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Published:  23 July, 2008

With a single drinks trade recruitment agency listing between 20,000-100,000 potential job-hoppers on its books, staff loyalty has never looked so suspect. So what measures are retail companies taking to train, motivate and reward key employees - and keep them out of the clutches of their rivals? Joanne Simon talks to the trade's hirers and firers

Judging by the number of people who call Harpers asking for advice on breaking into the alcoholic beverages sector, there seems to be no shortage of people who fondly imagine that their favourite tipple could keep them happily occupied during, as well as after, hours. It is seen as a sexy industry to work in,' says Adrian Evans of Michael Page Marketing, who recruits brand, marketing, category, marketing research and trade marketing managers, as well as market analysts, in the drinks sector. Up until very recently, the wine industry has seen particularly strong growth, no doubt enabling at least some of these enthusiasts to find gainful employment. But does the global trend towards consolidation mean that plum jobs are getting harder to come by? Sue Malti, HR director at First Quench, says the drinks retail chains in particular have undergone some restructuring over recent months. This has been necessary for many organisations to get "leaner and fitter", in order to compete in the market more efficiently.' Meanwhile, Bill Carling at the Carling Partnership, a search and selection company working exclusively in the drinks industry, says he suspects the recent trend of mergers and buyouts will continue. But he points out that wine consumption continues to increase by approximately 7% per year, adding: It is a lovely industry and I am sure it can offer a future for young people for many years to come.' Samantha Houghton, who recruits account executives and managers, and sales managers and directors at Michael Page Sales, agrees: The market seems positive and we are experiencing a rise in recruitment within more niche wine markets, as well as mainstream and well-known brands.'

Take your pick With so many people hoping to break in, are employers spoilt for choice at the moment? I cannot comment for other retailers, but as far as we are concerned, the industry is in good shape,' says Corinne Pilkington, human resources manager at Majestic Wine Warehouses. We have seen a consistent and strong supply of good-quality candidates over the past year. We see approximately 6,000 to 8,000 applications a year for 100 to 130 positions.' Pilkington points out that Majestic has strong links with many of the universities. We attend graduate careers fairs, advertise in a number of graduate careers publications, on Internet sites and also do some local advertising. We also run a placement scheme for students doing a year in industry as part of their degree course.' Oddbins' spokesperson Karen Wise says that people often come in to the stores to ask about positions or send in their CVs. On the whole, we recruit staff (sales advisers) by advertising locally or in-store. We do advertise in some graduate publications and our website also has details of how to apply.' Similarly, First Quench has recently launched an interactive website (, which Malti says is attracting great people from around the globe to many different roles and opportunities'. She says that First Quench also works closely with a number of recruitment agencies to source candidates through searching or advertising, particularly in field management. But what exactly do employers look for in a candidate, and just how important is a passion for the product? Alex Foxell is a manager at Michael Page Retail and recruits mainly area and regional managers and retail operations directors. He believes that passion for the product is great when you're a customer', but not necessarily helpful' as an employee. The technical competencies are still retail based, i.e. customer service focus, man-management skills and business and commercial skills. Personality fit, expectations and motivation are key. The willingness to work predominantly unsociable hours and often deal with volatile/difficult situations are also key requirements.' But Foxell adds that some knowledge or experience of wine is a massive advantage' when it comes to getting jobs, as many roles are specialised. However,' he adds, most companies in this sector offer very good training, coupled with broad career advancement often across a range of brands. The issue for people trying to break into the trade is the level at which they enter and their realistic expectations of what they need to do to progress their careers. This is not a sector for the faint-hearted,' he warns. Oddbins' Wise agrees: The hours are long and the job can be physically demanding. Just enjoying drinking wine is not enough. But a real interest in learning more and an adventurous approach to wine are great characteristics to have.' Pilkington agrees that passion is a good start. But to work in Majestic you also need to be a team player, with strong customer awareness, management potential and be prepared to get stuck in, whether you are a trainee or a senior manager.' First Quench's Malti says: When recruiting, we look for a number of things, with good retailing skills essential. Equally important are a good organisational ability, attention to detail and a strong personality, but the key is passion for the job and the products we sell.' Carling says that passion for the product is a must -as long as it is backed up by some knowledge. My advice to anyone wishing to get into wine is to do it sooner rather than later, study for and pass the exams and, once in, be aware of opportunities and go for them.' To this end, he says that networking and making use of contacts is an obvious way forward in any industry and this is no different in wine. The alcoholic beverages industries are very sociable and friendly and, therefore, a little incestuous,' he admits, adding that his company's database is constantly expanding, partly through advertising, but more importantly, by word of mouth.

Little black book Carling is not alone in raising the importance of networking, with one of his rivals in the recruitment business muttering - perhaps a little cynically, and definitely off the record - that half the jobs are filled by who you know'. Foxell agrees: Once in the industry, who you know plays a part in how people develop their career'. He stresses that Michael Page does not head-hunt, except at executive level, preferring instead to attract candidates at lower levels through corporate advertising in trade press, general awareness and the Michael Page website. However, most of our candidates come through personal recommendation from other candidates,' he adds. Malti says that contracts and networking have always been a way to get an introduction. But at First Quench, being good is what lands candidates the best job. To do well in a highly competitive market, we focus on attracting the best people and we have introduced very rigorous selection processes to make sure we identify the best candidates, often using psychometric testing as part of this process.' Pilkington, meanwhile, insists that Majestic would never actively set out to poach staff' from its trade rivals. If someone applied through legitimate means, then that is their decision - but they would still have to go through a rigorous selection procedure.' Having discovered that the industry is not all about free booze and glamour, though, not to mention the fact that it's rather incestuous', is it fair to assume that staff turnover is fairly high? There is an element of unavoidable attrition, due to the nature and demands of the industry being predominantly suited to younger professionals,' says Foxell. But companies seem acutely aware of the importance of hanging on to outstanding employees, once they've got them. At First Quench, we recognise that our biggest asset is our staff,' says Malti. We have recently introduced a strong performance culture underpinned by exacting appraisals. We have ensured that salary increases are now based on superior performance and have implemented bonus schemes that pay out when value is created in the business. In fact, this year we paid out 2 million in bonuses to 1,700 store managers. Reward is now directly linked to real delivery, and promotion therefore is based on ability and delivery.' Indeed, ultimately it's promotional prospects and career progression at a company that will convince staff not to look elsewhere - and, be warned, they are looking. Houghton at Michael Page says her division's database currently has 20,000 active' sales candidates and historical records for over 80,000 candidates. Our systems enable us to search this pool of people for specific market experience, geographies and salary levels to identify a target list,' she explains. At Oddbins, Wise reports that recruitment beyond sales adviser is usually up through the ranks. We advertise internally but may also respond to CVs sent in,' she says. Similarly, Majestic promotes internally from trainee manager level onwards. Career progression is important and we promote on merit, from within, right through to senior head office positions. Typically, an employee should reach store manager level within two to three years,' says Pilkington, adding that giving people responsibility and decision-making power are equally important factors. Staff enjoy a flat management structure, the opportunity to make a difference and to be able to see what that difference is,' she says. On-the-job training, as well as opportunities for external study, are also seen as key to retaining staff. This year, for example, First Quench expects some 500 employees to take the Wine & Spirit Educational Trust (WSET) Certificate, while Majestic sponsors all its staff through the WSET Advanced Certificate, with a significant number' going on to be sponsored through the WSET Diploma. The industry takes our staff seriously and therefore staff also benefit from tastings tutored by winemakers and key figures within the wine trade,' says Pilkington.

The C&B model Needless to say, it is in the on-trade that staff turnover reaches its most notoriously high levels. But even here, companies are acknowledging the crucial role that good staff play in the operation of a successful business. Corney & Barrow Wine Bars, for example, has been an Investor in People' since 1996. We have always maintained that wine bars are about people on both sides of the bar,' says Ed Gardner, director of marketing and purchasing. All new staff undergo initial training before going on the floor' and embarking on an eight-week wine course run by Corney & Barrow Merchants, described as equivalent to the WSET certificate. Staff who wish to further their wine knowledge are encouraged to pursue the WSET courses. In addition, winemakers visit the bars to talk about their wines, while C&B Merchants visit each bar at least six times a year to brief managers and give tutored tastings. The company has also recently implemented a bespoke Training Programme, fine-tuned over a long time in consultation with managers, staff and external consultants. It comprises nine modules, including appraisals, teamwork, finance, time management and communication skills, and extends to managers and assistant managers, who in turn implement training in their bars. C&B says it promotes staff at all levels from within the company, and that staff are also actively encouraged to pool their ideas and talents. For example, Pat Taylor of C&B Broadgate Circle recently came up with the idea of wine coolers' - wine and fruit juice cocktails - and Robin Oversby, a graphics student working at C&B CityPoint, was recently commissioned to design the Corney & Barrow World Cup promotional material. Both were paid for their ideas. Other regular incentives for Best Performing Bar' or individual salespeople include bar tabs' supplied by various drinks companies, enabling staff to have nights out at a top London bar, and/or trips to wineries in Europe and further afield. In addition, there are team-building days out and trips for bar staff, including a twice-yearly trip to Champagne, and a trip to Beaujolais for C&B Fleet Place. Finally, the company's annual awards took place for the third year running in February, with staff awarded for excellence in areas such as Culinary Arts, Wine Knowledge, Best Bar of The Year and Manager of The Year. Prizes ranged from all-inclusive trips abroad and cases of wine, to cash and Golden Trophies. Regular initiatives are crucial to developing and maintaining staff performance, and encouraging a sense of belief in the value of every individual's contribution,' concludes Gardner.