It's the Wednesday before Christmas and it is going to be a back-to-the-floor-sort-of-a-day for Tim How, who runs Majestic Wine. The wine retailer is in full flow for the biggest fortnight of its year and will need all hands on deck before it's through. He pulls on his company sweatshirt (a wine-bottle green) over a green shirt and pairs it with some navy chinos and matching boating shoes. After 15 years in the job, he knows how chilly it gets in the group's shops. Fine wines are very demanding when it comes to temperature control.
The Hows live in St Albans, Hertfordshire, which makes it only a short hop to Majestic's Watford headquarters. Being based there is handy because it means that the head office is on the same site as its main depot. Mr How starts the week office-bound; somewhat unusually Majestic's week runs until Monday night, which means the main number crunching happens on Tuesday morning. Today though he just stays long enough to run the sales data on the four stores he is visiting: in St John's Wood, Ealing, Uxbridge and Ruislip.
The company gets 10 per cent of its annual turnover in the two weeks leading up to new year, so a shortage of something popular like its Nicolas Feuillatte bubbly could be costly.
Mr How is a proud graduate of the "retail is detail" school of thinking, which has paid off in spades for Majestic. Since forming the business in its current guise in 1991, the wine warehouse chain has grown its profits every year, bar one in its early days. The company is worth £235m, more than treble its value five years ago.
By mid-morning, Mr How is at the St John's Wood outlet in north-west London. It is serious-money territory, making the store the perfect location for the group's first foray into seriously fine wines. We're talking all the way up to a £900 1995 Chateau Petrus, although £30 will buy you a very nice vintage Bordeaux. In fact, by the time I arrive he's managed to shift a 1994 Petrus for £550. "It's a great time of year. People arrive here by chauffeur to buy presents. It's like shelling peas," he says with a smile.
By the end of 2007, 30 of its 120 stores will have fine wine sections, which will help the average price of a bottle edge closer to the £6 mark. That's a far cry from the bin-end prices charged by supermarkets, which are mopping up share from the rest of the off licence sector.
It hasn't been the best year for the wine trade. Growth in 2006 slowed to about 1.7 per cent, down from headier highs of more than 5 per cent in years past. "It's too early to know exactly why but we may well be in a position where high rates of growth are less likely. Maybe the market has reached a slightly more mature position," said Mr How. Certainly drinkers' palettes have matured. Gone are the days when Brits would quaff any old glass of Australian Chardonnay. Now we're more likely to opt for a drier Sauvignon Blanc from Chile or New Zealand. Pinot Grigio is proving popular, as are Chilean Merlots.
For Mr How, time spent in the stores is all about making sure Majestic's famous promotions are running to plan and that its staff are up to speed. "You can tell how well the store is operating as you walk in the front door." St John's Wood gets an A+, a grade borne out by its contribution to the group's sales figures. When we meet Mr How has to be cagey about just how well trading is going because he's not allowed to tip off the stock market until the group's official trading update, due on 3 January. As it happened, the group had a very strong Christmas indeed, growing its total sales by 8 per cent and its underlying sales for the nine weeks to 1 January by 4.4 per cent. Mr How's own choice of festive wines no doubt helped Majestic to hit that sales figure. For his own family's Christmas Day drinking he'd selected a £54-a-bottle Chateau Ducru-Beaucalliou 1999 (a 2 eme Grand Cru Classe St-Julien, for those in the know. He later admits: "It tasted very nice").
There is a little hiccup at the store in that one of its delivery drivers has gone awol; the perils of the festive season, no doubt, but a quick call to the regional manager soon sorts that out. Majestic's deliverymen are one of the secrets of its success. Anything customers buy - and they can only purchase bottles by the case - gets delivered free. At the moment, 40 per cent of everything it sells gets delivered, but that proportion is rising as its sales over the internet increase.
With everything "humming along nicely" in north London, it's time to head west. Business at its Ealing outlet will not peak until Saturday, when families staying put over Christmas will stock up in preparation for a week's hibernation. His main task is to chivvy along the staff. "They are beginning to get quite tired by now." Majestic's store staff are the other main ingredient in its story of success. Most join straight from university; after completing umpteen wine diplomas and the like, many end up with a head office job in Watford. The property, human resources, IT and buying departments are almost exclusively staffed with former store workers. The main exception is the buying director, Justin Apthorp, who is the former chairman John's son.
And Mr How. A natural sciences graduate with a background in marketing, Mr How has been with Majestic since the early days. Tim Mason, Justin's predecessor, actually started the wine warehouse chain in 1981, although it takes until the end of that decade for the retailer's story to get interesting. Mr How was marketing and later managing director at Bejam, the old frozen food group owned by John Apthorp, which also owned a small off-licence chain called Wizard Wine. When Iceland bought Bejam, Mr How teamed up with his boss and Mr Mason to buy back Wizard. They added Majestic two years later and have not looked back.
The next store on the agenda is Uxbridge, one of Majestic's newer ones. One of its biggest challenges is finding enough sites to expand the chain. Mr How sees scope for 200 outlets across the UK which, at a rate of about eight new ones a year, will keep it growing for some time yet. "You just have to look for an affluent golf club and that's a good place," he said. Uxbridge is prime golfers territory: there are two swish clubs in nearby Denham alone.
There are no issues at Uxbridge so it's on to Ruislip. Which is a lucky call as it turns out. The store is a bit short-handed so Mr How gets to work. He hits the phones again and gets the HR director to help make up for the missing manpower for the rest of the week. His store visits done for that day, it's time to head home to prepare for Christmas. He's off to Norfolk, his childhood haunt, where the sailing fanatic owns a spot of land on the coast. He did own a house until he knocked it down. It's being rebuilt so the family is renting somewhere nearby for the countdown to new year. It tends to be a somewhat boozy week as sandwiched between the two big dates is Mr How's birthday. His 56th. The wine of choice was a Muga Reserva 2001. That's a very nice Spanish Rioja to you and me.
From cement works to fine wines
Name: Tim How
Job: Chief executive, Majestic Wine
Education: MA in natural sciences, Churchill College, Cambridge; MSc, London Business School
Career history: graduate trainee, Rugby Cement; production manager, Angus Fire Armour; marketing and later general manager, Polaroid; marketing and then managing director, Bejam; bought Wizard Wine from Iceland in 1989 and added Majestic Wine in 1991; has run the group ever since.
Family: Married, four daughters.
Hobbies: Sailing fanatic.Reuse content