Being successful in the modern wine industry is becoming more about the kind of business you run, the connections you have, the doors you can open up and opportunities you can create as well as having wines that consumers actually want to buy. In World Cup footballing terms it’s being that elusive Number 10, the creative, talented, all-seeing player that can play “between the lines” of the opposition’s defence and midfield, to carve open winning goal scoring opportunities for your team. It’s an approach that’s not lost on Paul Schaafsma and his new wine business, Benchmark Drinks.
It’s been an eventful last couple of years for Paul Schaafsma, former chief executive of both Accolade Wines and Broadland Wineries, but his new independent wine business, Benchmark Drinks, could well be putting those experiences to good effect.
Now Paul Schaafsma himself would not in a month of Sundays ever compare himself to a fleet of foot Neymar, a cunning Philippe Coutinho, or mesmerising Lionel Messi. But there are similarities (just) in how they go about getting success in their respective lines of work.
For the pressure on a mercurial, playmaker footballer is all about having the vision, the ability, the awareness to be able to see a pass, a move or a player where your opposition can’t. Whilst most of those around you are happy to continue to play the ball monotonously from side to side, in a strict 4-4-2 formation, you’re the one that is expected to do something out of the ordinary.
Which is a rather neat way to introduce the new business strategy of Paul Schaafsma and his new brand development and distribution business, Benchmark Drinks.
A strategy that can be essentially divided into two halves. On the one hand you have arguably a more traditional model of brand building and working with producers that might have existing strong brands, like Invivo Wines and its Graham Norton GN wine brand, and look at ways you can help them build the brand through distribution and sales.
Or, and this is where it gets more interesting, striking strategic partnerships with businesses and operations that really can open doors and push you straight into potentially the Premiership of wine sourcing and distribution. The World Cup equivalent of the quarter finals, semi-finals and finals.
Reaching the Pinnacle
Which for Shaafsma and Benchmark Drinks means the strategic alliance it has formed with Australia’s Pinnacle Drinks to source wine, particularly in bulk from Australia and New Zealand. It gives him and Benchmark Drinks more of a reason to go knocking on the door of the major wine buyers at the UK’s biggest supermarkets, cash and carry groups and on-trade operators. Even though he and his team of admittedly, talented former Accolade Wines’ sales, marketing and insight executives, Andy Cameron, Amy White and Ian Anderson, can all fit in the back of a London cab.
Now you could say the pressure was on the former Accolade chief executive to mark his return to the mainstream wine market with an attention grabbing approach. Particularly as he only lasted for a few months at what had been his initial comeback role at Broadland Wineries in the second half of last year.
Right move, right time
Schaafsma’s decision to now go it alone and do things for himself feels the right move at the right time. It’s clear from talking to Schaafsma that not only has he got his mojo back, but he believes the Pinnacle Drinks alliance gives Benchmark Drinks a real point of difference in the market.
Through Pinnacle Drinks, Schaafsma can potentially access bulk and bottled wine, which can either be used to create their own exclusive brands or potentially be used to create private label and new brands for customers in the UK. All backed up by a bottling contact with Greencroft Bottling, part of the Lanchester Group in Durham. Pinnacle also has its own range of bands that could be suitable for the UK market.
“They are not an owner in our business, but they are a strategic partner,” says Schaafsma.
It’s also not an exclusive arrangement as Pinnacle Drinks has also worked with other partners including Les Grands Chais de France.
It makes even more sense when you throw Lloyd Stephens, Pinnacle’s general manager into the mix. Stephens will be well known to the UK wine trade for al the time he spent here across a wide number of roles at Threshers, First Quench, and McWilliams.
Clearly his close association with Schaafsma has helped bring this association together. One which was initially going to be utilised when Schaafsma was at Broadland Wineries. “When Lloyd and I first started talking about this we recognised the complementary skills sets and what each of us could offer, so it’s a good partnership,” explains Schaafsma.
Otherwise Schaafsma’s and Benchmark Drinks approach is very much what you would expect from a man and a team that have cut their teeth in the world of branded wine, which in Schaafsma’s case first started out at McGuigan Wines and Australian Vintage.
Buyers can expect a similar consumer focused, branded approach from Benchmark Drinks, as Schaafsma explains: “The experience of working at McGuigan and Accolade and understanding what customers are looking for and making sure before you walk into a meeting you have actually thought about the solution and your reason for being with them. There is still so many people who walk into meetings who just say here’s my brand, buy me and aren’t I wonderful.”
Benchmark Drinks is already looking to punch above its weight when it comes to investing in data and insights. “I think you have got to understand the customer and understand their needs. It’s why we are investing a lot of money in category and insights. Ian Anderson, former head of Accolade’s global insights, is part of our team and why we are investing so much in data and to use that data to better understand the consumer so we are more appropriate for our customers. Without that sort of credibility you are not offering that complete solution.”
The branded side of Benchmark Drinks is already looking healthy with Invivo Wines moving over from PLB. Which considering Schaafsma is also an independent director of the burgeoning New Zealand group is probably not too surprising a move.
Invivo Wines is particularly well placed to drive its business forward with Benchmark Drinks thanks to the enormous success the Graham Norton celebrity GN wine range has had. In the last 12 months alone it has seen a 213% increase in sales in the UK grocery sector, it’s the fastest growing and twelfth overall New Zealand wine brand, with an average retail price of £7.98 compared to £7.08 for New Zealand as a whole. It is also going great guns in Ireland where it accounts for 10% of the NZ$20m New Zealand market, and is the number three brand in Musgrave and fourth in Tesco.
The range is also being expanded to now include a rosé, which is initially being introduced exclusively via Tesco, followed by Prosecco DOC which takes the brand outside of New Zealand. The Prosecco has already been very well received in Australia and New Zealand where the boom in Prosecco boom is only just starting.
Invivo founders, Tim Lightbourne and Rob Cameron, are pleased to be on board with Benchmark Drinks as they believe they can take advantage of Schaafsma’s experience, along with his team of former Accolade Wines executives, and their track record of building major wine brands in the UK market.
Even so it was still a big step to leave the size, scale and reputation of PLB, even with its recent Conviviality troubles, to join what is still effectively a start-up, even if it is run by one of your own independent directors.
“We’ve gone from being a small fish in a big pond at Conviviality to working here alongside Paul, and the contacts he’s got and the team he’s built is just perfect for Invivo and where our brands are at the moment,” says Cameron.
“I think Paul and his team get what we want to do as a company,” says Lightbourne. “Their listening to the consumer, and insights and being a hands-on team.”
Scratching the surface
Which again is the right time for Invivo and Benchmark to be working together with a brand like GN. “We’re only scratching the surface with it. There’s a lot to be done here and we would love this brand to be a household name,” says Lightbourne. “We want to be a top five brand in the UK.”
Schaafsma says the GN brand has values going for it that other wine brands would die for: “Consumers are looking for a brand that they can recognise, they’re looking for trust and they’re looking for some sort of relationship with the brand. They know Graham Norton, they know the show and they have a relationship with him already in the way they engage with him on his show. So it ticks so many boxes.
“They also understand the varieties and the styles of wine they like within the range. It’s a really compatible fit and a lot more powerful than a brand that is a region that no-one has ever heard of, or a town, or a road, or a creek, dare I say it. This is far more compelling and it’s why these guys have gone from 14,000 bottles to 3 million bottles in four years. The brand’s right, the wine’s right and the opportunities for the brand are massive.”
Investing for the future
Invivo is currently going through its second crowdfunding campaign to bring new capital into its business. After raising NZ$2m in 2015 through crowdfunding, the biggest by any business in New Zealand, it is now close to raising another NZ$2m, the most you can raise in any year by crowdfunding, plus a further NZ$4.5m in private and wholesale investment.
It then plans to spend 30% to 40% of that new $6.5m investment with what it calls “activation” work in the UK market. “We want to get the brand really ramped up,” says Cameron. “We haven’t been in a position before where we’ve had such good momentum over the last six to 12 months, so it’s time to really push the button on it,” he adds.
That level of commitment, argues Schaafsma, speaks volumes for Invivo’s and Benchmark Drinks focus on the UK market. “Given the chatter about companies moving their focus to Asia and maybe not investing in the UK, for a true brand to make a commitment to invest in this market is quite a strong message about its intentions,” he stresses.
Invivo will therefore be looking to work with and invest in its main on and off-trade customers “to really grow the brand” by investing in whatever “in-store marketing tools” they can use.
Which again is a big potential advantage for Invivo Wines as Lightbourne and Cameron are on hand to make those decisions and have a complete focus of where they want to get to.
“When we are going into meetings then 10% is talking about the product and 90% is about how we are going to help our customers sell it through. It’s always been like that,” says Lightbourne.
The Norton factor
The beauty of the GN brand, and the Graham Norton factor, means it can act a little differently from most wine brands, says Schaafsma. “I think we need to have a multi-channel approach to this,” he adds, with the potential to build its profile in major on and off-trade groups, the cash and carry and convenience sector and through online. “Given the awareness of Graham Norton we need to cover all the channels where his fans would be buying wine from. So we will, for example be looking to build our on-trade distribution.”
Interestingly its crowdfunding pitch also takes about the possibility of a Graham Norton wine in a can range being “in the pipeline” which would take it very much into the convenience and outdoor events and festivals market.
Then there is also the man himself and we can expect to see Graham Norton playing more of an active role personally promoting the brand, be it through the consumer press, or his own social media channels (1.5m Instragram followers and rising), within the restrictions of his BBC contract.
If the distribution and awareness of the brand gets to where Invivo wants it to be then there will be the opportunity to look at above the line activity as well to push the brand onto another level.
The GN brand is currently focused on Invivo’s three key markets, the UK, Ireland and New Zealand, which together equally share around 75% of its sales with the rest coming from Australia, the US, Asia and beyond, says Cameron.
Invivo has enjoyed remarkable success over the last three years going from NZ$3.7m in 2015 to an expected NZ$13.9m this year and hopes its new investment will help it kick on again to what is an ambition to hit NZ$31m by 2022.
As well as Invivo, Benchmark Drinks has another major launch waiting in the wings, with the re-emergence back into the wine world of none other than England cricket legend, Sir Ian Botham.
Schaafsma and his team have spent the last few months quietly, and patiently working with Sir Ian to develop a three-tiered new Botham range. Further details will be released at the end of July, but, like Norton, Schaafsma says Botham has been tireless in making wines that are true to his palate, even it meant sending back samples multiple times.
“He is very fussy about getting things right,” says Schaafsma. “When we were doing the blending sessions the most common answer was ‘no’ and the push back it ‘was not good enough’ and we spent two and a half months getting to the final wines. But we’re really pleased with what we have.”
Going it alone
Benchmark Drinks appears to have come a long way for a business that only started in January. It also marks Schaafsma’s first foray out on his own after a career working for major corporate wine brand businesses.
It’s a move he appears to be relishing, even if it does mean now having to buy his own stationery, and having to track across London to pick up and drop of parcels of wine.
“When I first started in London for McGuigan it was just me, half a pallet of samples and a computer, working out of the basement of my house on Clapham Common, so I am used to starting from not much resource. But I am loving it. I had a fantastic time at Accolade and that was a different experience, but this is nice having control over your own destiny and working with people you want to work with.”
Being a small team also means it can be far more re-active to customers’ needs. “If there’s an issue, then a buyer can just pick up a phone and, within reason, we can turn things around quickly, rather than having to go through layers and layers of management,” says Schaafsma. “Buyers want to talk to the decision maker, they want to know what they can and can’t do.”
Which is where Schaafsma is clearly in his element.