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Bibendum counteracts the “vanilla” effect of the Conviviality machine

Published:  13 March, 2019

Bibendum PLB is back on top form after veering away from Conviviality’s “one-size fits all approach”, according to one of its top bosses.

Yesterday’s spring portfolio tasting featured a selection of 45 wines taken from 17 new producers, spanning everything from amphora-aged wines of Bruno Dubois in the Loire to the regionally focused wines of Kelly Washington in New Zealand.

This is in stark contrast to last year’s event, when several profit warnings had sounded the death knell of Conviviality, and when staff were focused on reassuring suppliers rather than launching new products.

“Compared to where we were 12 months ago, it’s chalk and cheese,” Walker & Wodehouse Wines’ managing director Gareth Groves told Harpers.

“Prowein was about to start and we were right in the eye of the Conviviality storm. Now, the conversation is all about exciting growth.”

Groves credits new owners C&C with giving the re-separated Bibendum PLB and Matthew Clark a fresh start by paying all their debts, as well as allowing each the freedom to re-establish the specialisms at the core of their businesses.

This includes handing the reigns of Bibendum back to Michael Saunders and Matthew Clark to Dave Phillips, who were both “at the helm when the businesses were booming,” group marketing director Richard Hayhoe said. “It's like we’ve re-wound.”

The centralised approach of Conviviality, which spanned everything from premium on-trade supplier Bibendum to Bargain Booze, also meant the group’s various portfolios became increasingly indistinguishable or “vanilla”.

Hayhoe said: “Conviviality didn’t fully appreciate the differences in those businesses…they operated on the basis that a one size fits all approach worked, which clearly, it didn’t.”

Once again, the focus for Bibendum is getting back to small batch, artisanal and family owned producers, as well as a re-honing “mindful drinking”, which was highlighted at the tasting via a number of sustainable, organic and biodynamic wines.

This includes wines like those from Galician producer, Rodrigo Mendez. 

“When I first tasted his wine, he had an empty cellar with two and half barrels. Matthew Clark needs scale for its customer base. But our customers [Bibendum and Walker & Wodehouse] are looking for something new and specific,” said Groves.

There is also a renewed focus on spirits at the company.

At yesterday’s tasting, a rum dedicated section showed 10 premium aged variations: part of a plan to increase the rum portfolio by 10% in the coming months and spirits overall.

“At the moment, 10% of Bibendum PLB’s turnover is spirits. We want it to be 30% in two to three years time,” spirits buyer Guy Dolden said.

Opportunities in new markets are also being opened up by C&C.

Via a partnership with Gilbeys, the wine division of C&C-owned Gleesons in Ireland, Bibendum PLB has added around 300 wines to what is typically a "fragmented" market. 

"The ROI has around 165 wine distributors and importers and distribution is very localised," Groves said. "The population is the size of greater Manchester, but spread out across many rural areas."

“C&C clearly understands where Bibendum can unlock wine business where existing brands haven't been able to,” Hayhoe added.