The fast changing wine market is putting even greater pressure on producers, importers and operators alike to find ever more cost effective and efficient ways of moving, listing and selling wine. Matthew Johnson and Alex Green have been at the forefront of the changes wine suppliers have made during their time at Copestick Murray and Freixenet Copestick, helping to source and create brands and exclusive wines for customers. They have now branched out on their own to set up their own business – Beyond Wines – which they believe has its own USP and, in doing so, can find its edge against steely competition.
Beyond Wines is looking to create its own brands and find strategic partnerships with key producers around the world to keep itself flexible and relevant to customers across all channels, including direct to consumer.
Over the last 10 years we have seen the traditional wine agency model transform itself into more of a bespoke consultancy service. In doing so, these companies are seen as experts in being able to put the right producers together with the retailers, restaurant or pub groups most likely to want to buy their wines.
These new age wine suppliers are adept at tracking down the right suppliers to source wine to create their own brands that they can then sell as part of a wider relationship with the customers they are already working with.
That’s essentially what has convinced Matthew Johnson and Alex Green to combine their years of experience working in exactly that way for their previous employers and set out and do it for themselves.
They were team mates initially at Copestick Murray where they worked closely with major multiples, convenience chains and on-trade groups to develop bespoke projects. The fact the two of them were in strong roles before deciding to go it alone shows how determined they are to make a success of their new venture.
When Copestick Murray became Freixenet Copestick, following the purchase of Freixenet by German sparkling wine giant Henkell (owners of Copestick Murray) Johnson moved on to work with Philip Cox and Cramele Recas, Romania’s largest wine exporter, as the head of its UK operation.
Green, meanwhile, has been willing to leave what had been a promotion earlier in the year at Freixenet Copestick to head up its on-trade division, to break away and set up Beyond Wines.
From the outset the new business is looking to do things differently. Johnson, for example, has been able to work with Philip Cox to bring Cramele Recas on board as its first strategic producer partner, and he will continue to also head up its separate UK division.
Green and Johnson plan to bring other carefully targeted producers on board – between five and six – from key wine producing countries, that they can work in partnership with.
Both are quick to praise and recognise the importance and influence of Robin Copestick, and their time working for him, in helping them gain the tools and experience required to set up their own company. The fact Copestick has essentially done, initially with his first business partner Paul Murray, what they aspire to do with Beyond Wines is what has given them the inspiration and confidence to want to do it for themselves.
“Working with Robin is very relevant to all this,” says Green, particularly the ability Copestick Murray had in creating and developing its own brands – most noticeably i heart Wines – that built up such an equity for the business that Henkell wanted to come in and buy it.
In fact there are times when you hear Copestick in some of their answers, particularly in how they eulogise about the importance of creating their own brands and the strategic thinking needed to grow them.
Brands are key
That, they admit, is going to be the number one objective for Beyond Wines. As Green explains: “We want to create brands that are differentiated and consumer first, appropriate for both the on and off-trades, national multiple supermarkets, convenience chains and the national and regional on-trade.”
Johnson and Greens’ shared experience in working in the bulk wine market to source wine to create brands for the on and off-trade is going to be crucial for Beyond Wines going forward, adds Green. “We are very experienced in managing the whole process of bulk wine from beginning to end and we are well set up to do that, and being lean is such a competitive advantage.”
They also appreciate what they are looking to do is not exactly new, their point of difference will have to come through their own personalities, their contacts, the producers they partner up with and ultimately the wines and brands they create.
“We want to have a fresh approach and think beyond the tried and trusted way of working,” says Green. Hence the name – Beyond Wines.
It’s why, adds Johnson, they have set themselves the challenge of going beyond the norm in terms of “service levels” they can provide customers and to go “beyond their expectations” whilst at the same time “keeping things fun and passionate” about the wine we are offering them.
One area where they hope to make a difference is how they talk to the consumer. Both Johnson and Green have been looking closely at the beauty and fashion sectors to analyse the language and imagery used there to talk about and promote brands.
“We want to take a fresh look at the overall wine category and take inspiration from other channels,” explains Johnson.
On and off-trade working together
The duo repeatedly talk about what they see as the ‘shared consumer’ between the on and off-trade and the need to get the trade to think differently from pigeon holing brands and wines as being either for a supermarket shelf, or a pub or restaurant.
Why, they ask, does the wine industry think like that when it is the same consumer going into shops and bars and looking to buy and drink wine in both when they do?
They are hopeful the “collaborations” we have seen during Covid-19 between the on and off-trade can continue.
With the on-trade shut for months, consumers had no choice but to buy their wines in supermarkets, ‘e-tail’, and specialist stores. It has, they say, given wine brands a new lease of life as people turned to familiar names they could rely on.
“We now believe more people will be going into bars and restaurant looking for those brands they have enjoyed during lockdown,” says Johnson. “The idea that different sides of the trade need to be hide away from the other is old. Covid has taught us that the shopper wants certainty and value for money wherever they are. Looks at Mitchells & Butlers who have been embracing brands for a long time and do very well.”
Both he and Green believe the time is right to look at how supermarkets and major national on-trade groups could actually benefit from what they are each doing with certain wine brands, so that they can grow sales in both channels and not see themselves as operating in separate worlds.
“This is not the same conversation we would be having if the last six to nine months of Covid had not happened,” says Green. “People are not afraid to offer the same brands to a supermarket and on-trade operator. We need to do be able to do more to help individual publicans and outlets make the most of their margins.”
They are looking at a potential business model that allows Beyond Wines to build up a pot of money by working with major retailers that it can then invest to help on-trade sales through education and point of sale.
It’s “very much a work in progress” but they believe there is a very real new opportunity to bring on and off-trade customers together and look at ways they can work together to increase sales for both.
“It’s just one example of how we are trying to think differently and go beyond the norm,” says Johnson. “It would make more sense to initially do this with national players, and we are having those conversations with major partners right now.”
The fact Johnson is going to split his time between Cramele Recas and Beyond Wines is also a fresh way of working. “I have Philip’s 100% blessing and he also sees the value in working with us as a strategic partner as well.”
By working so closely with their producer partners Johnson and Green hope they can help protect their respective positions in the UK, particularly for EU producers as we work a way through Brexit.
They will take their time to find the right producers to work with, but sustainability and being able to offer something new will be high on the agenda.
“These producers would become part of our long-term strategy. We have had an amazing reaction from the suppliers we have spoken to so far who really appreciate we are trying new things,” says Green. “It gives us the flexibly to then use the brands they already have in existence.”
Having already recruited a supply chain manager they will also look at recruiting someone to manage the technical side of sourcing wine, which will be on a consultancy basis initially.
“It gives both of us the ability to focus on what we do best; selling wine to customers with whom we forge and maintain strong relationships,” says Johnson.
Packaging and gifting
Working with producers on different types of formats and packaging and how they can tap into the gifting market will also be increasingly important in the years ahead, adds Green. “We want to look at things that no-one is doing,” he adds.
It’s an area he gained some experience whilst working on Freixenet, and believes there is so much more potential if you can get the proposition right. “Not many people are working in that space at the moment. The kind of gifting or packaging that is more like a fashion accessory, that you could take to a party.”
You only have to look at what has been done in beers and spirits to see how far wine has been left behind and the huge opportunity there still is in luxury and premium packaging and creating the perfect serve, says Green. “There is lots of space to have some fun in,” he adds.
They also have their eyes on the direct to consumer market, but are also aware how costly and time consuming it would be to get right. Any approach would need to be more selective, curated if you like, and targeted, says Green. It’s certainly one for the future if not just now.
Preparing for Brexit
Their first challenge, says Johnson, is to make sure they have their business model in place to cope with whatever Brexit might throw at us come January 1, 2021. “Things are changing fast and we have to be ready,” he adds.
They will certainly welcome the news that the dreaded VI-1 forms, that were going to be needed to import any wine from the EU at potentially great cost, has been parked until at least July 2021.
It’s also where they hope they can lean on the expertise and experience of their producer partners to help get things right. Philip Cox at Cramele Recas, for example, has been particularly vocal about the dangers of Brexit and what producers need to do to prepare themselves, and worked on advising the UK government on steps it needs to take to mitigate short and long term pain on both sides.
It’s also why a number of their initial producer partners will come from the New World where no new guidelines are expected, says Johnson.
“We certainly are not avoiding the EU and are doing all we can to be Brexit ready,” says Green who sees strong demand from South America and New Zealand for bulk wine leading up to the new year, so that wine volumes are here and ready to be collected when customers want them.
There is also the option of working with their producers partners in Europe to act as their “on ground” support to help do business in the EU and beyond.
“It’s all part of the new thinking, differentiated, consumer first approach we are developing,” adds Johnson.
- If you would like to contact Matt Johnson or Alex Green you can do so by email at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.