It’s been two years since Harriet Kininmonth took on the wine trading director role at the C&C Group – effectively heading up the wine strategy for Bibendum, Matthew Clark, Walker & Wodehouse and Bibendum Off-trade covering all channels of the wine market outside direct to consumer. In that time she has been able to put in place both a group strategy aimed at better serving its producers and customers whilst also giving the individual businesses greater clarity over their own performance targets and responsibilities. A trading model that looks to maximise the strength and buying power the C&C Group has, without compromising the individual personalities of the separate business units. A challenging and demanding role that Kininmonth describes as “one of the best in the industry” and one she is enjoying hugely and thriving in. She sits down with Richard Siddle to look at how far the new wine strategy has come and what opportunities and potential lies ahead.
Developing a clear strategy for the commercial wine team to follow is how Harriet Kininmonth has been able to set out her wine vision at C&C Group.
“It’s been an absolutely exhilarating two years,” is how Harriet Kininmonth looks back on her time at the C&C Group since joining the business in 2021 from Enotria&Coe where she had been responsible for heading up its wine strategy.
“From one side it has gone like a flash and from another angle it feels like I have done 17 jobs in the space of two years,” she adds. “I have learnt a huge amount about the business, about the trade and about myself and everything in between. But I have really enjoyed it and continue to love it. There is a lot to do and we have come really far, but there is so much vision and change and purpose within the business that there is always so much to do and there is no standing still.”
In fact she says her biggest challenge is to make sure projects and initiatives are completed before there is pressure to move on to the next “big thing”.
Not only did Kininmonth join C&C Group at the height of Covid and all the disruption that brought in itself, but it was at a pivotal time of what was effectively still a new business. Although C&C effectively rescued Bibendum, Matthew Clark, and its sister companies, from the ashes of Conviviality Brands in 2018, the process of bringing the various parts together in a new group was still very much still taking place.
The much needed group strategy was, by its own admission, still not fully in place after couple of false starts and the pressure was on from customers and producers alike for the sum of all its parts to really come to the fore.
Which is pretty much what Kininmonth was brought into the business to do – devising and implementing a group strategy for wine.
A position that some might find daunting. Not Kininmonth. “I think I have got one of the best jobs in the industry, if not the best job.”
The chance to really make a difference through a commercial, effective wine strategy that works across multiple channels.
Clarity and focus
The pressure on Kininmonth to get the central buying function right was intense considering it was the first business unit to follow that strategy across C&C.
She says the first thing she knew she had to was to “generate a really clear strategy for wine” and then drill down and decide “what are we trying to do as a wine commercial team in this business”. Once she and her team were able to do that “everything else has been able to hang off of that”.
Part of that “clear strategy” was to agree on “three strategic objectives” for its wine commercial team to follow which are:
- Build and grow its agency partnerships – with a real focus on developing exclusive partnerships and the value they can bring. Most recently this has included taking on French powerhouse Gerard Bertrand and Yealands in New Zealand.
- Focusing on growing its premium credentials and how it works with, treats and grows its artisanal suppliers.
- Standing up to the challenge and opportunity of servicing a third of the UK on-trade market and making sure it is market leaders with “best value and best quality” wines and ranges.
“Everything we do as a team hangs off those three objectives and if something does not fit into one of these then we should not be doing it,” she says.
In fact listening to Kininmonth you are reminded of the “clarity and purpose” that Ben Stokes, the England cricket captain, says he has looked to instil in his team and his approach as a captain.
Where as a member of that team you have “clarity” over what you are able to do and how to achieve it.
It is also an approach that fits very much into the overall strategic thinking across the C&C Group, which also covers its major beer (Tennents), and cider (Bulmers & Magners) operations. The strategic objectives of its wine commercial team also fit neatly into C&C’s overall group strategy, stresses Kininmonth.
“We make sure everyone knows where they fit, where they add value and how the work they are doing is helping us grow customers and build our reputation. We make sure everyone understands how they contribute.”
But it is also, she adds, about making it clear to people that in a business of this scale it is very easy to get “lost in the detail that is actually not that important” and to keep going back to the strategy to make sure they are focused on issues that really matter and can make a difference.
“It helps everyone understand where they should be spending their time and where, more importantly, they shouldn’t be otherwise you can very quickly feel overwhelmed. That’s probably been my biggest learning curve since being here. There are so many things happening, which is exciting, but you have to be really clear what the priorities are. If I am not clear, then my team isn’t clear.”
Achieving that team mentality is hard, admits Kininmonth, thanks to the new post Covid working practices we all follow, with remote working and team members being in different parts of the country. Which is why she and her commercial team will have regular in person meetings in different cities around the country to keep that group focus.
Getting routes to market right
But Kininmonth is also quick to stress “the principles of our route to market brands haven’t changed” and, if anything, have been “refined” so there is a much clearer direction and focus for the trade about what, for example, Bibendum or Matthew Clark stand for and what “their vision and values are”. Whilst maximising the opportunities and potential that C&C as a group can offer.
Much of Kininmonth’s work has been around how as a group it “buys and ranges” for each trading division and “really understanding” what it is that makes Bibendum, Matthew Clark, Walker & Wodehouse, Bibendum Off-trade and Tennent’s Direct in Scotland worth doing business with.
“The buying and trade marketing teams really need to understand what those route to market propositions are and really buy accordingly,” she explains.
Which means Matthew Clark needs to be a “national drinks distributor that is about value at every price point” that is strong in national accounts and has a range and offer than can help it gain “share of the bar and will often lead with wine to do so”.
Bibendum, she adds, is “about leading” and “being pioneering, insightful and mindful” and it has a “duty to introduce people to unknown regions and styles”.
Bibendum Off-trade’s ambition is to be the “number one partner for major multiples and wine specialists” using insights and added value to “focus in on brands and premium”.
Whilst Walker & Wodehouse is there to serve the independent wine merchant specialist and “is very much a sister company to Bibendum” in terms of range.
Then in Scotland it has a “huge” opportunity to service the trade through Tennent’s Direct, Bibendum and Matthew Clark and “has done a lot of work in getting that portfolio right” so that it can capture more premium accounts and customers.
To get all that right has meant investing more in its buying and trading teams to ensure it has “more people doing less countries” so that they can hit their goals and targets. “We have grown the team in order to do that.”
It is noticeable how many times during our conversation that Kininmonth is keen to talk about the people in her team and the importance of creating a strong working environment and culture.
She says it is the one area that has stood out to her from other businesses she has worked for.
“The way the business cares about people is incredible. The emphasis they put on you as individuals and your rights and their commitments to being more diverse and looking after their people is really amazing. I know I can have a confidential conversation with my line manager or HR, and my team can, and they will deal with individuals in the right way and with respect. I have been really blown away by how supportive the company has been in certain situations.”
She points, for example, to the work that C&C is doing as part of its sustainability and ESG strategy to help people inside and outside the business. It is, for example, supporting The Big Issue homeless charity where members of staff are encouraged to volunteer and share their skills and help Big Issue members. As of part this partnership the C&C Group has recently welcomed six new colleagues, people who have previously faced barriers into sustainable jobs, into roles as part of Big Issue Group’s Big Issue Recruit initaitve.
“We are trading wine which I am very passionate about, but we all need to do more for people and the planet and I know within C&C I can put my head on the pillow at night and know that we are making the right decisions. We want to help and are facing into some of the issues that our industry brings. We are also doing it in the right way and taking our time and want to be leaders. Not that many similar businesses can say the same.”
A sustainability strategy that also means having hard conversations with customers over pricing and sourcing and knowing what impact importing in bulk, or bottling in market might have on local jobs and basing your decision on that and not the price of the wine. “There is sometimes conflict between people and planet. It’s fascinating to try and get under the skin of that.”
Part of Kininmonth’s brief has also been about driving efficiencies across its multiple wine ranges, and, in particular, working harder and more deeply with their producer suppliers to make sure they are maximising those relationships.
It might mean taking more wines from an existing exclusive supplier and using them to replace wine in a particular business unit from a non strategic supplier, she explains.
“So you are working with fewer suppliers, but you have stronger and deeper partnerships with them.”
This is particularly the case at the entry level where you don’t, for example, need to be working with a number of partners supplying multiple versions of Malbec. “It also makes sense to work with fewer bulk suppliers so you get less complexity and better pricing.”
She adds: “If we have an exclusive partner and they have got more to offer and fits really well in one of our business units that they are currently not in and they can replace something that is maybe not strategic then that makes a lot of sense for us.”
The business is also going through a series of system upgrades, including an ERP overhaul, which, although disruptive in the short term, will also help drive more efficiencies through how its various networks and systems operate. “It’s about people, process and systems,” she says.
When our conversation turns to future challenges for the group, Kininmonth is quick to return to her people theme. “People is always my priority,” she says and points to the work that has been done to have senior heads and full teams across its buying and technical functions.
The next stage is to do a similar job with its trade marketing team and having just taken on a new head for that division – Jonathan Day – she is keen to push ahead in turning its role into more of an agency marketing model that can work far closer and offer more a bespoke service for all types of supplier. Particularly how they can be more like the glue between “sales, marketing, buying and our customer”.
“We are looking at how we can incorporate brand management within that and how we look at different types of suppliers,” she adds.
It means suppliers can receive tailored support based on their needs in the market. “We are trying to understand what different types of capability and skill sets we need in that team and make sure they are apportioned in the right way.”
So rather than the traditional supplier relationship or commercial manager roles in the past it is hoped the new agency marketing model will allow C&C to really work hand in hand with its biggest suppliers to build their brands, whilst also having the capability to give a great service to partners such as Accolade Wines, Hatch Mansfield or LVMH, and the flexibility to maximise the marketing budgets of its more artisan suppliers, explains Kininmonth.
“They are the conduit to bring all that together and can really help us grow and grow customers. That’s what we are trying to do at the end of the day. So we are re-jigging that whole function.”
With such a strong focus on people is there a particular type of person that is best suited to work at C&C?
Kinimonth says it is about finding people who have “different strengths” and building a “diverse” team who are all willing to “bring their ideas” to the table. That said she has, over the last 18 months, worked hard to “make sure we have good off-trade expertise within my team” as growing its market share with the major retailers is a core strategy of the group.
As for a typical C&C new recruit she says: “You want people who are passionate about wine and who are ambitious. This is not a business where every week is similar, there is opportunity within this business to really grow. The development plans we put in place for our people is really important to us. You can move in so many directions depending on what your interests are and we will support that journey. It is a business that is going somewhere and it is not for everyone which is fine, but those are the kind of people we want in the team.”
Then there is the training and support you get once you are on board. Kininmonth says the business, for example, is now committed to give its 250 strong sales team wine training up to WSET Level 3 even if they come from beer and cider backgrounds.
“We want to make sure we are upskilling, not just the sales team but the wider team on wine in the business,” which she says backs up Patrick McMahon, C&C’s new chief executive’s public statements about how important wine strategically is for the group.
There is no question that the wine and wider drinks industry is going through another testing time, particularly now the duty reforms and increased rates are in place. But whilst C&C is not exactly getting the bunting out, its latest sales are good and there are some big advantages, stresses Kininmonth, being part of a such a big, diverse business that is so strong in cider, beer and wine, but across manufacturing and distribution too.
“We have a strong balance sheet and want to invest in longer term planning and see wine and our different business units as a real opportunity. Sometimes when other people are struggling that’s quite a good time to be able to invest. It’s around people, process, service. It’s a really exciting time.”
It’s also about planning where future investment needs to be focused on in order to “win share in all those business units”.
Immediate thoughts, though, turn to dealing with the new duty increases that came into force on August 1. For C&C it will be about addressing the separate impacts they are going to have on the on and off-trades. Be it offering major retailers more lower alcohol wines at entry level, and working with producers on picking grapes earlier and reducing abvs through viticulture and winemaking.
“But what is non-negotiable for us is in no instance will quality be at risk” in relation to “anything we decide to do as a reaction to duty”.
Time will tell what the big retailers do, but it is clear wine ranges, particularly at entry level and key commercial price points will start to look very different and C&C needs to be able to offer solutions as when and they come up, she says. “We are ready for it and we will now start looking ahead to 2025.”
She also expects more wines currently trading around £10 to be “pushed out” of the multiple space which will open up opportunities for those wines in other channels and it needs to work closely with any of its supplier partners that are impacted by that. “There will be some changing dynamics there.”
Further up the premium pricing ladder and Kininmonth is quite confident the duty increases will “not have a huge influence” but it is a situation its insights team will be monitoring closely to see how the public and customers respond.
Which brings us back to its suppliers, its producers and the businesses that effectively help drive the C&C business.
Kininmonth says everyone in the company is totally focused on delivering what those individual suppliers need from the UK market. That is what all these changes and processes are about.
“It’s really important to manage communications with them,” she says. Yes, you are on the one hand working with the big C&C Group, but your wines sit within Bibendum, or Matthew Clark and that has not changed.
“It is about managing those communications and their expectations and working with them on how to grow and where to grow and being aligned on what good looks like,” says Kininmonth. “We are the custodians of their brands and it is about making sure we are clear on who our partners are and how we grow them and how we look after them. We’re changing to adapt our strategy and hopefully be able to meet their needs going forward.”
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