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First Quench restructures and refocuses

Published:  23 July, 2008

By Christian Davis

Victoria Wine looks likely to be an early casualty as new First Quench chief David Williams restructures and refocuses the group. Williams admitted to Harpers that the group had lost its way. "I have to say that we are not at the forefront of modern retailing," he said. Highlighting the scale of the challenge facing the group, in the latest AC Nielsen moving annual total (MAT) figures to November/ December 2000, volume trends for total light wine by off-trade channel show the multiple specialist sector down 9%. Discussing his plans to turn things round, the 54-year-old former Whitbread and Diageo executive said: "I am a huge believer in simplicity and focus. I counted the fingers and thumbs on both hands and came to ten. I counted the number of fascias we have and ran out of fingers and thumbs." Asked about Victoria Wine, he replied: "It is a question of focus. The consumer profile of Victoria Wine is very similar to Thresher's. We have to focus on the consumer, understand all the brands and names and then decide." He added, however: "There have been all sorts of rumours and I am anxious to stress that the rumour of 600 closures is inappropriate and incorrect." First Quench is to be split into three strategic business units: retail, property and supply chain. Retail divides into two "customer-facing" businesses: 1) "Convenience/Impulse", ie Thresher, Victoria Wine, Haddows and Drinks Cabin. This will be headed by Bill Walker. 2) "Specialist/Destination", ie Wine Rack and Bottoms Up. Andrew Gammage will head this. Williams said that the property portfolio of 2,504 stores needed to be sorted out. "Our properties are a lifeline for us. We have to be careful because once gone, they are gone for ever." Marketing will now report directly to the CEO, reflecting the critical importance of this function in ensuring the business is customer-led. Buying director Mike Campbell and property director John Robinson are taking early retirement. HR director John Shaw is also leaving. Married with two grown-up children, Williams was at Whitbread when the company bought the old Ashe & Nephew off-licence chain. He said he had received a number of offers but would not have taken First Quench if he had thought it anything other than a "wonderful opportunity". Having to compete with McDonald's while at Burger King, he is used to "fighting a David and Goliath battle". "We are the Goliath within the specialist off-licence sector," he said, "but a David in the overall retail market. Maybe that has been the cause of the schizophrenic approach to the market." Asked what his favourite drinks were, Williams replied: "New World lightly-oaked Chardonnay and Semillon. I lived in the States so I like Napa Valley wines, Stag's Leap and Kendall-Jackson wines. I also like a pint of Burton with friends in the pub."