Having worked for Corney & Barrow for 24 years it’s fair to say Chris Hodgson knows everything there is to know about selling wines into the premium on and off-trades. But as sales director of Corney & Barrow’s separate Scottish and north of England division, he, and his team, also need to be on top of what their restaurant, bar and private customers will be looking for next. Here he talks to Richard Siddle about the changes he has seen in the Scottish and north of England’s on-trade and private client scene over the last two plus decades and how having a dedicated Scottish and northern team has been crucial in how Corney & Barrow has been able to serve and build such long standing relationships across its thriving restaurant, bar and private customer sectors.
Corney & Barrow’s Scottish and North of England division is able to give the level of localised support that the on and off-trade sectors are looking for, says Chris Hodgson.
Even through Zoom you can feel Chris Hodgson’s warm, infectious personality that has made him a close friend, as well as important supplier to so many of the finest restaurants, bars, pubs and wine merchants in Scotland and the North of England. You could quite imagine him hosting a late night phone in radio show where you would happily ring him up just for a chat.
In fact, it was hard to keep him on the straight and narrow of a business interview as we easily digressed off into other parts of Scottish and northern life. He certainly has a good story, and knows how to tell it, having been with Corney & Barrow for close on a quarter of a century.
He says he has seen the business “change immeasurably” over that time. “It is not anything like the company I joined in terms of size, scale and penetration of the market,” he says.
It is also with some pride that he can look back on just how far C&B has come and how happy he is to have been part of the team that has made Scotland, in particular, such a key part of its overall success.
He says when he first joined he was part of a three-strong sales team to cover the whole of Scotland. “We must have grown about 18-fold since then as a business. But we have always tried to keep everyone happy. That’s a key part of what we do,” he says.
There are now 15 sales people helping to run C&B’s Scottish and north of England divisions – defined as roughly from the Midlands north. “Our most southernly sales person covers Leicestershire across to Cheshire,” says Hodgson.
Hodgson clearly loves his job and what he can do to give his customers the best service he can. It’s also a culture and attitude that has become part of the DNA of the close-knit Corney & Barrow team.
Hodgson is not alone in having been with the company for so long, with many of the senior Scottish and north of England team having been part of C&B for 10 to 15 years or more. Finding the right staff is crucial for any company, but vital when you have a team that has been together for so long, he says.
Bryce Fraser, has been managing director of C&B Scotland and north of England for 25 years, while being with the company for 35 years. The other director, Allison Frew has also been in the company for nearly 20 years.
“It all means we have such long standing relationships with our customers. We don’t have a lot of staff churn and most people have been with us for over 10 years.”
He adds: “We have always managed to employ the right people at the right time to help grow the business. Whether that is by skill or by accident that is up for others to judge.”
What they look for in a new employee is someone who has both a knowledge of wine, but also a passion for it too.
“It comes down to how enthusiastic they are about wine. You have to imagine a customer and whether they would want to buy wine from this person. Do they have the personable skills to make you feel comfortable and relaxed? What sort of reputation do they have in the trade?”
They are also looking for people who are going to be loyal and committed to working for C&B for some time. They certainly don’t want to be working with someone who sees the job as a stepping stone to go to another. He says he takes great pride in seeing new members of staff grow and blossom in their roles.
“We took someone on during lockdown and, of course, it was frustrating to see them not being able to go out and meet and talk to our on-trade customers. But they were able to do so much spade work in that time and as soon as we opened up they have just been booming in their patch. That is so good for us all to see. It justifies our faith in them, and theirs in us,” he explains.
That team spirit can also be seen in the fact that all 15 members of staff are expected to work across all aspects of the business, be it retail, on-trade or private customers.
“We have always tried to mix it up a bit more. It gives us variety in our jobs too.”
It all adds up to a “strong company culture,” he says. “We let people get on with their jobs. We treat them like adults. A lot of people might work from home and run their own diaries, so there is a lot of trust involved. They trust us and we trust them and we make sure that does not break down. The Sales team have a budgeted figure to achieve. To achieve that figure, they will have to use their own wit and intelligence. But overall, we have recruited and retained well.”
Hodgson says the two biggest changes that have happened over the last 25 years has been the change in the size of its restaurant and on-trade business, that now stretches from “Leicestershire to John O Groats,” and the number of private customers the team now works with.
“The private customer side was always what our traditional head office in London did, but over the years we have been able to become a lot more focused on that too,” he says.
Having its head office within a few miles of Edinburgh has certainly helped as there is such a long fine wine and dining history in the city, he says, that goes right back to the days when oysters and claret for lunch was very much part of daily life. “Our relationship between Edinburgh and Bordeaux goes right back nearly 1000 years,” he adds.
“Our job has been to tap into those fine dining traditions and over the years we have been able to establish and build up a strong private client community on the back of tastings, dinners and having such strong and close contacts in the area,” he says.
Edinburgh is also still the headquarters for many legal, banking and financial institutions and all the “disposable income” that comes out of those sectors.
He looks back on Bordeaux’s 2005 vintage as being a key year in getting so many private customers on board. It was a vintage, he says, that seemed to turn the dial and open up people’s eyes to the idea of buying fine wine en primeur. “A lot of our customers came in on the back of that 2005 Bordeaux vintage.”
Similarly on the back of the financial crisis, the great 2009 and 2010 vintages saw another surge in private customers. Covid-19 will also be seen as a key time in its private customer journey. “Our private customers supported us admirably during lockdown and a lot of new people came on board as well and a lot of them have remained with us,” he says.
Pace of change
The depth and quality of restaurants and bars right across the major cities of the north of England and throughout Scotland has also had a big impact on what C&B has been able to achieve.
“There is a great bar and restaurant scene in the north of England now,” says Hodgson. “You only have to compare the centre of Manchester now to what it was like 20 years ago. We are doing a lot of business in the Lake District and the quality of the hotels and restaurants there is quite stunning. It’s the same in Yorkshire. There are some brilliant places there.”
He adds: “You also have to remember there are about 20 million people living in the north of England and five and a quarter in Scotland. That is a huge part of the country that hitherto was not being looked after at all well.”
The C&B team works essentially from two main lists. Its 800-strong main list that are all under agency agreements. Then it has its broking list for fine wines. Wines stretching from around £5 ex VAT all the way to the most premium prices on a restaurant list.
“We are noticing a lot more customers who are now delving into our fine wine and broking list. It is getting harder to get good aged Burgundy, Claret, Tuscan or even from the Napa Valley wines, particularly after lockdown when many merchants looked to run down their stocks and turn it into cash.”
He adds: “If we send an offer to our private customers on Burgundy or Piedmont then it sells out straight away and can be over subscribed by up to 10 times. It means restaurants are looking to see what aged wines they can get. Not having enough stock on these wines is a big issue.”
Stock levels are also a headache across the board, and the trade is having to catch up with itself and all the pent up demand there is out there, says Hodgson. “When restrictions were lifted last year, things did go crazy and did catch people by surprise. But overall, the on-trade was superb last year.”
Hodgson says it is hard to pin down the main sales trends in the last couple of years, as it has been such a unique time for everyone.
“I would say there are no new trends other than more interest in areas that were there before. Like natural and low intervention wines. Hotels and bars that did not want to look at those wines are now asking for them. They want to have a natural or orange wine on their list.”
He has also noticed restaurateurs and hoteliers taking more notice in their lists in terms of where the wines come from and how they are made, be it vegan, or sustainably produced.
“Eastern European countries are also doing well at the moment. Like the Barta winery we work with from Hungary. People are interested in looking at new things and ideas. Furmint has clearly been around for some time, but now it is really gathering traction. We are not, though, feeling much love for Australian wines at the moment. whereas 20 years ago we could not get enough of it. We also still sell a lot of Burgundy and Bordeaux and people will come to us for those sort of classic French wines. There is just such a lack of stock and we are having to find alternatives,” he explains.
Point of difference
As to what makes C&B stand out from its competition Hodgson is in no doubt: “Our esteemed peers have some very good wines, but for me it all comes back to our staff. Our sales people are backed up by our great sales support team who have all been with us for a long time, who are all well trained and know our customers just as well.”
He adds: “We also have a unique portfolio of wines that are only available from us. Wines that can take you from Côte de Gascogne right up to Grand Cru levels. A list with real gravitas to it that has quality and value at every price point.”
Hodgson also points to C&B’s own warehousing and distribution centre based in East Kilbride that can send its own vans out to customers up and down the motorway network across the north of England and Scotland.
“We can have a van in Inverness or Leeds within two or three hours. If someone phones at 5pm we can get wines out to them and if we can’t use our own vans, we will use a courier. We are as flexible and as reactive as we can be.
“After all our main job is to supply and deliver wine, we are a service industry and are here to serve our customers and make their lives as hassle free as possible. They want someone to rely on and get the wines they want at the right price.”
The C&B business may have changed a lot in the last 24 years, but the values, that Chris Hodgson and his team follow every day, have not.