The rewards of a 90-hour week

Julian Kaye doesn’t mind working hard in a trade he loves and has a great relationship with his customers. But just occasionally he’s forced to dress up as a terrifying voodoo character to call in debts. Nigel Huddleston meets him in his more traditional attire

The Wright Wine Co’s postal address is the Old Smithy in Skipton in North Yorkshire. It will come as no surprise to learn that it’s a former blacksmith’s, but the gradual expansion of the footprint of the business over the years means the current premises also include the town’s one-time fire station (from the horse-drawn days), two former dress shops and a knock-through to an old flat.

One of the dress Wright Wine 1shops was owned by Ros Fawcett, one of the original WI Calendar Girls, since immortalised in the 2003 film. Wright’s was a £50 sponsor of the very first calendar.

“We said it would never work,” says owner Julian Kaye, “but, begrudgingly, we gave them 50 quid. It turned out to be the best 50 quid we ever spent because they went on to raise £20m and she became so busy with the charitable foundation that she didn’t have time for her shop and asked if we’d like it. Miss October. She was the short one.”

The first wine merchant on the site was Peter Hopkins’ Manor Wine Shop in 1975 before Bob Wright took over in 1983 and gave it the name it retains to this day.

Kaye joined the business in 1991 and was initially granted a 10% stake as a junior partner, increasing this when Wright and wife Eileen divorced and she insisted her shares be split between her ex and Kaye.

When Bob died in 2012 Kaye’s stake had increased further through an agreed annual share purchase formula.

“I had 49% of the company and he had 51%, but even when I had 49% he thought he was the 100% shareholder, so we had a very fiery relationship,” says Kaye, who subsequently bought the remaining shares to become sole owner.

One of his first acts was to invite Eileen back. “She’s the matriarch of the Wright Wine Co. She first employed me 28 years go, she’s always looked after me and she’s like a mum to all of us. She’s my HR department. She’ll come in and make a cup of tea for everyone, chat to them, see how they’re getting on and sort out any problems.”

They are the 10 full-time staff and four part-timers who help generate £4.4m of annual turnover, £1m of which comes from the shop, a low-ceilinged labyrinth with three-foot thick stone walls that provide natural temperature control. There are seven rooms on various levels, housing 2,600 wines and 1,000 whiskies, of which 250 bottles are open in a walk-in tasting cupboard.

The hundreds of gins have their own room and there’s a “B&B Room”, housing Bordeaux and big bottles. The latest change at the back end of 2017 saw the introduction of a separate Burgundy room.

“It displays probably a third of all our Burgundies,” says Kaye. “We have extensive holdings but most we don’t sell or list, we keep them for ourselves – historical stuff which we keep for rainy-day money.”

A brandy room in the shop houses Cognacs and Armagnacs from vintages spanning 1934 to 2000, and there are vintage ports going back to 1955, Madeira to 1907 and Rivesaltes to 1909, all products that form part of the separate online Vintage Drinks business.

The shop is owned freehold and a nearby warehouse is rented.

Where’s your own day-to-day focus in the business?

I don’t like selling. Bob was always the salesman; he liked being out on the road. I am the salesman but I don’t really go out. Our price list is our CV. We have 5,100 products. That’s what opens the doors. We buy incredibly well and we’re not afraid to invest [in stock] but I live a very meagre lifestyle. I often laugh at people who go along on all the buying trips. It’s always the same people who clearly can’t be arsed to work.

Katie Pinder, our shop manager, is wonderful, and there are three others who run it with her fantastically well. People come in, whether they’re regulars or tourists, and they interact, they smile, they allow people to taste whatever they want. It’s well-organised and it’s got a nice atmosphere. But when you’ve got seven rooms full of alcohol like that it’s the easiest thing in the world. The shop really takes care of itself.

We’re probably one of the few provincial wine merchants who employ an MW, Nick Adams, on a consultancy basis. I speak to him every day. He’s in Cambridge and attends all the big tastings for me. It’s easier and cheaper for him. He’ll find things and recommend that the team taste something, but I can’t afford a day or two out to go to a tasting. He’s far better than me; he’s anal and anoraky and he won’t be seduced by a price. This is why we don’t taste with principals or suppliers. If it’s not good, we won’t list it.

So you don’t sell and you don’t run the shop and you don’t travel to far-flung places to look for wines. So what does your day look like?

My purpose in life is to bring in the £14,000-£15,000 a day in trade on the days we’re open.

I load vans, check them off, I drive the forklift, I answer the phone, I chase [wholesale] debt. Don’t ever owe me money. My favourite costume for collecting debt is Baron Samedi, the voodoo priest from Live & Let Die. I have a top hat which makes me stand eight and a half foot. I have a five-foot stuffed snake going round my neck and if I come into your restaurant at eight o’clock on Saturday night, you as the debtor are going to be sick of people asking you: “What’s that guy standing there for?”

I always pay my bills and I always collect my debts. I’m not bothered about whether you pay me or not because I can use your debt against my corporation tax, but I will cause you the maximum amount of embarrassment.

You’ve always got to be prepared to say no. If someone lets me down once with money, I’ll forgive them. If they let me down twice, that’s it. I don’t need them.
I do a 90-hour week for a 3% return and tying up £2m of my money in stock. I can think of better things to be doing.

Such as?

I wanted to be a gamekeeper.

What drives you, then?

I love the industry. It’s great fun and you meet some great people. I’m very fortunate to have some very loyal customers. My word is my bond, it always has been. I open accounts on the shake of a hand. I’m rarely let down.

What’s your wholesale spread like geographically?

[Examining a war-game style map of northern England with pins in it] Liverpool, Chester, south Lakes, Dales up to Richmond, Northallerton, Selby. We cross people’s territory but I respect traditional old-fashioned boundaries. I’m great friends with Peter Fawcett at Field & Fawcett in York. We do some buying together. If I get any enquiries from potential new York customers, despite the fact we’ve got longstanding customers in York, I’ll always refer them to him.

Where do you buy from?

We deal with every UK agent apart from Boutinot and Bibendum.

Why?

I don’t like Bs. For 20 years I always believed Boutinot were a bit too frivolous at running with the hare and hunting with the hounds so I said we wouldn’t buy from them. Eventually we had a three-hour meeting only for them to go away and tell us they wouldn’t supply us.

Bibendum? For obvious reasons. People get upset and ask why we deal so much with Liberty, for example. I deal with Liberty because I like them. Liberty respect us and don’t tread on our toes. I’d hate to be a merchant in London, though, because the big agents will just go straight to your restaurant customers.

Do you buy direct?

We have people we’ve always bought from in France, Spain and Italy. We broker a lot with a couple of people in Bordeaux to buy historic allocations, and buy in Burgundy. We always buy historic allocations of Chapoutier. We buy every declaration of Taylor’s and Fonseca and have done for the last 40 years.

We bring in 40-foot containers from New Zealand and South Africa and use Rarter Bond at Leeds-Bradford Airport. They’re cheap, cheap, cheap.

I monitor currency five or six times a day. It’s incredibly important for us.

How has currency panned out over the past two years?

Don’t mention Brexit.

You don’t like B words.

It took me six months to talk to my parents. My father [an antiquarian bookseller] was the most cosmopolitan person I’ve met in my entire life. I used to go back for Christmas dinner and there were always four extra places set at the dinner table.

Typically there’d be a Chilean dissident who’d been kicked out by Pinochet, a Medicins Sans Frontieres doctor on their way to Somalia who he’d met on the train, a Chinese student and a Buddhist monk. But he handed out 30,000 leaflets for Leave.

I’m not really worried about tariffs but currency is the most important thing in my life. A strong pound, I make money; a weak one, I lose money.

Currency affects shipping – and we run four vans of our own. Unless you have seriously deep pockets you’re a fool if you start wholesaling now. My insurance is £20,000 a year, my warehousing is £40,000 a year, and four vans costs a lot in fuel.

Tell us more about the shop. It’s only about a quarter of your turnover but for most people £1m in turnover would be phenomenal.

We know 60% of our customers as regulars. We know their tastes and take them on a journey. It may be a £6.50 bottle every Friday night or three grand’s worth of Bordeaux and a bottle of whisky. People travel a long way and we get a lot of retail customers who come from our restaurant customers because they had a wine that we’ve supplied them.

Our whisky customers will come in and spend half an hour tasting to choose a bottle. It doesn’t work so well with wine but we do wine tastings on Saturdays.

We haven’t got the footfall to justify an Enomatic machine and nor would I want to sell a card to Mr and Mrs Smith who spend 10 grand a year with me. I’d rather give them the card, and that is kind of pointless.

If you put us next door to Hedonism with our stock we’d do rather well. But we wouldn’t be able to afford the rates. Or the rent.

What about the web?

We’re running a trial with a new site at vintagedrinksonline.co.uk. It has 400 items that date from 1900 to 2000 for people looking for presents for anniversaries and 50th, 60th, 70th birthdays. This is a forerunner of what our new main website’s going to look like.

Our main website is 15 years out of date.

What sort of contribution does it make?

Bugger all. I want people to go to the website and realise we’re a serious offering in the north. That’s it. If you’re visiting Leeds for the weekend and you do a search you’ll find the Wright Wine Co and decide to pay us a visit. The new one’s going to be full of pretty pictures to attract people into the shop.

Ten years ago everyone thought their website was going to be their saving grace against falling sales. How wrong they were.

We will need to employ someone to constantly be doing the website. If that costs us 30 grand and gets us £150,000 of business in the shop or two new restaurant accounts it will be worth it.

Its real importance is in making an impression rather than sales. We were asked two months ago to supply a restaurant that we stopped supplying 15 years ago. The wine consultant they were using wanted Wiston English sparkling wine and Wiston told them there were four merchants but we were the last choice because the website was shit. We don’t look professional. But, bloody hell, we are professional, because we’ve got 5,200 products, we’ll pull you out of the manure, we’ll service you like you’ve never been serviced.

I’ve delivered on Christmas Eve, New Year’s Day, New Year’s Eve at 10pm, even on my 40th birthday when I had 40 people round for a party. But because we didn’t have a decent website the assumption was we were just playing at it. We’ve got a Master of Wine. We’ve got 150 years’ experience among the staff. We’re now back in there with 80% of that restaurant’s list.

Who do you admire most in the wine trade?

Jonathan Hammond at Hammonds of Knutsford. Shrewd operator. I would say to someone coming here to sell to me: “Give me the price you quoted John Hammond. I’ll let him do the negotiating for me, then I’ll stock your product”.

Phenomenal business taking on the big boys at wholesaling: fantastically smart buyer, pays his bills. Shake his hand, but make sure your fingers are still there when he’s shaken it.

Why did you keep the old name for the business?

Aside from work I’m the least competitive and egotistical person you’ll meet. I’ll never change the name. Why would I?

Is that because there’s so much goodwill wrapped up in it?

No. If you ask half the people in Skipton what they thought of Bob Wright they’d say he was a cantankerous shit. We had 10 restaurant businesses in Skipton who refused to deal with us. Within three weeks of his death we had them back. For about 20 years Bob tried to buy our building off the landlady and she refused. Within four weeks of him dying I’d bought the building.

But despite that, and despite the fact that I have a nightmare about Bob every two nights, and have done for the last six years, I’ll never ever change the name. The only point would be … if you ever look down lists of wine merchants in magazines or stockists’ lists we’re always down the bottom. You couldn’t have a worse letter than W, then R.

This article appeared in the November 2018 edition of The Wine Merchant

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