“I have been given the keys to the car and it’s up to me now to drive it.” That’s how Michael Saunders reflects on the chance he has been given to take back his old job as chief executive of Bibendum-PLB as its new owners, the C&C Group, look to kick on from the disaster of Conviviality PLC, and find a safe pair of hands to not only bring much needed stability to the business, but push forward and drive margins and profits through the company.
They say you should never go back to past glories, but for Michael Saunders the chance to reclaim his chief executive’s role at Bibendum-PLB was just too good to turn down, particularly with the clout, and financial support of the C&C Group behind it. In his first main interview on taking on the role he explains to Richard Siddle why he is so excited to be back and what challenges and opportunities lie ahead for him and his team.
If you look around the business world then there are certain individuals and personalities that are just made for each other. Whether they have helped create the business in the first place, like Richard Branson at Virgin or Malcom Walker at Iceland Foods, or have been part of the company in one role or another since its start. Michael Saunders fits very nicely into the latter.
His return this week to re-claim the chief executive role at Bibendum-PLB, might on the one hand go down as one of the most surprising management appointments for some time – it also makes complete sense.
When the C&C Group stepped in to rescue Bibendum-PLB and Matthew Clark after the collapse of Conviviality PLC in March it was moving into unchartered territory of national UK drinks distribution.
OK, it does do some distribution for itself, primarily for Anheuser-Busch Invbev in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but it is very much about creating category leading brands such as Magners, Tennents, and Bulmers, rather than worrying about the last mile to get them into the right shops, bars, pubs and restaurants.
It has largely relied on Matthew Clark and Bibendum to do that for them. Anheuser-Busch InBev, for example, is said to be Matthew Clark’s biggest customer.
So when the decision was made by C&C chief executive, Stephen Glancey, to give Matthew Clark and Bibendum-PLB their own heads, their own autonomy to run their businesses as they see fit, he then had to work out who was going to run them.
Which is why just over a week ago he made the call to Michael Saunders and asked him if he wanted to come back. It did not take Saunders long to say yes.
After all he was only hours away from putting together a takeover deal himself, with a whole range of investors, for the Bibendum business before C&C stepped in.
Just over a month later he is now back in any case. It was clearly meant to be.
Why I’m going back
“Stephen’s call came as a bit of an unexpected treat,” is how Saunders reflects on the move that has catapulted him back to the front line of national wine distribution. “He asked if I fancied meeting up and when he did he wanted to know if I would consider going back in.”
Crucial to Saunders decision was the opportunity, at the same time, to also bring back as “his number two” the respected James Kowszun to his own previous role as chief operating office.
That, says Saunders, was vital. To have someone alongside him who he can trust completely, who knows Bibendum inside out nearly as much as he does. “We fit together like hands in a glove,” says Saunders. “I also know we can work well together.”
Saunders’ brief from Glancey and C&C is clear and focused. To first bring stability to the team, to its customers and to its suppliers. Most of whom Saunders has known for years, if not decades.
“Compared to another chief executive they could have brought in C&C know I can hit floor running from day one. This is a business I know inside out. I have relationships with customers, suppliers and producers going back decades,” he said.
He is also incredibly passionate about a business he was worked in since 1983. If he was passionate before, then we can expect a whole lot more, he promises. “You’re going to get it in buckets now,” he says.
He is also open enough to admit it was also quite a “pragmatic” decision to make to come back. “I had been looking for a job so I am delighted I have been able to find it again here.”
Even the coldest heart amongst its fiercest rivals can’t begrudge Saunders the chance to go back to the company he so clearly loves and where he also sees lots of unfinished business.
In a way it’s almost like he never really left. He might formally have stepped back from his consultancy, advisory role earlier this year, but his heart was still very much part of the business. At least the Bibendum part of it.
It’s certainly the mark of the man that when Conviviality PLC was completely pole-axed and only days away from potential administration at this year’s ProWein who did the management team turn to represent them and get out and talk to suppliers and producers? Yes, Michael Saunders.
Not one of the top, senior faceless Conviviality PLC board was there to be seen, but Saunders was prepared to walk the walk, talk the talk and as he says “look people in the eye” and tell them straight to their face what the situation was.
“It was a really torrid week for everyone. But I am an absolute believer that you have go and face up to any issues you have. After all we’re talking about suppliers and producers who have been friends of mine for years. It’s my old fashioned way and, in my view, the only way to do it.”
It was still, however, quite a thing to do when you consider Conviviality had been slowly scaling back his services and influence over the last two years.
The going back dilemma
But is it always wise to go back to former glories? After all Bibendum-PLB was in a position where it was quite happy to sell when Conviviality came calling this time two years ago. Admittedly with a hard to ignore £60m cheque.
Whilst there was a lot about the pre-Conviviality Bibendum-PLB business that was right, particularly around its market leading insights and strong wine portfolio, there were also question marks about how much growth and margin there was in the business as it was to really take it on to the next level.
Only those within Bibendum will know how far it has progressed – or regressed – under Conviviality PLC. The one man who is best placed to know is certainly Michael Saunders. His passion for the business has probably grown even stronger over the last two years. Particularly now its name has been dragged through the Conviviality mud over the last two to three months.
That’s why Saunders stresses he is not going back completely to the same company.
“Some people say you should never go back, but this is a very different situation,” he says. “The DNA of the company might be the same, but there have been some changes made that we are going to have to look into.”
What he’s not there to do is simply look to rewind the clock to 2015 and pre-Conviviality. “I am not here to do a pastiche of Bibendum.”
He’s also going back into a company with “the financial resources of C&C behind it”. Not to mention the powerhouse of the world’s biggest brewer, Anheuser-Bush Inbev, that has C&C as its distribution partner in the UK.
“That’s a very good platform on which to work from,” he adds.
Although the initial objective will be to bring that “stability” he talks about, and, no doubt, take some of the winds out of the sails of its biggest competitors, there will also be a pressure to deliver results and drive growth and margins back through the business.
Which, for Saunders, means Bibendum being considered as the leading player in premium wines and spirits. This week’s announcement that’s it won the Sommelier Wine Awards overall prize as Merchant of the Year for the second year running shows the business as a whole is doing what it needs to do when it comes to having award winning wines.
The key now is to make sure there are more of them in the right restaurants, bars, pubs and hotels. “All the ingredients are here,” he adds. “We have a very good team of people.”
That’s why he thinks it’s crucial Bibendum-PLB can now essentially be run as a standalone business. “It’s all about giving true focus to what we are doing, and just concentrating on being able to run Bibendum-PLB.”
Yes, ultimately C&C is in charge of what he can do, but Saunders is fine with that. “I used to have to answer to a board so it’s just the same now.”
But he’s in charge of coming up with a plan, a strategy, he thinks is right for Bibendum-PLB and its suppliers and customers.
“I have been given the keys to the car and it’s up to me now to drive it.”
Driven by passion
You only have to spend a short period of time with Saunders to see a burning ambition to see Bibendum-PLB back firing again with all its old pomp and circumstance. But this is also a very different market. The competition is even more intense and comes in many more forms. A lot of it online, and with business models that are lot more flexible and not dragged down by the costs of a national drinks distributor, however charismatic its leader.
Whichever way you look at it Bibendum-PLB and Matthew Clark have been through a tumultuous few months. Who knows, perhaps even longer. Its respective teams look like they have been through the equivalent of a human car wash, but also know its time for them to bounce back, get up off the floor and go again.
But it’s also been their hard work, dedication and professionalism that has arguably kept Bibendum-PLB and Matthew Clark’s heads above water for their to be businesses to revive.
Which makes Saunders’ return seem an inspired move. What Bibendum-PLB needs more than anything is strong leadership. Someone to get their hands on the tiller, telescope in the pocket, and get the main sails up, and use that slightly battered staff spirit and culture to drive the business forward.
You don’t have to agree with everything he says and does, you just need someone with the personality, the experience, the know-how to set out a strategy with conviction and stick to it.
“To say Bibendum has not been through its problems would be bollocks,” says Saunders.
So what’s first in his inbox? Well, for Saunders it’s less about what wines and spirits they are stocking, it’s more about how they are being sold. “It’s about having the right level of focus on our customer service, our operations, and our systems,” he says.
The operations and systems bit could be the more tricky bit. After all they were the two areas the overall Conviviality group that came in for damning criticism by the City in its death-throws in March. How much that goes down to a Bibendum-PLB level remains to be seen, but you can see why Saunders was so keen to get his old operations chief, James Kowszun, back into the business.
So much of the wine part of the drinks industry is famously run on the strengths of your people and the relationships they have with their customers and suppliers. It’s what Saunders thrives on. Even those in the trade who don’t know him, know of him. Bibendum staff past and present all share similar anecdotes of Saunders prowling the floor at Bibendum HQ. Very much a charismatic leader that’s as much part of the team as he is leading it.
His return will also, no doubt, help Bibendum-PLB regain a lot quicker the faith and trust, where needed, of both its customer and supplier base. Those don’t just come back with good, strong soundbites, but with strong leadership and real changes on the ground.
He’s clearly been blown away by the response he has had just in the few days since he has returned full time to the company. “It’s been a bit emotional to be honest and very humbling. The reaction I have had from customer, and suppliers has been phenomenal. But it’s also very exciting.”
A lot of hard work
He is also very aware that after the initial congratulations there is a lot of hard work to be done. Both Bibendum-PLB and Matthew Clark need to find ways in which they can drive higher margins and more realistic customer-driven sales targets back into their respective businesses. Remember these were two companies that were very much in “sale” mode when Conviviality PLC came calling. Recruiting chief executives and bringing strong characters back into the respective companies is arguably the easiest bit, the hard bit now comes in what they do.
That potentially is where the big difference will come with both C&C’s hands-off involvement and Saunders direct control. Decisions can be made that are sustainable for customers and suppliers alike and not chasing the next PLC quarter’s announcement to the City.
It’s going to take market leading innovation and risk taking. It might mean bringing in fresh, new talent to help mix it up with the industry heavyweights and familiar faces who have been there and seen it all before.
Whatever it does the rest of the industry will be watching, waiting and reacting to what it does next.
- You can read our initial analysis earlier this week on C&C’s decision to run Matthew Clark and Bibendum-PLB as two separate businesses with some joint functions here.