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Pause for Paul? - by Christian Davis

Published:  23 July, 2008

Mike Paul is out of a job and looking for something to do. Now that the Constellation leviathan has swallowed Western Wines, its former boss is chilling out while he weighs up his options.

So far the only thing the 57-year-old has got involved with (as an investor and board member) is Match, a new headhunting and HR consultancy, headed up by Christian and Graham Hughes. It has already poached Harpers' news editor, Jack Hibberd, who will undoubtedly be using his contacts built up over more than four years to sniff out who wants to move and who is about to 'pursue their own interests'. From Harpers to headhunter.

'I'm a non-executive director of Match,' says Paul. 'It is an interesting area to get involved with. It is not just going to be about recruitment. I think human resources needs a more scientific approach, so Match will be looking at training and staff development. The wine trade has become another part of the consumer goods market and people need to develop to keep pace with the growth in the market.' Asked if he is going to be a 'sleeping partner' or actively involved, he replies: 'I'm going to be pretty involved.'

With 34 years in the trade, from director at Saccone & Speed, the brewer Courage's wine and spirits division, to Percy Fox both before and after it was acquired by Grand Metropolitan (now the premium wine division of Diageo), Paul has a lot to offer. He was also one of the prime movers in questioning the Wine & Spirit Association's (WSA) representation of issues affecting the wine sector. The seminal formation of the Wine Trade Action Group (WTAG), resulted in a complete root and branches review of the WSA, its eventual break up and the formation of the Wine & Spirit Trade Association.

But Paul would hate to be seen as some sort of Machiavellian figure bestriding the industry using his undoubted talents to further his personal cause. And certainly in all the dealings Harpers has ever had with Mike Paul, any such image is unfair and ill-founded.

Paul wants to make it clear that the takeover of Western (Vincor) by Constellation was dealt with amicably and professionally by the American giant. 'Constellation was very fair and put a lot of effort in following the acquisition,' he states. 'The office closes at the end of October and there are still people working in logistics, finance, systems and HR, working in the Telford office.'

Asked if he is a millionaire now, Paul smiles. The acquisition of Vincor by Constellation preceded by Vincor's purchase of Western must have made Messieurs Gabb and Paul comfortably wealthy at the very least. Paul could easily sit back with his cellar of old Granges, RWT and limited-edition Kumalas - maybe even the odd bottle of Black Tower - and sup his way to oblivion. Mind you, he has three young children (aged 6, 9 and 11) and they can be voracious consumers of anybody's rainy-day nest egg. On the one hand you sense he is enjoying having an uncluttered horizon, while on the other he is anxious to get going again.

Pressed on what he would like to do, Paul lists:

wines at more than 5 a bottle


promoting the development of the category as a whole.

While a member of the Wines of South Africa's importers' committee, Paul particularly enjoyed the social and cultural development side of the South African wine industry. On the apparent stuttering growth of wine sales in the UK, Paul steps back into visionary mode, asking all the right questions that the sector needs to find an answer for.

'We have to deal with the sudden prospect that the sector is not necessarily going to grow. It has been compensated by margins being under pressure, but it raises questions - what do we need to do and are we doing something wrong? Has the market slowed because consumption levels have peaked - 70% of adults drink wine and just cannot drink any more?' he wonders. 'Are there lifestyle issues, looking at higher strength wines - are people drinking less or giving up? Maybe this is a catalyst for a fundamental review of how we market and sell wine, and maybe that is a good thing,'

Does anyone have any suggestions as to who could do that job - game, set and match?