The Buyer
Wanderlust’s Richard Ellison on how importers can scale a business

Wanderlust’s Richard Ellison on how importers can scale a business

Of all the drinks leaders and business owners The Buyer has interviewed over the last eight years there are a few that stand out from the others. There is just something about them that makes you want to go back to find out what they are doing. Richard Ellison, who first launched Wanderlust Wine at around the same time as The Buyer started, is one of those business figures that demands attention. Not because he is always asking for it - although he is pretty good at that too - but because of what Wanderlust Wine is doing as one of the breakthrough specialist independent wine importers with a still growing customer base across both the on and off-trades and direct to consumer too. Here he explains to Richard Siddle what he has learnt over its first eight years of trading and how an independent wine importer can scale their business and build profits at the same time.

Richard Siddle
27th May 2024by Richard Siddle
posted in People,People: Supplier,

“We are bringing hipster tech into wine,” was one of the many attention-grabbing sound bites that Richard Ellison became renowned for when he first launched Wanderlust Wine in 2016. A business that from the outset has looked to do things differently.

A wine importer that could see no reason why it could not supply wines to the trade and also direct to consumer at the same time…and still does. A business that, as he said, was willing to invest in cutting edge technology and came into the market extolling the virtues of electronic efficiencies, combining e-commerce, warehouse, stock management, order fulfilment, CRM and accounting automation. Being willing to outsource services it was not best equipped to fulfil.

As he said at the time: “It means we are straight away able to offer a different kind of service. That’s why I think there is enough room in the market for us.”

Richard Ellison has looked to do things differently ever since he launched Wanderlust Wine in 2016.

Crucially Ellison’s background in banking and investing in small businesses had taught him the importance of being able to create a “scaleable business model”.

Fast forward to 2024 and he is now in a position where, he admits, he now needs to understand how he can “scale” Wanderlust to go to its next level.

A business that in 2023 saw its overall revenues jump 30%. “We are already up 40% in 20204,” he adds.

Its multi-channel strategy is as strong as ever with 70% of business coming from the on and off-trade and 30% from direct-to-consumer, providing Ellison and Wanderlust with not only a strong, loyal consumer customer base, but, crucially, constant cash going through the business.

Onwards and upwards

Ellison, though, is quick to stress that success has not come easily and there have been plenty of difficulties along the way.

“I was lucky in that I was young enough and committed enough to make it happen,” he says. “To be successful you have got to be dogged and determined and not everyone makes it. There are also lots of negatives doing what we do and it has been an interesting race to get to where we are now.”

He says he was also helped by the fact the wine sector is so fragmented and full of so many very different kinds of business. It means there is still plenty of space for newcomers to make their mark if they know what they are doing.

In fact, he finds it frustrating that there is not more new, young talent coming into the sector and looking to shake things up. Talent he would very quickly look to recruit for Wanderlust Wine.

“Where is all this young talent you find in technology, finance, banking, science? Why are not more young people coming into wine? How does the industry get more dynamic and interesting individuals into the sector. There is a big hole.”

He adds: “It’s why everything has got so lazy. There are not enough new businesses out there challenging all the established companies.”

Richard Ellison looks to combine adventurous sourcing of off-beat wines around the world with hands on customer service for premium restaurants, independent wine merchants and direct to consumer.

Wanderlust is certainly playing its part as far as it can. In fact, Ellison now sees a clear gap in the market for what he sees as the medium sized wine companies - businesses like Wanderlust and Swig Wines - that can act as a real alternative to what he sees as the big “tanker ship” sized distributors that take so long to change course.

“We are more like a speedboat. We’re fast and nimble and all we need to do is get the pricing and supply right and away we go,” claims Ellison.

Companies with the guile, expertise and stature in the market to shake things up.

“We can potentially take 20% from the big boys and split it up between the smaller companies. That’s a lot of business for us to go after,” he adds. “We are the guys who have started something from scratch, and put everything on the line.

The next step

It means a business like Wanderlust Wine needs to be ready and able to take the next step up. So whilst the heart of the business is still the “Wanderlust” element searching the world for off-the-beaten track gems that will continue to keep demanding sommeliers and online wine drinker excited, it also needs big, core volume driving brands in its range too.

Which is why Wanderlust getting the rights to import and supply Champagne Bruno Paillard has made a massive difference. It is, for example, currently in talks with a large hotel group about taking the Champagne in all its venues which would be another big step up for the business.

“It’s been huge for us and clearly a big focus going forward,” says Ellison and really opened his eyes to what Wanderlust can offer a brand of its size and stature.

What to get right

Wanderlust Wine has built up a strong image in the trade over the last eight years

He says the business has been able to achieve “seven years of growth” despite a few serious and semi-serious wobbles along the way, by the fact it has been able to get three core things right:

Its long-standing, strong relationships with its key customers; being “known for” the range of wines it has being able to offer wines that are consistently different; being reliable and delivering what you claim you can do.

“It’s hard to get all those three things right all the time,” he admits.

You can also add to that list, he stresses, the need to keep attracting and recruiting new long-term customers. “It is still ultimately about the new business you can win. If the machine works then getting a new customer and keeping them should be simple.”

To gain new business means doing the hard work, the research, to fully understand what a potential new operator is looking for and how you can genuinely help them, he explains.

“We don’t talk about selling wine enough in those terms,” he says. It’s no different to a skincare retailer taking the time to really understand what skincare product is right for a particular customer. Or how Apple will customise what it sells to people based on their different and individual needs, he adds.

He adds: “Our portfolio has also got stronger and as well as Champagne Paillard we have Champagne Billecart-Salmon and a few other well known names.”
It has, for example, Mas de Daumas Gassac, Languedoc, Niepoort, Douro and Clenenden in California.

The fact producers and winemakers of that stature have heard of Wanderlust Wine and want to work with it also reflects how far the business has come.

But Ellison is also quick to add that up to at leat half of the producers he works with have been with Wanderlust since the beginning.

The fact it has no minimum order and next day delivery has also made a big difference with a number of customers frustrated by the expectations of bigger suppliers and operators.

Right team

At one of Wanderlust Wine's portfolio tastings

Although Wanderlust is now a fully national business, with good growth in most of the major northern English cities, Ellison is keen to recruit more sales staff in the north. That said his current on-trade sales makes up the majority of its 10-strong full-time team that also includes an electric van driver, warehouse staff and those managing its DTC platform.

“I am looking to eventually have three to four electric vans so we can manage that side of things more ourselves.”

Ellison describes the typical Wanderlust customer - be they trade or DTC -as “people who care about wine”. “They are also the kind of people who are into craft wine and can understand the idea of craft wine too.”

It’s also why its DTC business is so important as it allows Wanderlust to quickly see which styles of wine are doing well or not.

“We have become focused with what we are doing with DTC after Covid,” says Ellison. “A lot of the noise around DTC during Covid has really calmed down now which I like. The ones who are still doing DTC care about it.”

It is also a good way to test out different formats and packaging options like bag-in-box and 1 litre bottles.

Ellison, like so many of his peers, is also very aware of Wanderlust’s sustainability story and what it is doing to cut its own carbon footprint. It is also proving a way for him to do what he likes mostand do things differently.

He is, for example, particularly keen to talk about its new “Wine By Sail” idea where it can bring wines directly over from Porto in a sailing ship and dramatically cut its carbon footprint by 98% along the way. He is working with Debbie Warner of the Wild Wine School to help pull it all togeth“It’s going back to the idea of our wine merchants bringing wine directly by boat from Bordeaux,” he explains.

Ellison says it it will have a big impact on Wanderlust gaining B Corp status, but is also likely to resonate massively with its core young consumer database online and key on-trade customers, particularly restaurants in the new Green Michelin guide.

It is also very much in keeping with his and Wanderlust Wine's personality and vision to be continuously looking to shake things up and stay relevant as an innovative independent wine importer.

* You can find out more about Wanderlust Wine at its website here.