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David Cox, Penny Richards, Michael Saunders and Patrick McGrath MW

Q&A: David Cox, chief executive, The Benevolent

Published:  30 October, 2017

Ahead of his forthcoming retirement David Cox talks to Andrew Catchpole about a lifetime at the forefront of the drinks trade

Tell us a little more about The Benevolent and your role there

I will have been there for five years, and it’s been a real clarion call of mine to raise awareness and change a couple of misconceptions. The Benevolent is there to help and support people who are currently working in the trade and who have worked in the trade, to offer practical, emotional and financial support. If you have any difficulty in your life or your family’s life, we are here to help.

The first misconception is that people thought you have to be retired and most of our applications now are from people who are still working. The second, that we just give money, grants, and we do, but we focus much more on practical and emotional help, on wellbeing and mental health. I wanted to change perception and put forward the idea of this multi-level support.

How is The Benevolent supported?

We have three income streams. We are funded by the trade, with corporate partners giving annual donations, and I’m pleased to say that has really expanded. We’ve doubled the number and now have about 112, large and small, from Diageo downwards, which is about 65% of our income.

Next is events – the ball, quiz night and dinner – but not just ours, also people doing events on behalf of The Benevolent. This year 85 companies did something for us. As we engage more, people are increasingly saying “why don’t we support our own trade charity?”.

The third is, like most charities, from investment income. We have about £5 million invested, which gives back an income that covers most of our overheads, and the WSET gives us free rent in Bermondsey Street, which is fantastic support from [chief executive] Ian Harris.

I can say to people if you can give us a pound, I can give about 90p back out, which is great.

Could you run us through your varied career?

I’m from the Matthew Clark family, the company was set up by my great grandfather on my mother’s side, and my late twin brother Michael and I were always destined to join Matthew Clark.

I didn’t go to university (Michael did), I thought it all looked a bit staid, so I joined Rank Xerox and got some good blue-chip training there, ending up heading up a fairly significant sales team.

After a number of years, when I thought the wine and spirits trade was a lot more stable and looked interesting and enjoyable, and more importantly Matthew Clark was just about starting to deal with [pioneering supermarket buyer] Allan Cheesman and the multiples, from having dealt with pubs, I joined. It was turning over about £90 million, quite a nice business and exciting times, and I stayed during the metamorphosis of Matthew Clark right up until the point when it was sold.

I was approached by Brown-Forman, which was building its wine business at the time, and wanted to build Europe, and stayed until it sold its wine business, refocusing on its spirits side. I then joined New Zealand Winegrowers, rather interestingly, while Michael was running Wines of Chile, so we thought that was quite amusing and being twins I would have Chilean winemakers coming up to me at trade shows asking for advice.

How was it working at a generic after corporate life?

I loved New Zealand, my whole role, it was really enjoyable. Less like corporate life, but certainly the energy and getting pushed and pulled every way, which I liked about heading up a generic. Behind you were the winemakers, sideways the agencies, the market in front – you had to be all things to all men.

I’d be the first to say that generic bodies have a wonderful place. They can hold your hand and also wave the flag, and in many cases educate winemakers – export is not for the faint-hearted – by pointing them in the right direction and giving advice.

I was quite prescriptive. It was a nice influential role and it ticked my ego box seeing I could be of some use to winemakers and the New Zealand trade, and the trade here too, I hope.

After that role came to an end, what persuaded you to join The Benevolent?

It’s a bit of a cliché, but I felt it would be good giving back to this trade that has been so lovely to me and my family.

It felt right and appealed to my mentality. I remember the call from Christopher Carson and immediately thought this could really work. Though I wasn’t so enamoured with the salary after the corporate world! But it’s a great team and I believe we’ve really punched above our weight.

What changes have you seen in the trade during your 48 years?

It has changed a lot – it was a fairly traditional world when I joined, mostly male, and the routes to market were through retail names that don’t exist any more, off-licences that were largely brewery owned, and supermarkets weren’t really selling wine.

The nature has changed – it’s much more dynamic and global and professional now. But in the same breath, it’s kept the same lovely camaraderie and openness around it, without being so old school.

And the products now selling are returning to provenance and place, with much more emphasis on what it is, where it’s from, as opposed to the FMCG mentality we went through. There has been more of a return to smaller producers, more independence, and smaller producers can better survive now. The rise of the independent merchants has been lovely to see – now a thriving sector.

We have been our own worst enemy, talking about wine in a way that doesn’t connect with people, but I think this has changed, it is better. We still haven’t quite found the right language. But at least we now have the mediums, social media, independents, even better communication on the multiples’ shelves, to get the messages, the stories across, to appeal to younger people.

What else could the trade do to help itself?

Mentoring is a buzzword of mine, as an industry we should be helping apprentices (for want of a better word) coming in and nurturing them through, exposing them to business and the wisdom and knowledge of leaders and brand managers. Are we good at bringing people in? If someone wants to enter our trade, where can they come in and how can they work up the ladder?

We are an attractive trade to come into, so what are we doing to attract good people in and then allow them to progress? We are such a dynamic and enjoyable trade, and not as badly paid as some make out, it would be a shame to miss out on talent that I am sure is out there.

You’ve been immersed in the trade for many years as a popular and well-known figure. What will you do after retirement in December?

I’m 66, I’ve worked for 48 years, and have some plans. Spontaneity and to travel the world a little more are high on the agenda. I’m going to learn to cook – I love good food but really can’t cook – so I will do some courses and I will take up photography, walk more, play more tennis, and do some travelling. When this interview comes out, I should be in a hammock in Bali…

But I still want to connect with the trade, through (if I’m invited) attending certain events and doing some judging. I’m not just going to walk away. But I want to have that next chapter, loving life with my wife, and enjoying it all while I have health and fitness. And I intend to meditate more – I used to do transcendental meditation, but got out of the habit. It’s good for the mind, and for health and general wellbeing.