“I’ve been lucky to join an industry and find a role which fits like a glove.” That’s how Stuart Porter, sales executive for Southern Home Counties, describes his position at Corney & Barrow and how the opportunity to work directly with restaurants, bars and pubs to find the right wines for their wine lists and their customers is what still excites him some 10 plus years working for the company. Richard Siddle talks to him about the skills needed to be a regional sales executive.
“Do what you say you will, don’t make promises you can’t keep and always answer a question with honesty.” Corney & Barrow’s Stuart Porter on what his on-trade customers expect from him.
Can you tell us about your background and how you got into the wine industry?
After studying European Management Science at university, I started work at the Prudential, advising on pensions. I quickly realised my error and went to France to be near my future wife, (whom I had met whilst studying in Strasbourg), working as a holiday rep for cycling holidays around the French wine regions.
I lived then in a flat above the local wine co-operative, in Alsace – amongst the vines in the beautiful hillside village of Dambach. The free access to a tab and the regions wines, just next door, was useful in learning the wines, and the bike allowed me to see where the grapes were grown, and understand winemaking and just how painful a hill can be.
Eventually returning to the UK, my aim was to find a job which allowed wine, shorts and T-shirts to co-exist and started, as many of my colleagues have, at Majestic. A dozen years later, I was lucky to be at the right place and right time to come and work with Corney & Barrow, whose wine agencies I had long admired.
Why did you want to work in wine?
I always thought it was a great way to avoid getting a real job. Returning from Alsace, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else, having seen the vines growing, the winemakers busting a gut to tend them all year round and the whole concept of transformation from earth to glass was fascinating.
Trying new wines, finding exciting discoveries with colleagues and friends and learning how to cook dishes to match with wines – it’s all heaven.
Customers are nearly always happy to talk, taste and buy wine – so it’s not a bad business to be in. Now I am getting to see the commercial side of the business and am enjoy finding the right wines for my customers.
How long have you been working with Corney & Barrow and why did you want to join them as a business?
I have been here for 12 years. The reason I joined was the opportunity to try wines I couldn’t source, or even afford. The reason I stayed is the people I work with, and the culture we share, looking to solutions, and being so customer focused and not looking to blame, but to learn from our mistakes.
Can you explain your main responsibilities in your role as a regional on-trade sales executive?
Working regionally from home can often feel like taking on the Jack of All Trades role. But it mainly involves developing new business relationships, advising on wine lists, pricing, marketing, offering training hosting wine dinners, the occasional emergency delivery – it’s all in a day’s work. It means there are no boring days.
The key responsibility is to hit your sales numbers, but it is also to represent the winemakers and Corney & Barrow to the on-trade, and to build long term relationships with your customers so they trust you.
What are the key skill sets do you think you need to be effective in your role?
Listening and empathy. My role is to listen for as long as is needed before going anywhere near offering my own advice or recommendations. I have to understand not just the requirements for a particular business, but also how to navigate the relationships to help the head of beverages, or sommelier, to present their arguments and secure the best deal (and best wines) for them and for us.
You also need a lot of self-motivation, which on a wet and miserable January day is probably the hardest of all. It’s why having a few long term customers that you can call in on is so important. It’s not so much a skill, but something I know has worked. Just being honest, again and again. Integrity will pay dividends in the long term. You also need a lot of self-respect.
What is it about your role that you find most rewarding?
Getting a new business launched with a customer is amazing. Being there from the day the first brick is laid, to pouring out the wine on the opening night – that’s a joy that never fades.
Working with sommeliers, chefs and new starters in the industry and watching them progress, taking on bigger roles, winning awards, opening new sites, whilst still remaining true to their values. You can really tell when they care for their team, it shows through into the good service and care extended to their guests and diners.
I also enjoy developing and nurturing long term relationships with individuals and businesses and becoming a trusted part of their success.
Also sharing a new find, which just blows away the person tasting the wine. Recently it was the Petite Arvine from La Source in Valle d’Aosta DOC (Italy).
What is the most challenging and how do you get around that?
Over the last few years it has been dealing with the hiccups in international logistics, linked to Covid and Brexit. The solution is to communicate, both within our business and with our customers. If we talk we can overcome issues.
The other big challenge is ensuring the person serving or selling the wine has enough knowledge (and hopefully interest) to get it right.
Working with the buying team to share the knowledge, or asking Camilla, our WSET trainer, to work with my customers has really paid dividends and taken the fear out of the wine list for many front of house teams
What are the key ways you think you can help your on- trade customers?
It is not rocket science, do what you say you will, don’t make promises you can’t keep and always answer a question with honesty. Also help to foster an interest in wines in the whole team. Share solutions to common problems. Be honest.
I network between my customers, so they can exchange ideas…and occasionally staff.
Are the ways you are working with your customers changing because of the demands on the sector and outlets/ operators to manage costs?
More of it is being done remotely, which makes the personal visits all the more valuable. I am seeing more procurement consultants entering the business structures, looking to minimise costs and becoming the de facto gatekeepers for our business. With some success.
So although initially concerning, if we have been working honestly up to now, we should have nothing to fear.
We have seen an increase in the availability of by the glass offerings, helped by the Coravin system. It means restaurants can afford to offer more exciting and expensive wines which would normally be beyond the scope of the wine list.
What are the key wine trends you are seeing in terms of what your customers are ordering in terms of styles of wine, regions. countries?
Surprisingly in this time of negative news more of the better, upper end of the wine list is being bought. Maybe a little treat and luxury is needed.
White Burgundy is scarce, so alternatives are coming through from other parts of France. We are seeing great value entry level wines from Romania which offer quality at a good price,
What about price? What trends are you seeing around what price customers are looking to spend for wines at different parts of the list – house vs more premium etc.
Being able to offer a broader range of wines by the glass, such as at Beaverbrook or Bel and the Dragon means that drinkers are buying a few better glasses of wine rather than a bottle of house. So I think the price drinkers are paying has gone up , but so has the quality – which we are confident we can deliver.
What do you see as your key objectives for the year ahead and have they changed from last year?
Keep making ends meet with a daughter at university, which probably means drinking less (but better). I think the year ahead will be tough for the on-trade as increased operating costs hit hard. All I can do is make sure we stay close to our customers, keep communicating and helping to get their offering just right.
Anything else you would like to say?
I’ve been lucky to join an industry and find a role which fits like a glove, and allows me to meet good people and taste great wines. What else, apart from a healthy and happy family, could you want.
- Corney & Barrow is a partner supplier to The Buyer. Find out more about them here.