The wine trade is full of characters, but none more so than Ted Sandbach, the driving force behind his own Oxford Wine Company business. As it celebrates its 25th anniversary we paid him a visit and found him in a typically upbeat, controversial yet enthusiastic mood. Not surprising with a successful retail, wine bar and wholesale business to run.
How Ted Sandbach has slowly, if not quietly, built up a successful retail, wine bar and on-trade wholesale business.
If you were pulling together a list of the most important in terms of size, yet most influential in terms of what they say and do then Ted Sandbach and his Oxford Wine Company would have to be near the top of if.
There might be independent operators with more stores, and a bigger wholesale business but there aren’t many that have quite the force of personality and will of Ted Sandbach in full flow.
He has a winning mix of charm, but backed up with a steely determination to get what he wants. Topped off with a great sense of humour.
Just over the course of a couple of hours he covers everything from the highs and lows of running an independent retail business, the tribulations of finding the right staff, bending the ear of his local MP, who was up until last summer also the Prime Minister, dealing with local councils, the fall out from Brexit, the lack lustre attitude of the trade to tackle wine duty, the cricket in India, good and bad suppliers to what fun he is still having running his own business.
A business that this year celebrates its 25th anniversary and a combined turnover from its retail, wholesale and now own café and on-trade business of some £5.5 million.
He has in that time made many friends in the wine trade and by his own admission probably fallen out with, or prickled the hairs of, a fair few others. Sandbach is not afraid to speak his mind and if sensitive souls get caught in the crossfire then so be it.
I can remember in a previous life once hosting a panel debate with leading Champagne brands and houses at a trade tasting event. And then having to calm down the PR of one of the region’s most famous Champagne houses after their managing director had been publicly pilloried by Sandbach for allowing its Champagne to be sold in at discount prices in the supermarkets and not offering the same deals to independents. But it was worth every minute.
Sandbach is exciting to be around. He makes things happen and it is not afraid to make tough decisions. For example, he was quick to recently close one of his stores in Cirencester which he quite openly admits just had not worked.
But rather than worry about it, he has been quick to realise that the success of his business rests 100% with its name. It means something in Oxford, but very little once you step on to other people’s turf.
It is why he has decided to go back on his own word that he was not going to open up any more retail shops with plans to open his first central Oxford store. It was, he says, “simply too good an opportunity not to take”.
The fact it is his first retail business in the city centre comes as a bit of a surprise, but he says the timing could not be better as it is important for him and the business, even after 25 years, to cement its position as the city’s number one wine operator.
“It’s a great opportunity to have a presence in the heart of the city. We were also aware we were a little vulnerable to competition coming in by not having a site in the middle of the city. So this means more people will know about us,” he explains.
Three in to one
The Oxford Wine Company can now be split in to three distinct areas. The shops, of which there will be three once the city centre store opens in a few months. Its two cafés and wine bars that have taken the company in to the on-trade for the first time over the last three years. But the real powerhouse of the business is its wholesale operation, that now accounts for 70% of its turnover and sees it supplying wine to restaurants, bars, pubs and hotels right down the M4 corridor in the south west with growing business in London as well. So he is covering all bases.
He is quick to stress that whilst he his the managing director he can’t take credit for the day to day running of the business. That is all down to John Chapman who he refers to time and again for not only his business skills, but his palate and ability to pick out and identify new wines and, in particular, the spirits part of the business.
He says running his own on-trade business has clearly helped him understand the needs and pressures of his own on-trade customers far more. He opened his first café and wine bar in the Summertown area of Oxford in 2013 and then followed it up in August 2015 in the more central area of Jericho, close to the Lamb & Flag pub for those that now their Oxford.
They are both performing well and are open from 8.30am to 11pm and to midnight on Friday and Saturday.
“We run them as separate businesses to the shops and wholesale business. During the day we sell coffees and sandwiches and meat and cheese platters and then they turn in to a bar in the evening,” says Sandbach.
He says the hardest part is finding the right staff as he not only wants those with hospitality experience, but to also have wine knowledge too, and is delighted to have a former sommelier as part of his team. It is one thing having staff, it is another motivating and keeping them. Which is why, he says, he is so pleased to have one of his sons, George managing the sites and keep on top of the day to day pressures.
They are also clearly ideal places to sell and try their own wines. Where possible Sandbach tries to offer as wide a range by the glass, with up to 30 to choose from at any one time.
It is also a great way for the staff to be able to talk and get to know their customers, he adds.
“We put a lot of emphasis on good service and interaction with the customers. Which is why we don’t have wine dispensing machines. I think they’re so impersonal.”
What is so refreshing about Sandbach is he does not try and sugar coat or pull the wool over your eyes. It just is not in his nature. Take his retail business. He admits quite openly that the last five years have been a struggle which is a reflection of the independent merchant business as a whole. There might be a lot more interest in the sector with suppliers and producers queuing up to offer their wines, but it does not make running an independent any more easier, stresses Sandbach. He has had to close two shops in the last couple of years.
He explains: “The last five years have not been easy, and we did a lot of work in the last year to reduce costs, by doing lots of little things better, sourcing and buying better and being more efficient. It has worked and we had a very good year in 2016.”
He adds: “The growth is definitely coming from the on-trade where our level and quality of service is vital. You have to get the right combination between, price, value and service. That is the way to build loyalty. We want to talk to people who are looking for something interesting or unique. But if we make mistakes we put them right very quickly.”
It is also about being flexible and allowing customers to pick and choose what they want from your range.
Working with Independents
The Oxford Wine Company is also a member of the Vindependents buying group of independent wine merchants. It is proving a successful way for non competing independent merchants to pool resources and source wines they can all collectively sell under their own labels.
Sandbach is excited about the possibilities that the group has, but admits it is also early days in working how best to make them happen. “It has helped us find some sensible margins on some very good wines and it is a good way to share ideas and experiences. But we are still finding the best way to work together.”
Brexit and pricing
Considering the number of major wholesalers and distributors that did put up their prices in the wake of the EU referendum vote and subsequent fall in duty, it is surprising to hear Sandbach didn’t. It also reveals a lot about how he likes to run his business.
He explains why: “We shall have to look at the situation again in the first quarter of this year, but we have had a lot of loyalty from our customers and wanted to show them some loyalty back. It might be more difficult this year, but we know that our customers are looking for consistent pricing. That’s the key. They might be able to get a bigger range from larger distributors, but they can’t be sure that their pricing will be consistent.”
He is more than hopeful that there could be better news with wine duty in the March Budget.
“Surely the Chancellor can’t put up duty again this year. We need to encourage the industry as a whole to make our case that he doesn’t. Either way we are quiet cautious about hedging our bets with currency and always look to build in a bit of wiggle room.”
The Oxford Wine Company goes in to its 25th year in clearly a strong position. It has grown to such an extent that it now has a staff count, including full and part-time staff, topping 40 people. But with Sandbach at the helm they know they have someone who is out there fighting for them.