occasion wine, so that people appreciate regional styles”. And second

y, “to inject a sense of fun and energy into the category so that the press and the trade are excited about it again”.

A bigger headache, I suggest, is the discount culture that has contaminated the category in the UK. She concedes that deals “have confused consumers slightly”, but says that “ultimately it’s an internal decision for the companies concerned. Are they making enough return on investment at those prices?”?She doesn’t quite say so, but I suspect that she thinks not. “Is an entry point position sustainable for Australia?” she asks, rhetorically. “I would question how much more volume there is to be gained in the sub-£5 sector and even if there is, who wants or can afford to pursue it? Volume is no good unless it’s profitable volume.”?In any case, Australia may be forced out of that sector by climate change? and smaller vintages, both contributing to a reduction in the “25%-30% on?going surpluses” that have obliged some suppliers to do deals, or even dump wine, to vacate tanks. The most recent estimate from the Australian Wine & Brandy Corporation predicts that the 2009 harvest will be 13% down on 2008 and 20% below the long-term average.

Looking ahead, a combination of drought and scarce irrigation water – levels are so low in the Murray River at the moment that Adelaide could run dry within two years, according to the Murray-Darling Basin Authority – will make it hard, if not impossible, for Australia to compete with countries like Argentina and South Africa at the cheaper end once supply and demand are back in balance.

McGovern knows only too well that big companies pay her salary, and that 75%-80% of UK sales are branded. But she still thinks there’s room to cultivate the “evolved and interested consumer who has grown up with Australia and wants to try n?ew varietals, tastes and styles”. The on?going Regional Heroes campaign, she says, is “part of the evolving Australian strategy and highlights stylistic evolution”.

Talking of which, Regional Heroes is the brainchild of Paul Henry, McGovern’s boss back in Australia. Some observers have suggested that McGovern will have to defer to Henry in the UK, but she rejects the idea. “Paul will take a very healthy interest in the strategic direction of the office but I wouldn’t have taken the job if I didn’t feel he would let me run it my way.”?This is the 39-year-old McGovern’s second crack at heading a generic. She was in charge of New Zealand’s fortunes for three and half years in the 1990s, but says that Australia represents a different level of challenge altogether, partly because she is in charge of the Irish and mainland European markets as well as the? UK, but also because the wine sector has changed dramatically.

“Ten years ago, generics focused on a single message, but now that message has to be a lot more sophisticated. The competition is more abundant and the consumer has evolved.” She is older and more experienced now, having worked for Southcorp, Conran Restaurants and Graham Beck in between, so she reckons she’s better prepared for what the new job will throw at her.

This summer, McGovern is heading back to Australia for three weeks to reacquaint herself with the industry. What will she tell producers Down Under? “I want them to believe that they deliver great value for money, irrespective of price, which was how Australia entered the market.” She will also, one suspects, tell them to stop discounting their own products. “Talking Australian” could come in very handy.