Today Pol Roger Ltd celebrates 30 years of trading in the UK as primarily a business to promote, distribute and sell the famous Champagne house, but over the years it has also built itself up to be a highly respected agency representing premium, family, independent producers from across the world. It had hoped to pop some bottles of Pol Roger in much better times, but, as managing director, James Simpson MW, explains, it’s also about raising a glass to all the customers it serves and hopes to be working with for many years to come.
James Simpson MW says we’ve all had to rely on some of the spirit of Winston Churchill, Pol Roger’s greatest ever supporter, over the last three months of lockdown.
In these days of Zoom interviews and meetings you are never quite sure where the person you are going to be talking to is going to pop up from. They could be in their kitchen, or lounge, or relaxing on a chair in the garden…or depending on your Wi-Fi signal they may not appear at all…
But when James Simpson appears on our Zoom link he is bright, breezy and upbeat and sitting upright in his office at Pol Roger Ltd headquarters in Battersea. Compared to some of the calls I have done recently he is very much on the front foot, almost over flowing with enthusiasm and excitement about how all the stars are aligning for the trade to get back to some sort of normal in the coming weeks.
In fact for Pol Roger in the UK the lockdown, that has seen the vast majority of wine suppliers, and importers close their head offices, and retrench to their homes, has been far more like normal than the rest of the trade would recognise – at least recently.
For whilst it did shut its south London office as soon as the country went into lockdown and the worse of the Covid-19 crisis, at the end of March, it has been able to re-open for the last three weeks and slowly but surely bring more staff back in to work alongside each other – all safe distancing measures firmly adhered to.
Of Pol Roger’s 19-strong team, Simpson placed around half on furlough – mainly from the on-trade sales side of the company – but has kept the rest of the ship very much full throttle down looking to make the most of what was such an unknown situation for all.
Simpson is very much of the view that where it is possible to work, safely, alongside each other it makes for a better working and team environment.
With an on and off-trade mix sitting at around 75% off-trade and 25% on-trade it has meant Pol Roger, in the main, has been able to keep wine moving, sales going and cash flow running through its business. Although he wishes all its on-trade customers well and looks forward to trading with them again very soon, he says the business was less exposed in that it does not have large hotel and restaurant chain accounts or is missing out on major events being cancelled.
“We are a relatively low overhead business, which has also been a big help over this time,” he says.
The big change in momentum during lockdown was the news that London City Bond was open for business and able to move wine around the country. “As soon as we knew LCB could deliver we have been able to trade all the way through. To the extent that we are doing OK – or at least far better than anticipated,” he explains.
It has, though, he agrees been a bit of a rollercoaster of emotions – and sales. The initial hit was hard, but as the weeks have gone by, sales and performance have gone up to the extent that by the end of May and going into June, he feels as though “we are coming out the other side”. “Things are starting to happen again,” he says.
Simpson calculates sales of Pol Roger Champagne are around 20% down, which considering the overall decline in Champagne sales, across the board, is far more than that, is actually, he adds, a good performance in such extraordinary times.
Pol Roger in the UK has also, he stresses, been able to keep costs to a minimum as “no-one is travelling and we are not spending any money going out”.
30 years …and more
It is, though, clearly not how it envisaged celebrating, or at least marking its 30th anniversary since it was set up as a standalone UK business in 1990, when its previous sole distributors, Dent & Reuss went out of business.
Simpson, who joined in 1993, says he and the team can look back on what he says is a job well done. Particularly in how it has levelled out the company to be around 50% focused on supporting and selling the Pol Roger portfolio of premium Champagnes, and 50% representing what is now a wide and diverse group of independent, family owned, wine and whisky producers who, each, have their very own distinctive story to tell.
It means, says Simpson, when its sales staff go to visit either an on-trade or off-trade customer, they have just the right level of wines to show them. They don’t want to go there with only a few bottles to show and equally they don’t want to overwhelm a customer with a whole catalogue to sift through.
But it’s the depth of its range that is key, he claims, boasting famous names such as Drouhin in Burgundy, Tokaj in Hungary and now stellar names from California.
It has only ever brought in a new producer to the range when it felt the time was right and it gave them more excellent wines to sell, he says. “We have had some failed experiments too,” he concedes, “but I feel we have built the Pol Roger Portfolio into something quite serious.”
Its list of producers now boasts the following illustrious names:
- Abreu Vineyards in Napa Valley.
- Bodegas Artadi in Alava, Spain.
- Grand Tokaj from the famous Tokaji region in Hungary.
- Maison Joseph Drouhin, one of Burgundy’s most famous negociants.
- Glenfarclas Single Malt, that produces a range of Speyside Single Malts.
- Josmeyer, a fifth generation family run estate in the Alsace.
- Robert Sinskey Vineyards in the Los Carneros and Stags Leap districts of Napa and Sonoma Valleys.
- Staglin Family Vineyard in Napa Valley.
- Gallica in the Sierra Hills of California.
- TOR Wines.
- Kinsman Eades.
It has certainly come a long way in such a short period of time, but Simpson is also quick to stress how successful the Pol Roger Champagne brand has been in the UK – dating back to the 1860’s. Back in 1900, for example, the UK sold 10m bottles of Champagne out of a total production of 30m.
Then there is the Winston Churchill factor, which continues to give the brand a unique selling point in such a crowded market.
It’s a relationship that Pol Roger is truly respectful of, making sure it works with the Churchill family on any initiatives it has planned.
Simpson says that whilst Churchill is clearly a major link to the past, it also helps bring new younger, drinkers to the brand as they get to discover the man and what he achieved.
Old fashioned principles
Simpson is also proud to be known as one of the few “old fashioned agency businesses out there”. For him “old fashioned” means doing things right, putting service at the top of the agenda and having the right range of premium, exclusive wines it can offer to customers looking for something above and beyond what they already have.
It also means trading in what he sees as the right way. Namely through wholesalers and not going direct to the trade. “That’s not our job,” he stresses. “We prioritise selling top brands to independent wine merchants. That’s what we do.”
Yes, it does work with Waitrose and Majestic with some of its Champagnes, but it is certainly not in the game of heavy discounting and undercutting independents. They are the jewels in its distribution model, he says.That’s not to say he is not open to others if the right opportunities come along. Which depending on how things shake out post-lockdown could see more producers looking for new homes, and suppliers open to the idea of consolidating their resources.
It’s clearly too early to see how things are going to shape out, says Simpson, but the key for Pol Roger is it has the trading structure and ownership – 95% Pol Roger and 5% Glenfarclas the premium Scotch whisky distiller – to be able to make a move where appropriate, with the “backing” to re-assure any potential partner.
As a business he compares where Pol Roger is today to where Mentzendorff was back in the early 1990’s.
Carefully controlled allocations
He also stresses, as a business, it is far more used to “saying no” to people than yes when it comes to widening the distribution of Pol Roger Champagne and selling it in more accounts.
It is, he believes, what has helped Pol Roger maintain its strong, respected image. The Pol Roger Champagne house works tirelessly to control allocations and exposure in all its core and growing markets.
Whilst at the same time investing all it can in promoting its name, and what it stands for. Creating a demand, but carefully limiting and distributing its supply.
It means that whilst it only accounts for 0.5% of production of Champagne and 1.5% of the UK Champagne market, its share of voice is far, far, bigger than that, claims Simpson.
With the on-trade now set to re-open on July 4 there is even more reason for Simpson to be upbeat and bullish. He admits conditions over the last three months have been tough, and everyone in the wine, drinks, retail and hospitality sectors, will have been through the mix, but collectively the respective sectors have seen off many bad times before, from world wars to global recessions.
“We know how to work through periods like this,” he says. “I am confident the middle to top end of the trade is going to be OK. There is still enough foreign investment in the UK and people willing to spend money. I am, to be honest, more depressed about the prospect of a No Deal Brexit and the state of our exchange rate.”
The Champagne sector has also proved time and again how resilient it is even in times of great hardship, he adds. “We are certainly not going to talk ourselves down into doom and gloom. Champagne has been through so many ups and downs, but as a category it has never been better made, aged or matured.”
He says it is also well placed to carry on developing the online tastings it has been able to do with independent merchant customers for as long as is needed.
They have proven to be particularly successful for those customers working with Glenfarclas as they can send out specifically created miniatures and have proved a real draw for independents and their consumers.
Glenfarclas has been “a real revelation,” he says, since it came into the business in 2006 and really works well alongside the premium stories it has for its winery partners and Pol Roger itself.
The Pol Roger team is also open to hosting pop up events wherever possible with both independents and on-trade customers. He says it has been able to set up mini Pol Roger stands with umbrellas outside venues that have been able to trade and where it is safe and responsible to do so.
“It’s the least we can do. It also allows us to go out and talk to our customers again and give us a chance to do something for them.
Right trading model
As to the lessons learnt through the Covid-19 lockdown, Simpson is confident it has had the right trading model to see it through, with 75% of the company still able to do business through its retail customers. It is an area, if anything, it will look to strengthen with dedicated sales staff focused on selling more of its range into independent wine merchants.
“We cover of 50% to 60% of independents and could probably do with reaching another 10% to 20%.”
Its 30th anniversary celebrations will go on quietly behind the scenes for the rest of the year, before hopefully getting the chance to go back to hosting a major portfolio tasting again in 2021.
In the meantime Simpson stresses he and his team “are ready and willing” to do what they can to help their customers get as much trade going as they can.