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Bouncing Back Q&A: Brett Fleming, Armit Wines

Published:  04 August, 2021

It’s been a one-of-a-kind 18 months for the trade. Here, as we begin to push into the second half of the second year of the pandemic, Harpers is catching up with businesses to find out how they’re focusing on recovering from the shock, and what challenges and opportunities lie ahead.

We continue our series with views from Brett Fleming, MD of supplier Armit Wines.

How ‘back to normal’ are you as a business?

Define ‘normal’. At Armit we have managed the pandemic well and avoided furloughing any staff. This enabled us to ensure continuity but also accelerate our plans for a post Covid world. I am not sure back to normal is something we would agree with as the new environment we are now working in has challenged and changed what the perception of normal was and is. My staff now have the flexibility to work from home and the office in split shifts ensuring all the departments are covered. The impact of the on-trade closure of course put us behind our growth targets but we had planned well and the focus in all our other channels, not least the Private Client and web allowed us to mitigate this to some degree, but also maintain our plans for the on-trade as it opened up. Covid will not go away so learning how to live with this I think is something we need to factor in.

What are your priorities and predictions for the second half of 2021?

Our main priority is to continue the sustainable profit growth and develop our presence in channels some might not consider Armit for. We are seeing this develop well and opportunity is opening up in many areas we had targeted. The plans we put in place despite Covid remained unchanged and our investment in people prior Covid is now paying off, so it is more conversion not priorities. Predicting the second half is not easy. Brexit issues, ongoing travel challenges due to Covid and Government, on-trade impact, the list goes on. None the less, our view is positive. Fine dining, an area we have traditionally been strong in I think will return well, but not for all. So much depends on the vaccination roll out and the uptake in all age groups.

What kind of Christmas are you anticipating and how are you prepping?

Stock is the main challenge as movement from the EU has seriously hampered collection and delivery times. Forecasting has become incredibly challenging so ensuring we have the stock, aligned with on-trade opening and our own growth plans does require great prep. As for Christmas, it is always a busy time, but a staff party would be good!

Do you anticipate making a full recovery from the pandemic? What timeframes are realistic?

Yes, totally. The turnaround in our results at Armit is testament to this, and whilst our latest results are modest, they are a radical change from previous years and on current form, we will end this financial year with exceptional return to our investor well beyond the last year. The pandemic slowed us down, but it did not stop people wanting great wine. Our own time frame for ‘recovery is more centred around engaging great customers, continuing on the path of growth we had planned and sourcing additional suppliers who share our vision. The timeline on this being ongoing!

How heavily have you been impacted by staffing issues?

Thankfully not much to date due to Covid. Like all business we have had to manage the Covid impact as it developed, however we took the decision early 2020 to allow staff to work from home well before government lock down in late March 2020. Maintaining this and ensuring those who now wish to split their time between the office and home is policy we are implementing.

Are you anticipating more Covid-related restrictions?

It is impossible to say. Changes are daily it would seem in government direction making predicting future Covid restrictions that much more difficult. It would appear there is a reluctance from Whitehall to impose restrictions, but it is not realistic to assume this is the case.

How have drinking habits changed post-lockdown?

Retail has slowed down its growth and the on-trade has returned, but nothing like before. We have a tracker in place measuring key aspects of this and are currently at around 75% pre-Covid levels. This is showing good improvement but there are many accounts that have not reopened.

Lastly, if you could make one change in government tomorrow, what would you choose?

Without the efforts of Miles Beale and co, VI1 forms being scrapped would have been my number one reply. Now, easier importation from the EU is my one request. The strap line of taking back control and making life easier and less bureaucratic is simply false in regards to shipping from the EU to the UK for all our suppliers’ wines. It is vastly more complicated, expensive, time wasting and frustrating. Some shipping agents have said they will no longer bring in wine as it is simply too difficult. Getting samples sent over has turned into a war and peace effort when it really does not need to be. Politics is taking over from policy and freezing Government in making the right decision over the popular one. 

Quick-fire questions:

France, Spain or Italy?

Italy. My first great love. The only regret being I would miss Champagne.

USA or OZ?

Oz. A country of vast diversity, poor consumer understanding of their fine wines and great people.

Port or Sherry?

Sherry. Tapas and great fino!

English bubbles or Champagne?

Sorry England, Champagne for me.

Go-to drink to watch with the Olympics / tennis / football?

Tennis. Never understood Football. Rugby/Cricket would also be a top choice.