“We have to evolve every year. If you are not developing, you’re in danger of being left behind. Having heritage doesn’t give you a licence to sit back…in fact you have to work even harder.” That’s very much the motto of James Davy, chairman of the now 150 year-old, and still family-owned, Davy’s Wine Merchants, that it is his turn to be in charge of. He talks to Richard Siddle why he is so proud to be leading the business through what is such a clearly important milestone for the company and how, in particular, its wholesale and distribution division has now grown in recent years to be on an equal footing to the wine bars and restaurants it has become so well known for. Sourcing and distributing the right wines for its growing customer base whilst gaining a reputation for efficiency, consistency and reliability is what still drives Davy and his team forward.
Next month you can see and taste for yourself just how on top Davy’s Wine Merchants is of its wholesale and distribution business as its Old World Portfolio tasting at the Royal Over-Seas League in St James’ on February 5. Here’s James Davy on what to expect.
Sitting down to chat with James Davy, chairman of Davy’s Wine Merchants, you quickly get a warm sense of calm and control as he talks modestly, but confidently, about his business. But then considering we are talking here about one of the oldest family-run wine merchants in the country, which this year celebrates its 150th anniversary, you might expect Davy to be reasonably satisfied he and his team have done more than most to make a name for themselves in the cut and thrust of the UK wine trade.
Not that he is in any way complacent or under any illusion that the industry owes him and his company a living just because they have been part of it for so long. If anything, it makes Davy even more aware of the need to be constantly adapting and re-inventing the business, so it remains relevant in 2020.
“We have to evolve every year,” is how James Davy puts it. “If you are not developing, you’re in danger of being left behind. Having heritage doesn’t give you a licence to sit back… in fact you have to work even harder. There are always new kids on the block, ‘disruptors’ that you have to find new ways to compete with.
He adds that his company, like its competition, has had to deal with the past four years of political and economic uncertainty on the back of the EU referendum result – a situation that he believes has really tested the fundamental strengths of merchants, wholesalers and suppliers operating across the trade.
We met ahead of Davy’s Old World Portfolio Tasting on February 5th that will have extra meaning in the company’s 150th anniversary year. Although we were in one of Davy’s institutions – the Crusting Pipe wine bar in Covent Garden – we were here to talk about the wine merchant side of the company, which goes back to Davy’s establishment in 1870.
Back to its merchants’ roots
James Davy sees the re-focus on the merchants and wholesale side of the business as a welcome return to the company’s roots, after the expansion of its wine bar operation in the 1960s (the first ‘Davy’s Wine Bar’ was in 1964 with the opening of the Boot & Flogger near London Bridge and over the following decades another 45 outlets have been added).
“Go back 50 years, when the London wine bar scene boomed, 95% of the wine we shipped was supplied to Davy’s wine bars”, he confirms. “That percentage now sits at 45% reflecting the re-emergence of the merchant business.”
Davy’s, in fact, can now claim to be the only long-established wine merchant in London that has an on-trade, wholesale and retail arm.
“It’s a better place for the business to be,” says Davy, who freely admits it was a challenge to ensure both businesses were operating to their full potential. In his typically modest way, Davy says he can take some quiet comfort in the “reasonable success we have had in putting the wine merchants back on the map”.
“We now have two successful businesses working alongside each other that can also feed off each other. That is something I can look back on with some personal satisfaction.”
He adds: “We used to have cellars half full of furniture for our bars. They are now full of wine for our wholesale business, which has gone from supporting our bars to being a flourishing wine merchant business in its own right.”
Double digit growth
Davy’s wholesale business enjoyed double digit growth in 2019, a performance that Davy is righty proud of as it is the result of not just what it has been done in the last 12 months.
“We have engineered that growth to happen,” he says. “Wholesale has grown thanks to the hard work that has gone on over the last decade and more.”
A step change came, in fact, in 2009 when Davy’s took over the long-standing, Mayor Sworder merchant business. “It was one of the great old wine trade names,” says Davy. “It gave us the ability to double our number of wholesale customers and some really good producers came with the deal as well.”
“It meant the business could build a bigger sales team and start to push distribution with more customers. “That’s when we could move beyond just organic growth. Since then we have kept that momentum going and been able to grow at a different pace.”
Davy also believes the fact that his is a smaller distribution business, compared to large national operators, gives it an advantage in some areas and with certain types of customer. “Growth has come from developing relationships with customers that want to buy because they love the wines, not just the price point,” he says. “Yes, of course, price is always a factor, but we will walk away from any tender that is only about hitting the lowest price points. That’s not what Davy’s has ever been about.”
“We really champion the wines and the unique growers we have and pride ourselves on the personal service we provide. It’s been exciting to see the business grow in what has been a rotten climate to work in, particularly with the problems we have had with currency since 2016.”
Growth has not only come in terms of actual sales, but also in the number of new customers. Whereas Davy’s was supplying around 200 customers five years ago, that figure is now above 400 and still growing. It also now has an even split between the number of restaurant and on-trade accounts it works with, and independent wine merchants, caterers, members clubs, liveries and hotels.
The bulk of its business is in the south, in and around London, complemented by some national operators, notably hotels and independent retailers. Having its own duty paid (Victorian) cellars, in Greenwich, also means it is able to act quickly and gives it an extra edge with regard to the London restaurant scene.
More customers… better service
According to James Davy, the challenge for his wholesale team is to keep and raise their standards of service even higher – easier said than done as any wholesale business will tell you. So, what does “good service” mean to Davy?
“It essentially means delivering on your promises. But that’s the minimum of good service. For some merchants good service might mean taking an order and following up with an invoice. For us it also means being consistent, reliable, willing to go the extra mile.”
Having long-standing team members within the firm, whom customers can get to know, is also part of providing a good service, he believes, referring to it as a “huge part of a successful relationship”.
The wholesale sales team has three full-time members, with solid back office support and a dedicated logistics team to ensure service is 100%: the right stock, in the right place at the right time. It’s also offers a dedicated training manager, who can work directly with customers on their staff wine training needs.
“Being small and fleet of foot is a key factor for delivering a personal service. “
More customers, more wines
More customers have placed a bigger focus on the role of the buying team at Davy’s to source a wider range of wines. Where possible, Davy’s looks for exclusivity in the UK, “an approach that determines where we go for new producers,” he adds. “Certainly not those looking to shift thousands of cases!”
“We don’t work as an agency. We want to build all-round good relationships with our producers, import their wines directly and exclusively, and place them well in the market. What’s nice is that producers are now approaching us, wanting to work with us,” says Davy.
Exclusive wines now make up 80% of the Davy’s wholesale range with the remainder being mostly in sought-after, aged fine wines. Many of these will be open to taste at February’s Old World portfolio tasting on Wednesday 5th at Royal Over-Seas League in St James’.
“It is a significant event for us,” he says. The chance to really show what we claim to do.”
The tasting showcases Davy’s European wine offer and the company holds its New World Tasting in September, reflecting its increasingly varied list.
Davy says that over recent years, word of mouth” has attracted more people from a wider range of restaurants, bars and independents and an increasing number of new and potential customers to the tastings, who have the chance also to meet some of its producers.
“We want our customers to talk to the people who make the wines and vice versa. We really know the producers we are working with, so we can tell their story.
For example, at our February 5th tasting, I and our resident MW, Martin Everett will be hosting ‘Heritage in a Bottle’ ‒ a round-table discussion and tasting with five of our oldest partner producers. The focus will be on the place of family-owned producers and the importance of heritage in today’s market and in the future. It will be illustrated by some very rare bottles indeed, including some tawny port from our founding year, 1870, generously provided by Quinta da Silveira.
150th Anniversary Year
2020 promises to be a significant year for Davy and his team as they take the company into its 150th year. It will also be an opportunity for them to shout a little louder about who they are.
“We are a fairly modest company,”James Davy. “We have not always been the best at putting ourselves forward or promoting ourselves and we need to address this.”
He adds: “Our anniversary is a great opportunity for us to remind people our family heritage and the important point of difference that this gives us gives it over our competition, both in the wholesale and bar businesses. A lot of people get reassurance from working with an established name, but we also deal with a lot of people who have no idea we have been around for 150 years! This year is a chance to communicate the fact that we are, fully independent, have five generations of experience, a wonderful portfolio of wines that for the most part we select and ship ourselves exclusively to the UK… and we provide a service second to none.”
Throughout 2020, Davy’s will be partnering with a number of wineries from Europe and the UK to celebrate their anniversary with commemorative labels and special events. It is certainly an exciting time for Davy’s, a unique company that still shows it has the energy and ability to combine its heritage and traditions and set the agenda as a leading wine merchant.
Davy’s Old World Portfolio tasting, February 5, 11am-6pm
You can come and see and experience the Davy’s merchant business for yourself at its Old World Portfolio tasting the Royal Over-Seas League in St James’ on February 5.
Key themed tables will include wines for independent merchants, small and rare parcel wines and wines ideal to sell by the glass.
This year’s 3 masterclasses will be:
11.30am-12.30pm – The Art of Amphora, with Pedro Ribeiro, Bojador, Alentejo
2.30pm-3.30pm – Hungary for Volcanic Wines, with Robert Gilvesy, Gilvesy Cellars, Badacsony
4.30pm-5.30pm – Heritage in a Bottle, tasting and discussion of library vintages with Davy’s longest-established producers
To find out more go to https://www.davywine.co.uk/wholesale/