This is potentially the first time you have had chance to read a comprehensive, behind the scenes, analysis of Speciality Brands. For up to now managing director, Chris Seale, has been very much of the opinion that he would much rather shine the light on the portfolio of premium spirits brands that have made the company one of the most respected and important drinks suppliers in the UK. Here, though, he is prepared to talk about what makes Speciality Brands, well, so special and what key strategic changes it is making to ensure it continues to provide some of the most innovative and in demand drinks brands in the premium on-trade and specialist retail sectors.
Speciality Brands’ mission is to live up to its name and only source and supply the drinks brands that will genuinely add value to a bar, restaurant or specialist retailer.
If you could bottle the natural, genuine passion that Chris Seale has when he starts talking about one of the spirits brands that have been part of Speciality Brands ever since it started, then you would have a very powerful brand indeed.
For Chris Seale is a pretty rare breed in the drinks industry. A managing director who really does not want to talk about himself. In fact, it’s perhaps only because I have known him for a good 15 years, going back to his commercial, corporate days at Pernod Ricard, that he agreed to be interviewed at all.
Given the choice he would quietly be in the background, doing what he thinks he does best. Working hand in hand with drinks brands and producers, many of whom have become personal friends, over the years, and working out the right distribution strategies for them with the best customers in the UK.
Those close working relationships are essentially what Speciality Brands is all about, he stresses. The skill and know-how to be able to present and show why a particular rum, whisky, tequila or mezcal is 100% right for a particular bar or specialist retailer.
It’s why the Speciality Brands team includes former bartenders, mixologists and brand ambassadors. Individuals who know what it is like to run a busy bar or retailer and what sort of help they really need from their best suppliers.
That insider knowledge is not something you can just get from a top recruitment agency. You have had to have been there, behind the bar or the shop counter.
Seale, himself, has been immersed in spirits most of his working life. Prior to Speciality Brands he had enjoyed a career at Pernod Ricard where he helped manage a number of brands including becoming head of Champagne and Cognac.
Doing something for himself
But there came a time when he knew it was right to use those years of experience and help create a business that could, ironically, go so much further than a big corporate beast and build close personal relationships both with the brands you are working with and the customers you are selling too.
That was in 2009 when he teamed up with Sukhinder and Rajbir Singh, who were already going great guns with their Whisky Exchange business, to set up a new specialist spirits distribution business.
The three have worked alongside each other ever since crafting a business as focused as the brands it has gone on to sell. A company that Seale is clearly as excited about leading now as the first day they set it up.
“I am loving it more now than I ever did,” he says. “The challenges have changed, but they are also what gets me out of bed in the morning.
The last 18 months has undoubtedly been challenging, but Speciality Brands was better placed to cope than other drinks suppliers as it has always run a strong multi-channel business where the off-trade usually represents around 60% of its turnover.
“We had invested a great deal, over a period of time, in the specialist independent retail sector before the pandemic struck, so we were well placed,” says Seale.
Coming out of lockdown, he believes, the business is well placed to really push on in the premium on-trade side and bring that on and off-trade split closer to 50/50. That said those splits will vary depending on the brand with some being stronger in different channels, but overall the goal it to look for a 50/50 divide.
“Within that the e-commerce sector has become so much more important over the last 18 months,” says Seale. “It’s always been an area of strength for us, and we have the mechanics in place to really drive that change and it has become a key part of the business, so we were well set up when we went into lockdown to switch resources into retail and online.”
He says the first lockdown now seems a long time ago considering how much has happened since. “Things have got back to some sort of normality relatively quickly.”
What is clear is that people’s shopping behaviours have changed, particularly around what they want to drink, claims Seale. “A lot of people have used the last 18 month to really research and enhance their knowledge around premium spirits. The level of conversation that people want to have about drinks is now a lot higher which is where potentially our portfolio of drinks can take advantage of. Consumers are now looking much harder at what is out there. They are looking for products with authenticity, provenance and brands that have real stories behind them.”
Best of the best
Which is essentially what Speciality Brands range of brands is all about. “Over 90% of our brands are family owned. We look for top quality brands with real provenance.”
He adds: “When we first started we had a very simple goal. We want to assemble a portfolio of simply brilliant products and give them a voice in this competitive market. We want to give a pedestal to brands that we really believed in. I fundamentally believe we have got that right.”
The strategy was very much of the “if you build it, they will come mentality” with Seale confident that premium bars and specialist retailers would be interested in such top quality products even if they did not necessarily know who Speciality Brands is. “That is still our philosophy today.”
The quality, provenance combination is always the winning combination, says Seale, when assessing any new product. What has changed during the pandemic, or at least speeded up during it, is the consumer also wants to know how much that product, and the family behind it, really cares about the category they are in. They want to know the product has been cared for at every stage of the production process, from the vineyard, or distillery, to the glass.
That’s equally what Seale looks for when taking on a new producer. How much do they really care about the consumer? “The best have a real sense of pride when talking about their product to a potential customer,” he says.
A lot of that comes naturally to those “who have been doing this for a long time,” he adds. The brand with the history and traditions to back them up. “It’s about talking about the land where they grew up. Their family. It’s the reason, for example, why Diplomático tastes the way it does. A lot of it comes down to the passion, drive and attention to detail of the family itself. How they can be the best they possibly can. Those are the kind of companies and brands we want to work with,” he says. “They are the people that motivate me to do what I do. They are also people and companies you can completely trust.”
Which is the other key factor in how Speciality works. “Trust runs through our DNA,” says Seale.
That’s why he is usually so reluctant to talk about ‘Speciality Brands’. “We are fundamentally a brand lead business. That is what leads us every day. The company comes second. Our customers have relationship with our brands and we give our brand owners a voice in the UK market which is also seen by many as a shop window for the world. We are a very under the radar business and that is how we like it. We are proud of our brands and our teams.”
It’s why he is so close to the families and the people behind the brands. Take Cocchi and Diplomático for instance “They are not just partners in business, they are friends,” he says.
He is also understandably proud of the fact all the brands that first joined Speciality Brands are still with the company. The only exception being one that was bought out by a multinational and took distribution in house.
Representing the majority of key categories Speciality Brands’ portfolio stretches right across the back bar from agave to whisky, taking in Pisco, Cognac, rum, mezcal, tequila, liqueurs and vermouths along the way. Click here for a who’s who of its range.
Best in the business
Seale says it is absolutely vital that Speciality Brands recruits well if it is going to ensure its company philosophy stretches right through to its customers. “We want to hire people who are the best in their fields,” he says.
“But we also want to have people who have good people skills and can build relationships. That is incredibly important to me. That is also something that is fundamental to how we work and what you can say about every member of our team.”
It’s why he wants his team to be out talking, shaking hands and meeting their customers. “That is so much more powerful than an email so it’s great we can now get back to that.”
He also says they are the values he very much learnt during his time at Pernod Ricard. “It’s about leather on the street. It’s people talking to people. I have brought those values here and just amplified them a lot more. I certainly would not be here now if it as not for what I learnt at Pernod Ricard.”
He likes to think the Speciality team area also “like minded individuals”. “It’s my job to harness that. It’s really rewarding for me personally when I get feedback from our customers saying how much they are enjoying working with a particular member of staff and how friendly and expert they are in their job.”
In fact Seale says he has a caveat to what he said earlier. “It’s actually team first, brand first. We can worry about the company after that.”
That team first approach now encompasses 27 people as the business continues to grow across all channels. Seale is particularly pleased that many have been with the company for a number of years. It’s good for team spirit, customer relationships, but also hopefully reflects the “culture of the company” makes it a good place to work.
“If we are making that final decision about someone joining the team we always ourselves if they are fit into that culture. Recruitment is the hardest part of my job. Without doubt.”
Seale is also very quick to acknowledge the support of Raj and Sukhinder Singh in building the business. “They have forgotten more about spirits and whisky than I know” he says. “They really are industry legends.”
The new trading environment is putting even more pressure on brands to justify their position on drinks list. Particularly now so many outlets are cutting back cocktail and drinks menus from over 50 serves to a core 12 to 15.
Seale actually approves: “I think it is a good trend as it means bars need to work with brands that can really help differentiate them. It makes them think harder about which brands they want to have on their back bar and how they can add value.”
It also gets away from the big drinks lists that are mostly funded by the big multinationals “with the biggest pockets”.
It really is quite the experience spending time listening, talking and sharing ideas with Seale. His friendly personality not only puts you at ease it makes you worry you might be outstaying your time with him.
Not at all, he says: “I have worked incredibly hard for this business, but it does not feel like it. If you find something you love then it never really feels like work.”
- You can find out more about Speciality Brands here.
- Speciality Brands is a partner supplier to The Buyer.