The man in the van

Tony Laithwaite is a dab hand at building sustainable businesses for unknown wine producers and New Zealanders are the latest to gain from his unconventional approach

When it comes to running a business on the smell of an oily rag, Tony Laithwaite knows more than most; he began selling wine from the back of a van 40 odd years ago, and has now built up a multi million dollar business.

This year, he arrived in New Zealand to do it all over again; only this time, the sales will be online rather than out of a van.

Tony Laithwaite

It all began when five idealistic French wineries chipped in UK200 pounds apiece, funding a young and wine-passionate Laithwaite into a van that he could drive around France, pick up their wines in and transport them back to the UK; where he sold direct to consumers.

He is now one of the most powerful wine merchants in the world, was on the 2012 Sunday Times Rich List in the UK and yet remains a staunch advocate of the small guy. Laithwaite has built a reputation as a champion of the underdog wine producer, favouring small producers because he views their wines as more characterful than their mass produced counterparts.

“Our customers love tiny producers and don’t seem to like big brand wines,” says Laithwaite, who suggests that this makes New Zealand ideal for new brands.

He has come to the right place. There is no shortage of small, unknown wine producers in this country, which is now home to approximately 700 local wine companies, the vast majority of which are small. Many of them are so tiny that they cannot operate as sustainable business entities without one of their owners working in another, unrelated day job in order to fund their wine business.

It’s a mindset that Laithwaite can relate to. When he first went into wine, he planned to do it for the love and hopefully make enough money to survive. Things panned out rather more successfully for him and his wife-business-partner, Barbara, to whom he credits a high degree of the success of the company.

Since its early days as a direct retailer, Laithwaite’s Wines has morphed into an online wine store in the United Kingdom, which sources wines from as far flung places as the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Hungary, Moldova and Romania to Georgia, Turkey, Italy, Canada and Chile, among many more well known wine countries.

With New Zealand now in the mix, Laithwaite plans to give a bunch of small Kiwi wineries a much needed shot in the sales arm.

All wines will be sold online direct, which cuts out the middle man and the associated costs in one fell swoop. Yes, there are other online wine stores, but few have the significant global reach that Laithwaite’s Wines does.

It is the ultimate in sustainable wine production, says the British born Laithwaite, who now has close to a million customers across many markets around the globe and is the world’s biggest direct to consumer wine merchant.

“This means that wineries that want to grow—and that have the infrastructure and capabilities to grow—can. Some of the wineries we started working with 30 years ago used to be tiny in size, but now they’re major players in the international market, wineries like Hunters, Forrest, Seifried, Wairau River and Babich. It’s also important to discover and support the new wineries of New Zealand. We recently started working with Mount Edward in Central Otago, Two Rivers in Marlborough and Te Motu on Waiheke Island and I’ve every confidence our customers will love these new wineries as well.”

Laithwaite suggests that it’s one thing for New Zealand wine producers to make environmentally sustainable wines, but if their businesses are not also sustainable, then what’s the point?  

“Reputation is what’s important and it rarely comes overnight. Keep overheads down, win medals, run a friendly, unflashy cellar door, tend your customer list as you do your vineyard… and get out there,” he says.

Small business owners cannot afford to stay home, he adds; “Travel hard, sell your wares. Next week a collection of our Kiwi winemakers will make their annual trek to our shows in the UK to meet new and old customers who will be just dying to taste their latest releases.”

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