Founded in 1982, Bibendum Wine Ltd has become one of the most dynamic and innovative wine businesses in the UK, boasting an extensive range of more than 1,000 wines from around the world. EatSleepDrink spoke to Managing Director, Michael Saunders, to get the inside scoop on Bibendum and its high hopes for the coming 12 months.
On the eve of its 30th anniversary in the business, it might come as a surprise to learn that little has changed in Bibendum’s core strategy in the last 30 years. To this day, the company prides itself on making wine accessible and enjoyable to its diverse range of customers. By doing so, Bibendum has played a pivotal role in transforming the UK wine industry, building itself into a genuinely unique, dynamic and exciting company that is dedicated to the needs of its customers across all sectors of the UK trade.
When Bibendum was formed by a group of friends in London in 1982, the UK wine industry was largely unapproachable and inaccessible to the casual client. However, Bibendum’s strategy of selling a mixture of classed growths and unusual bottles to private clients came to revolutionise this once stuffy enclave, as Michael begins by telling us. “The original intention for Bibendum was to be a really good wine warehouse selling excellent wine to interested consumers. In 1982, wine was pretty inaccessible – supermarkets weren’t doing much in the way of interesting wine, while traditional companies in St. James’ were quite intimidating to approach if you didn’t know much about wine.
“Consequently, we started out by sourcing interesting and unusual wines for private clients, but with a sense of humour and accessibility that was lacking in the industry at the time,” he affirms. “In the mid-1980s, the London gastro-scene really started to take off, with restaurants such as The Ivy, La Caprice and River Café, which pioneered London’s now excellent food landscape. Because of the nature of these kind of restaurants, all of them were searching for a point of difference from the general wines available on the rather generic wholesale market. As a result of this demand from the on-trade, we started supplying these kind of fine dining restaurants in the mid-1980s.
“Although we were not terribly well-equipped to do so, we grew into the on-trade very quickly and, today, the on-trade accounts for a lot of our business,” Michael testifies. “Indeed, because of the need for a point-of-difference in the market, we started to look for exclusivity with producers and some of our first deals were with Australian producers. This spread to more countries and, at the same time, the off-trade began to develop pretty quickly, with wine shops and supermarkets looking for better wines from more diverse regions. In the late 1980s and early 1990s we soon became a large supplier to this sector and we created our Off-Trade Division in 1992 to cater to this demand.
“Since then, it has really been a question of organic growth and a matter of trying to do what we do even better than before,” he tells us. “Meanwhile, our private client business has become very successful – we have a dedicated division that deals with fine wines and an international client base from all around the world. As such, we have grown into a company that touches all sectors of the wine industry.
Covering all bases
Having enjoyed steady success for the past 30 years, Bibendum today boasts around 250 employees, many of whom have been with the company since the early days. Indeed, on the eve of Bibendum’s now renowned annual tasting on January 25th, Michael was keen to explain the marketing power this event has taken on. “Our annual tasting celebrates the fabulous wines that we offer from all around the world – the tag line for this year’s event is: ‘Just Add Bibendum’. The beauty of this event is that, firstly, it promotes our vast and diverse range of wines to existing and new clients. Secondly, it acts as a showcase for the new and unique wines that we’ll be offering in the future.
“Indeed, this year we have some incredibly exciting wines that we can’t wait to showcase at the event,” he explains. “Furthermore, the event also works to highlight the kind of services that we offer to our clients, such as training, design and a myriad of specialist services that help our customers sell better wine, more often, which is obviously a win-win situation for everyone. Funnily enough, our annual tastings have become so popular and elaborate that each year we feel the pressure to make them even better than the year before! Our last Annual Tasting, Bibendum EC1, received some fantastic recognition, and was awarded Best Trade Campaign at The Drinks Business Awards. As such, it is a fantastic marketing tool because it shows the extent of our wines – I would say that we have the best and largest range of wines in the UK – as well as providing potential clients the opportunity to taste some unusual wines that they wouldn’t find elsewhere.
“Particularly with the advent 2012 Olympic Games in London, it gives us an ideal platform to market our wines to the UK hospitality industry, which is gearing up for one of the busiest and most historic periods in London’s tourism trade,” Michael acclaims. “I think that the Olympics represents one of the most exciting opportunities in Bibendum’s history, so we are prepared for a very exciting year. Without going into specifics, we are working closely with our customers to find a way of maximising wine sales to new and existing end-users and, ultimately, to take advantage of these new business opportunities.
“We have the best market insights in the business, which details our clients’ target audiences’ tastes and behaviour, and this is no different for the Olympics,” he notes. “Wine is generally pretty poorly served, in terms of market insights, whereas we know – to the nearest street – where London visitorswill be eating and drinking. Consequently, we have been working closely with the on-trade to help them get their wine selections correct in order to attack these business opportunities actively, rather than passively hoping that people come in”.
More than wine
With the world coming to London in 2012, demand for global wines is expected to rise significantly, as well as the demand for wine and spirits produced closer to home – a fact not lost on Michael. “We are looking to really wave the flag for all things produced in the UK, especially as we’re now selling specialist spirits. Indeed, as with the training services we provide to our wine customers, we’re also running a course for spirits, which we’ve called ‘Spirits: Distilled’. Run by our own team of expert bartenders, this course represents another way that we try to help our on-trade customers maximise their sales”.
Although Bibendum is building its presence in the spirits market, wine remains the company’s raison d’etre. Indeed, with more than 1,000 diverse wines in stock at any one time, Michael is keen to explain how the company successfully caters to its diverse customer base. “We are one of the only general suppliers of wine in the UK which has such an active fine wine division. We supply numerous high-end restaurants and hotels with their wine, providing these customers with the ability to order mixed cases of wine, a great USP for our customers who might want two bottles of a particular vintage and two of another. I really believe it is about knowing the customer and giving them the right tools to enable them to make the best decisions for their business”.
As such a beacon of the UK wine industry, Michael was quick to identify some of Bibendum’s major strengths – attributes that have combined to make the company the first port of call for the off-trade and on-trade. “We haven’t arrived at where we are today by buying other companies or by merging with other companies. We are terribly proud of being an independent company that is supported by private shareholders and without any affiliation to a producer. As a consequence, we are incredibly customer-centric – every decision that we make and everything that we do is dictated by our consumers. This independence gives us enormous flexibility to operate in the way that we feel is best for Bibendum and our customers.
“We do operate in a lot of different channels, but we have a lot more channels that we would like to move into,” he states. “Because our entire ethos is built around the customer, if we can make the business of selling wines that are correct for our customers then they will continue to buy their wine from us. Our strategy is very much that the hard work starts, rather than finishes, when the bottles are delivered.
“As I mentioned before, we probably have one of the most diverse wine portfolios going, which is a great accompaniment to our extensive off-trade and on-trade divisions,” Michael affirms. “It has become something of a business cliché to say that ‘people are the most important thing’ – but in our case this is quite literally the case. In the wine industry, people are your biggest costs. While other companies have been quick to downsize their teams during tough periods, we maintained ours. This loyalty to our staff is reciprocated by their hard work and loyalty to us, which I would say has been integral to our success”.
The Vivid brand
Always the pioneer, Bibendum has created the Vivid brand, which encompasses all of its green initiatives, as Michael is understandably keen to describe. “Vivid is led by an incredibly hard-working committee of individuals from across Bibendum and is responsible for introducing and implementing all our environmental policies. For instance, in the vineyard and winery, we work with producers who share our beliefs about these issues and who adhere to sustainable methods. Such practices include biodynamic viticulture, ISO 14001 certification for environmental management and carbon emission reduction”.
Bibendum also seeks innovative solutions to how its wines are packaged, focusing on reduced glass weight. Indeed, 18 per cent of its wine is bottled in the UK using a lightweight 356 gram bottle (the average weight of a UK wine bottle is 496 grams) with an average recycled content of 85 per cent for green glass and 35 per cent for clear glass. Furthermore, the company also works closely with its customers and logistics partner to reduce miles by travelled by delivery vans in the UK, as well as with its shipping partners to find ways to cut transport emissions.
Mr Saunders is extremely pleased to comment on the recognition Bibendum’s green initiatives have received over recent years. “It was fantastic to be named UK Green Company of the Year at the 2010 Drinks Business Awards, while also picking up the Corporate Social Responsibility Award at the International Wine Challenge two years running, really highlights the progress we have made in this field and the endless hard work of our Vivid committee”.
Looking ahead, Bibendum is particularly excited about the immediate future – an excitement that Michael was keen to outline. “We’re going to be featuring quite a lot of wines from Brazil and Uruguay this year, two countries that are largely unknown for their wine, but which we think offer great value for money. At present, there is a lot of activity going on in the Brazilian wine industry and, of course, we have half an eye on the Brazilian Olympics in 2016 as well. There are a lot of interesting developments happening all over the world in the industry at present, so, despite all of the general economic doom and gloom, the wine sector is bucking the trend in terms of innovation and interest, despite the overall wine market suffering in the UK.
“With regards to our recent successes, we have had great results with our Spanish wines,” he confirms. “Our Spanish buyer who is based in Barcelona has been doing a lot of work with unique producers in lesser known regions and I’d encourage everyone attending our tasting on January 25th to go and sample them. A great example of this is our Godello, which is not a particularly cheap wine, but has been a best-seller and an instant hit. Generally, you’ll find a lot of Rioja on pub wine lists, but there is incredible variety across Spain and we have noticed demand for wines from grapes like Mencia, Graciano and Godello really grow in the on-trade, along with our passion for them.
“We have also recently launched our new trade website, www.bibendum-wine.co.uk. The new site really showcases all that Bibendum is about, with detailed information on our extensive range and the producers behind the wines, plus in-depth information on all the services that Bibendum can provide its customers. We believe this is an industry leading website, with design and functionality not previously seen in our sector of the wine industry. This exciting new online presence will be an integral part of our business, as the company continues to progress over the next few years”.
Indeed, when asked about the future of Bibendum, Michael was equally bullish, as he continues, “In the next five years, I hopefully see us strengthening our position as one of the UK’s leading independent wine suppliers. Furthermore, our green agenda, spearheaded by our Vivid brand is really gaining traction in the industry, so we are proud to be continuing our investment and time to improve this further.
“Our spirits arm is also looking robust,” he affirms. “We have developed a service for our on-trade business called ‘After Wine’, which is often overlooked in the industry. The cocktail industry has experienced tremendous growth in past couple of years, so our team of three expert mixologists train and provide specialist knowledge to our customers in this sector as well. Just as we did for wine, we are bringing extensive expertise to the spirits sector – we sat back and thought ‘how can we add value for our customers’ and the answer was providing them a complete and comprehensive range of spirits and the after-sales service to go with it. For one hotel group, we designed a signature cocktail for each of its eight properties, which illustrates the lengths we go to to ensure that our customers are happy.
“Ultimately, we hope that our wine can be enjoyed by everyone,” Michael concludes. “We founded Bibendum to supply wine that we wanted to drink and to make unique and exciting wine available to a diverse market, so we want to continue doing this long into the future.” Given Bibendum’s dedication to the global wine industry and with its unparalleled customer service, 2012 looks like being another vintage year.