Subscriber login Close [x]
remember me
You are not logged in.

Looking ahead: Liam Steevenson MW, Global Wine Solutions

Published:  28 December, 2018

Once again we are catching up with the trade over the next few weeks to find out how businesses are making the most of the all-important Christmas trading period, while also looking ahead to the challenges and opportunities 2019 may bring.

Our series continues with insights from Liam Steevenson MW, chief executive officer, Global Wine Solutions.

Would you say that the trade is in a stronger or weaker place now than at the same time last year, and why?

It has been an exhausting year in the wine trade, one where nothing seems to have come easily, but those that have rolled their sleeves up and worked hard I feel have ended it in a relatively good place.

The black cloud of Brexit looms on the horizon, and has probably made the best of us conservative in our actions, but I am not sure that is a bad thing.

That said, I feel it is as tough as it has ever been out there and a 10% swing in exchange rate (a distinct possibility) could be catastrophic for lots of businesses. I suppose for those of us in the UK trade, the year will be remembered for the collapse and reform of Bibendum and the Matthew Clark Group. Shockingly fast we saw the markets biggest players fall from grace. I would like to say that lessons have been learnt, that crazy small margins into the on-trade in particular have proven to be unsustainable and there has been a positive shift, but sadly that's not a picture I see, as competitors in that category seem to have jumped into the gaps formed with the same abandonment of sense.

What I am aware of however is a demand for transparency from the supply base, not longer willing to throw stock and cash into market with no idea of how it is being spent or might be repaid; this has to be a positive thing.

What were the highs and lows for your own business in 2018?

2018 has been an incredible year really. I can't think of any time in my life that I have worked with a team of such talented people, putting in such effort. Global Wine Solutions has successfully grown a number of wineries’ shares of market and played a consulting role to business across three continents.

Most thrillingly we have launched a New Zealand brand Fincher & Co that we own, and control the winemaking. We’ve taken it quickly to 6,000 cases, pushed our Roussillon brand Immortelle up to 2,000 cases, doubled our sales of wines from projects in Spain and launched an incredible project in India that will donate its profits to the Jungle Crows charity this Christmas. From a base of zero we will sell over 40,000 cases of our own brand wines in 2018, achieved by a small team of excellent people. I could not be more proud.

In terms of lows, I would just say it's been hard, really hard.

What were the most significant trends in the drinks world that occurred in 2018?

Like a super tanker, the wine trade is slow to change direction; I am not sure anything specific stands out. I view the UK retail scene as being relatively sterile right now, therefore the only voice we hear advising us is in restaurants, and restaurants pushing likes of Albariño, Vinho Verde and Mencia continue to over-deliver in their share of voice.

The wine on tap and wine in box conversation continue to gather pace, offering value and delivering wine in a sociable and democratic way that those awful Enomatic machines never did (legal or not there is nothing worse than a measured serve!).

What drinks trends do you predict will emerge or become more firmly established in 2019?

2019 is going to hinge on the Brexit result. I can't really see past that. It will affect the money in our pockets and how and where we spend it. There is no doubt that the co-operative system of France is starting to really offer a coherent answer to the New World, but if we cannot achieve frictionless trade than I think the short term future for everyday French, Spanish and Italian wine is bleak. That all being said I am not sure the New World producers look at the UK as the pot of gold they once did; able to sell their wine elsewhere in larger volumes and at higher margins, many now consider the UK a debt risk. The UK wine trade relies heavily on a supportive supply base and cash flow eased by good banking relationships, both areas look tricky in 2019.

What are likely to be the biggest opportunities for the trade in 2019?

That Northern Ireland border!

To be honest I think 2019 will be another year where conservatism will pay off. Lower your overheads, be careful with your purchasing, make sensible currency decisions and be prepared to change pricing accordingly and work really hard at what you do well and business will do well. I am not sure its a time for risk.

For our business we continue to grow overseas which now accounts for about 65% of all our trade. We have put a lot of effort into India over the last few years. I think we will work harder in the US and Middle East, and if budget allows start our conversation with Hainan [a tourist magnet Chinese island province]. I think Hainan should be on lots of people’s hit list for 2019.

What will be the biggest challenges facing the trade in 2019?

I’m not going to keep repeating the Brexit story…

Margin is the biggest challenge to our trade, it has been for the last 20 years and it will be for the next. To combat that you have to tell stories, build relationships and engage your customer - if you cannot do that, you are in trouble. On top of this, we continue to drink less. Five years ago we did not have Dry January, Sober October and chats round the coffee machine about dry days in the week, but we do now. Not only that, but beverage choice continues to grow and that ain't stopping in a hurry. More and more we are going to have to provide a reason for customers to buy our wines.

Who are the people, companies or sectors to watch in 2019?

Global Wine Solutions! We are going to smash 2019; I have no doubt of that. The team is now too good, too determined and now structurally ready to make a difference, and while I am doing some self-promotion, the BÂTONNAGE Podcast I do with the super-talented Fiona Beckett should be on everyone’s phone of choice. Other people will do well of course too.

What, for you, would make for a perfect Christmas?

Turn the phone off, close the front door, surround myself with my family, open some bottles, then open some more, eat some great food, have conversations not debates, and sleep a little.