My Biggest Mistake: David Wilkinson

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David Wilkinson, 52, is currently managing director for the UK of Alko Exports, the Finnish national distiller with products such as Finlandia, the world's No 2 duty-free vodka. In 1963, Mr Wilkinson left the Army and spent three years as a trainee diamond buyer with De Beers before joining Del Monte UK as a product clerk. After working his way up in the advertising and marketing end of the business, he left in 1974 to direct the marketing of Bacardi in Europe. He joined Alko in 1983 to introduce Finlandia vodka to the UK, and is now based in Helsinki.

MY biggest mistake was in putting money before personal satisfaction. It happened in 1973, when I was marketing manager for Del Monte. I had two children at private school and was earning the vast amount of pounds 5,200 a year. Then one day I had a call from a headhunter who was looking for a marketing manager for Bacardi.

I was interested to find out what I would be worth somewhere else, so I went along for an interview. I was offered the job - at 25 per cent more than I was earning - but turned it down.

Six months later, when the man who interviewed me got in contact again, things had changed for me. I had been up for a promotion at Del Monte, but an American had come over from Brussels and, because it was an American-run company, I had temporarily to stand aside.

Bacardi was obviously keen to get me, and this time the offer included a 45 per cent salary increase. So I decided to accept.

My boss at Del Monte, who was a super guy, reminded me that the American wouldn't be there for very long and that I would get his job when he left, but I had made my decision.

It was only afterwards that I appreciated how much I had enjoyed being there. It really was the most extraordinary group of people, who worked incredibly hard for not very much money (which, of course, is why I left).

We all put enormous amounts in, and we all got an awful lot out - not in monetary terms but in satisfaction. We all knew what we were trying to do, and we worked together towards that goal.

But I was fairly young at the time and thought the grass was going to be greener somewhere else.

I realised I had made a mistake almost immediately. I never enjoyed Bacardi. Eventually, after two very major arguments, we decided I should leave.

Meanwhile, a friend who knew that I was in the white spirits business suggested I talk to the Finns, because apparently they needed help.

I had travelled all over Europe but had never been to Finland. When Alko invited me for an interview, I actually had to get out a map to find out where it was.

On arrival in Helsinki, I was taken for a sauna vith some very senior members of the company. It was January, and extremely cold.

We were all stark naked, and after several hours of serious discussion, Mr Forsius said over a bottle of beer on the verandah: 'You know, Mr Wilkinson, when you've had sauna with people there are no secrets.'

That's how I started working with Alko. And Finlandia Vodka just grew and grew. But I always kept in contact with Del Monte Europe and, in 1988, learned that there had been a management buyout from Polly Peck.

My first thought was: I could have made an awful lot of money. Had I stayed, I would have been running the UK division, in which case I might have made about pounds 4m.

But I'm not sure I would have had as much fun. It was leaving Del Monte in the first place which taught me that money isn't everything. And if someone offered me a 45 per cent increase now to go elsewhere, I'd say no.

I've put 10 years of my life into this company, worked as many as 80 hours a week and have travelled like hell. We're about a third of the way through the job, but the most difficult work has been done and I don't want to miss out on the personal satisfaction I'm going to get - because that's more important than anything else.

(Photograph omitted)

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