Tenacity, ambition, sales and wine combine to give us Kim Wilson, managing director of North South Wines, one of the fastest growing wine distribution businesses in the UK, which is as comfortable dealing with contracts for the major multiples as it is working on bespoke projects for independent wine merchants. A company that has the backing and support of its producer partners and investors, De Bortoli Wines, the Wine People and Reh Kenderman, and has many goals still to achieve as Wilson explains to The Buyer.
North South Wines has now grown to a business employing 26 people, importing wines from all over the world. Kim Wilson shares her vision for the company.
How did you first get into business?
I was 18, full of enthusiasm and an insatiable appetite to make my her mark as a telesales executive at the Unique Pub Company. It was initially only meant to be a stop gap to save money for university, but I really enjoyed the job and realised I had a natural flair for selling. So I ended up staying for longer than I expected which then kicked off a sales career in the beverage industry.
Where did you go next?
After the Unique Pub Company I moved to Bulmers and then Carlsberg where I moved through the ranks to become territory manager in off-trade for Yorkshire. I just loved and thrived in what was a fast-paced, high-energy environment.
In those days shifting 100 pallets of beer a day out of the back of a truck at a cash and carry trade day was the norm. But they were also fun times. Things were straightforward. We’d load up the van and go around selling to clients and setting up promotional stands in their independent stores. It was just hands on and rewarding to be so close to the marketplace.
What did you learn most from those days?
I have to pay tribute to my boss and mentor at Carlsberg, Bernard Duesbury, who really helped hone my skills in the trade. He taught me everything I needed to know about selling, listening to what customers need and then delivering with speed – always with a smile on your face. He was tough but I am so glad I had that discipline at such an early stage of my career because without his help I wouldn’t be here today.
I am now honoured to call him my friend and we are still in touch. Dare I say, I think he feels quite proud of what I’ve gone on to achieve.
How did you get involved in the wine sector?
For that we have to roll forward to 2006 and when I turned my focus away from beer and onto wine when I joined the South African company Omnia Wines.
There I represented Arniston Bay in the UK and then went on to join Ehrmanns, the wine agency business, when the brand formed a joint venture with the business. I worked my way up the ranks to handle some big-name accounts like Tesco.
Out of Ehrmanns emerged a new agency business called E I Wines where I took the role of sales director. It was there I learnt the entrepreneurial skills I still use today. We started as a small team just doing whatever we could to get by and the hard work paid off.
My confidence started to build, and in 2014 myself and a a colleague, Joy Edmondson, decided to hand in our notices and set up an agency of our own: North South Wines.
What was the initial concept of North South Wines?
(Here’s Kim Wilson explaining what she looks for in a new wine producer)
It was founded on the back of bringing wine producers The Wine People, De Bortoli and – later – Reh Kendermann on board as shareholders. Everything seemed to go well at North South Wines from the start.
We always had a vision to have a multichannel led business that was fit for the future; whatever that may have been. We were ambitious, but we made lots of mistakes in the first three years.
Being the ‘new kids on the block’ did create initial interest, but a lack of strategy and process meant we were chasing our tails too much of the time.
Cash flow issues threatened our success and we were operating hand to mouth for years. It was both exhausting and unsettling.
So how did you turn things around?
In business you soon realise that cashflow is king. Reviewing North South Wines’ financing options was the thing that made the big difference. It bought the team the time it needed to get in front of the people and sell.
We just did everything that we could to work through those early days, getting up in the morning to ring our way through our old phone books – selling wine to anyone who’d take it whilst also trying to build a diverse portfolio to sell.
Then came Brexit in 2016, which added a new level of complexity to proceedings. It all culminated in the pressure taking its toll.
Your business partner, Joy Edmondson, has now left the business. How was that?
Joy left in 2019 and her departure was one of the lowest points of my professional and personal life so far. I realised I don’t take rejection well.
Joy’s personal circumstances were different to mine at the time. We had different priorities. But even though I totally understand why she made the decision to leave, it didn’t make it easy to process.
Yet there wasn’t a lot of time for reflection. Having just negotiated Brexit the next big crisis was looming in Covid-19. Everything seems to have come at once. I just remember sitting at home one morning in February 2020 with my dogs and having one of those pivotal moments. It was a case of ‘get on with it or give up.’ So I chose the former.
How is the business today?
I would like to think our courage and tenacity has paid off. The business has weathered the Covid storm well without having to make any redundancies and top up furlough payments to the team.
North South Wines has recently celebrated passing the £100 million sales mark since inception. The company is today turning over £30m per annum (March 2022) and has growth plans in place to get to £48m in the next five years.
The company has welcomed a new dhairman Jerry Lockspeiser on board and has taken on an air of really ‘going places’. [It has also this week been shortlisted in the IWSC’s 20022 Distributor of the Year Awards].
What do you hope to learn from Jerry Lockspeiser?
Jerry’s guidance is just what we need. His experience having founded Bottle Green and of having been chairman to Off Piste Wines for 10 years will be invaluable to a company like North South Wines.
A lot of our success has come down to the long-term relationships I have built up over the years.
For example, Jeremy Borg was the general manager who first gave me a job at Omnia and North South Wines now represents his conservation brand Painted Wolf. I like to learn from people – inspirational people.
I also want to be an inspiration to others. Building a profile in a still male dominated industry has not been easy – it adds an extra layer of complexity to the journey. But it is possible.
My leadership style is all about emulating those who have made the greatest impression on me in the past. After all, we all need our role models, don’t we? So, I hope I can be a role model too – to women – anyone – who feels compelled to give things a go.
How would you describe your leadership style?
We run a flat-line operational structure where everyone is involved. The environment is collaborative, relaxed and down to earth. There’s no sense of pretention. There is a collective energy in the room – a boldness – to push on and ‘get stuff done’. That’s the cultural tone of the business that I have looked to introduce.
I do though battle with feeling like an imposter most of the time as the rest of the team are far more qualified in wine. My palate is quite commercial, which surprises people. They expect me to be a Master Sommelier, but I have a nose for a good sale rather than a fine wine. I know what will please the consumer and will fly off the shelves.
You are also dealing with both the on and off-trades?
This focus on predicting and interpreting market demand is also a theme that runs through the business. The company prides itself on discovering and delivering great value quality wines that have broad appeal.
We also specialise in the ‘no & low’ categories and we are smashing sales of Belle & Co. – one of the first sparkling, no and low brands in the market. Belle & Co. now has a social media following of over 10,000 thanks to the combined talents of the team.
You are also looking to push your environmental and community credentials too?
Yes, we want to be seen as running an ethical, environmental and community-focused business. I am determined to set a clear vision for the business – something everyone can get on board with – that will take North South Wines to the very limits of what’s possible when it comes to championing responsible processes. As a business owner, I have the chance to make a difference.
No day has ever been the same since North South Wines was incorporated. It means we’re used to being on our toes and looking to tomorrow. Really, it all comes down to commitment. Once I have a vision in my mind, I never give up on it. I’ll adjust the strategy to match the market forces, whether they are environmental or political. For instance, right now, our focus is on reducing the impact North South Wines has on the world, and how we conduct our affairs. It requires a future-proofing strategy, and our aim is to become B Corp certified by 2023.
To do that you need a good team around you?
Absolutely. I can’t do this on my own. Whether it’s from the support of my team – my ‘work family ’ – or previous bosses from yesteryear, or the wine producing partners who stuck with me when I needed backing the most, I know my ambitions have only ever been made possible by the people I have around me and I will be forever grateful for that.
Any advice for wannabe wine entrepreneurs?
Only the usual stuff. Don’t expect it to be 9-5. Sort out your cashflow and just keep going. Be prepared for a very lonely journey – you’ll need the support of a good team and understanding family and friends. Oh, and a box of tissues as there will be lots of happy and sad tears.