If there was a competition for the happiest person in the wine trade then Thibaut Mathieu would have to be contender. For after 17 years living and working in Asia he says he has fallen on his feet heading up the Asian business for Corney & Barrow. As he says himself, “he is on the right side of the world” selling fine wines to a dynamic private customer base and the premium on-trade market. Here he explains just what life is like in the fine wine world in Hong Kong and beyond.
Ever wanted to live in Hong Kong? Looking for a new start? Then let Corney & Barrow’s Thibaut Mathieu take you on a fine wine trip around Asia.
When it comes to following a career in fine wine Asia has to be high on your agenda. Over the last 10 to 15 years it has emerged as arguably the fine wine centre of the world, as the demand for and interest in wine has boomed right across the region.
To really catch and capture what is going on in fine wine across Asia you have to be in its two most important hubs: Hong Kong, the number one, followed by Singapore. It’s why Hong Kong has become home for Frenchman Thibaut Mathieu, who has been living in the city for 12 years, the last four years as general manager for Corney & Barrow in Asia. He says he could not be in a better part of the world, both for his work in fine wine, and for his family.
In all Mathieu has now been living and working in Asia for 17 years having first started working in Shanghai in China for a major international import business in 2002.
He says the decision to go to China was an obvious one for him after he had graduated from business school. “It was such a great opportunity and chance to go and work in a country, which from a business point of view, was going crazy at the time. In fact I have now only worked in wine in China and Asia,” he says.
Although he has worked for different companies, his roles have always been involved in the distribution and selling of mostly imported wine. First in China he was dealing with big volume brands and wines across both the on and off-trades, and now with C&B his focus is very much more at the premium end of the market.
Whilst he is always looking for new business with hotels, restaurants and bars, the “core business” for C&B in Asia is with its network of private customers. That’s what really distinguishes and singles out one wine merchant or distributor over another, he says. “That is what we are known for,” he adds.
It’s also where the international producers it works with, largely on an agency basis, want to see their wines. “They are always keen to work with private customers and look to us to get them access,” says Mathieu.
The challenge for C&B, and all the other merchants operating in the area, is to make sure you have a steady stream of new private customers coming in as well as keeping all your existing ones happy. “It’s why we are always looking for something different from our competition,” says Mathieu.
To attract new private customers C&B is on a constant round of tastings and networking events, always looking for that next referral. It is also, adds Mathieu, starting to market itself more on social media, using channels such as Facebook and Instagram, to explain more about what it does.
It also helps, he adds, having a number of famous producers and winemakers coming into the major cities looking to sell their wines.
“People here are always happy to go out and discover new things,” explains Mathieu. “There is a good core of knowledgeable, savvy customers, who are also curious. Some will only want to stick to the classics, but the majority are looking to try new regions and styles.”
The challenge for the C&B team on the private customer side is to continue to bring in what he calls “aspiring collections” of wine and also help and work with customers right “through their wine journey” from “savvy to a collector”.
Mathieu is also quite accepting of the fact the majority of his customers will work with other merchants and importers. “They will not be exclusive to us. Not at all.”
He says it is also hard to generalise too much about the kinds of wines that its private customers are wanting to buy. “It is quite broad based. People want different styles, it’s quite diversified. So it is not possible to say what the next big trend is going to be here. It changes all the time,” he explains. “People have different tastes and are looking for different wines. That’s probably the biggest evolution we have seen here.”
Developing the on-trade
That said he is still keen to build up C&B’s on-trade side of the business in the key cities across Asia. Being on good restaurants’ lists, brings visibility to its wines and C&B can help sommeliers, with its expertise and access to perfectly stored and sourced back vintages of prestigious and in demand wines.
“Our customers are highly sophisticated and have been buying from overseas for a long time. The key for us is that we have always been able to find wine for them,” he explains. “The new generation of wine drinkers are also very sophisticated in what they want. The overall market is a lot more sophisticated than you might think.”
What’s more there is no shortage of buyers with the money to spend, and an urge to get deals done quickly. “It’s really quite a dynamic market,” adds Mathieu. “Driven by the fact it is also so competitive. There are lots of good operators here, particularly in Hong Kong. But, then, there are lots of opportunities as well.”
The on-trade market is growing and now represents around 15% of what C&B does in Asia, with the remaining 85% being its private customers. “We think we will keep that balance, because of our portfolio, but there is no set target, providing both categories are growing,” he says.
The trick to building its restaurant business is very similar to the success it has had with private customers. Relationships and building long term, trusted partnerships that can help you become part of their business.
“We have to learn from our customers what they are looking for, what they want, then if we provide them with the right wines, they will start to trust us and you build up so much more of a strong relationship,” says Mathieu.
Mathieu says that although the bulk of the work that C&B does in Asia is split between Hong Kong and Singapore, there is also a good and growing network of customers right across the region, from Vietnam to Thailand, to Taiwan and Japan, via Macau and Malaysia. It can often, he adds, be more difficult to work across so many countries as they will often have their own tax and import and regulations that they have to try and work with.
It’s why it does not trade directly with China, other than through its Hong Kong office, and will work with closer import and distributor partners across the country. “We have two important partners in China at the moment But a lot of our customers will come to Hong Kong and take the wines back. But our main mandate is to grow the business in Hong and Singapore and that is also where our agency producers want us.”
C&B first opened its Asia office in 2009 in Hong Kong before then opening a further office in Singapore. Hong Kong now consists of a team of 16 and six in Singapore. Although based in Hong Kong, Mathieu says he will travel to Singapore at least 10 times a year.
“The London team had been selling to Singapore and Hong Kong for some 25 to 30 years and have built up such a good network of customers over that time,” he adds.
Short supply chain
The key to working in Asia, be it for trade or private customers, is to have as short a supply chain as possible, says Mathieu. It is not only more cost efficient, it also cuts down or eliminates the risk of fraud and counterfeiting which is a big problem in the area. “When people are buying wine from us they know it is the real deal. It has come straight from our warehouse.”
It’s also where it has the advantage of having the back up and security of the London and UK business and the bonded warehouse and secure systems there. “That’s a key differentiator for us. That and the level of service we can give our customers,” adds Mathieu.
He says his roots are now firmly planted in Hong Kong and Asia, particularly now he has a family there. So any visits to France will have to be short trips to see his family. “I am very happy here. I am in the right part of the world and with such a great company. There is no reason to leave,” he says.