Shaper: Tony Laithwaite

Show aired on 16th August 2014

Transcript of the show

Elliot Moss
That was Higher Ground from Stevie Wonder. Good morning and welcome to Jazz Shapers here on Jazz FM with me, Elliott Moss. Jazz Shapers the place of course where you can hear the very best of the people who are shaping the world of jazz, soul and blues alongside their equivalents in the world of business, a business shaper. My business shaper this morning is Tony Laithwaite, of Laithwaites Wine, the ‘wine to your door’ delivery people, an absolute phenomenon in this country and you will be hearing lots from him very shortly. In addition to hearing from Tony, you will also be hearing from our programme partners at Mishcon de Reya some words of advice for your business and on top of all of that of course some brilliant music from the shapers of jazz, soul and blues, including Louis Armstrong, Diane Reeves and this from George Zimmerman.

That was Ain’t Got No Money To Pay For This Drink, see what we did there, from George Zimmerman. Tony Laithwaite is my business shaper as I said earlier and he is the co-founder along with his wife Barbara of Laithwaites Wine which I believe turns over quite a few hundred million pounds. It wasn’t always like that I am sure Tony. Thank you so much for joining me. How long has your business been going?

Tony Laithwaite
The business is about forty years, I think around about forty seven years now. Fifty years since I went over to get a job in the vineyards when I left school.

Elliot Moss
And currently you employ how many people?

Tony Laithwaite
About a thousand.

Elliot Moss
A thousand people and turnover is roughly?

Tony Laithwaite
About three hundred and something millions.

Elliot Moss
Lots of millions. When you went over to France and I believe the story is you were a young man, a very young man, and you know did you have ideas of setting up a business of any sort or was it more of a that sounds like fun, I want to go to France?

Tony Laithwaite
We all wanted to, well lots of us wanted to go to France in those days in the 60s you know that was the cool place to go. I mean nowadays you know you go off to Australia and round the whole world don’t you, but France seemed pretty, pretty far away then and it seemed a lovely place you know Bridget Bardot and Maigret and it was cool and I just wanted to go there but you know jobs were not easy and, after a few things, I ended up in a winery.

Elliot Moss
And when you were there I believe a Monsieur Cassin was the name of the man who owned the winery and became I think your mentor as well.

Tony Laithwaite
Well he ran it. It was a co-operative winery, it wasn’t a prestige place you know it was a village winery. Two hundred villagers owned it and he ran it but he was, I was very lucky in him because he was very progressive you know. He was a really interesting businessman. I mean your average wine grower certainly back then was, he didn’t know an awful lot about business, he basically knew about growing grapes. Monsieur Cassin, he had been a trader in Africa, he had come back and he had had to rescue this co-operative and he was full of ideas and he kind of got me, well it was him that pushed me into ‘why don’t you start in the wine industry, you know why don’t you sell wine’ when I had spectacularly failed to get a decent job with anybody so he said well do it yourself then.

Elliot Moss
And did that feel natural? You know I mean there are some people when I talk to some people in interview they have an idea of what they might do or they have had a passion for something. You obviously had a passion for French culture and the whole romantic notion as you said of the 60s as it probably was black and white movies portraying a beautiful life.

Tony Laithwaite
Yeah.

Elliot Moss
The wine thing, I mean I love wine, many people love wine, you obviously adore wine, did you think I can make a business here? Did you think that at the time or was it more of well I will give it a go?

Tony Laithwaite
Oh no I suddenly thought when he said it to me – it happened just one afternoon, he was driving me home from the winery and you know he suddenly came out with this; ‘Well Tony you know you could always sell our wine in England’ and it really was like something went off in my head. I thought oh wow yes I can, you know I could write to people and write mailings and then go and give wine tastings and yes… and I spent the rest of that summer preparing all the stuff and sorting out the wine and I even you know, designed the wine label of the wine I was going to sell. I had one wine so you know but I came back and I was so excited. It came down to earth a bit when I came back to England and you know well okay well I had a dozen and a half bottles of samples and some literature; what next! I got a hundreed names out of the phone book and I wrote them a letter and offered them a tasting, would you like you know I come round and give you a wine tasting. I got Monsieur Cassin to write it really and sign it you know and I was his agent. Two people said yes which I was a bit disappointed with but actually, as anybody who has ever been in the direct marketing industry knows, two per cent …

Elliot Moss
Two per cent is not a bad start for your first mailing.

Tony Laithwaite
Two is actually about average.

Elliot Moss
And we are going to find out a lot more very shortly about how Tony Laithwaite took the business from two people saying yes to quite a lot more people saying yes over the last forty years or so. Time for some music, this is Diane Reeves and Wild Rose.

That was Wild Rose from Diane Reeves. Tony Laithwaite is my business shaper, he is the co-founder of Laithwaites Wine. They are the people that have been delivering wine to your doorstep for many, many years and now as you may have been hearing earlier a revenue business of around three hundred million, sounds fantastic doesn’t it, an eye popping number and around a thousand people who work for them but it began if you were listening earlier with two people saying yes out of a hundred letters that Tony himself wrote way back when. So you get the two that say yes, you’ve got the samples. Did you start, and obviously you gave them the wine, then what happened next? I mean did you send another mailing, did you do another event, what was the bit before the explosion?

Tony Laithwaite
Oh it wasn’t an explosion. I kind of got a bit disenheartened. I mean both of those people ordered but you know that was like I think four cases of wine so it wasn’t going to be a huge business but one of them started telling his friends and then I went and did a tasting for them and a couple of those were really nice to me and they told their friends and so it kind of started on that basis of people sorting of saying ‘hey there is this guy comes round, gives you a tasting and you know ships the wine’.

Elliot Moss
And of course at that time I imagine there weren’t many wines available widely in the UK. What year are we talking about roughly, do you recall?

Tony Laithwaite
We are talking ‘69 when it started.

Elliot Moss
Right, so you know even when I was growing up as a kid at the dinner table you were lucky if you got Blue Nun. At your point you are already bringing in an interesting product.

Tony Laithwaite
Well there was wine, there were plenty of off licences.

Elliot Moss
Not much though.

Tony Laithwaite
No, not compared to today but there were off licences all over the place but you know this idea that this was something really straight from the producer and it did taste different for that reason. Most of the wine then was bottled in the UK and I don’t know it came out a bit funny. It didn’t really taste like what you tasted if you were in France and a lot of people were beginning to go to France on holiday so you kind of thought oh and so this idea that it was from the producers and everything I say, everything I do I increased the number of wines. I went to some other friends of Monsieur Cassin, well he introduced me. So I ended up after a while with about half a dozen or a dozen wines and they were all by the producer. You know they were all made and bottled by the producer that was the whole thing it came straight …

Elliot Moss
So it was very authentic.

Tony Laithwaite
Very authentic.

Elliot Moss
A proper provenance, a proper story and then I believe also I mean to get things going you needed a van, I believe you borrowed the money from either your grandmother or through your mother or something the story goes.

Tony Laithwaite
It was my grandmother yes. Because my grandmother she was as business woman, she had a small shop. She had a corner shop and she gave me seven hundred quid which was quite useful and I got the growers, they all lent me two hundred quid, well they gave me two hundred quid; I don’t think I ever paid them back, but basically you could buy a van then for twelve hundred quid.

Elliot Moss
And then just to jump forward, there is a moment when apparently, if this story is true, there was an exposé on a wine fraudster, you wrote in – it appeared in the Sunday Times – you wrote in and said this is the problem there is some real people out there doing really good things but it is this mob that are making me look bad. Two thousand people apparently contacted you after that article …

Tony Laithwaite
Yes.

Elliot Moss
… and from there if I am right the kind of Sunday Times connection the Sunday Times wine club blossomed.

Tony Laithwaite
Well the Sunday Times I told them about the post bag and well they were amazed and they said well do us a reader offer. So we did a reader offer which was a bloody, I mean going from a little railway arch and one small van there was only a few cases to, I mean you know you can guess but we just about managed it and packing cases all bloody night long and people typing out the labels for the letters on my bed, I mean they were just but we made it and it was five thousand people.

Elliot Moss
But talk about opportunity.

Tony Laithwaite
Five thousand people.

Elliot Moss
What an opportunity. It would be incredible but if you hadn’t have written that letter we may not have been sitting here right now.

Tony Laithwaite
No I don’t suppose we would.

Elliot Moss
Which is an extraordinary thing isn’t it. I mean you just did it because you thought it was the right thing, you just were angry probably.

Tony Laithwaite
I was, yes I was. I had no idea, I didn’t think it would lead to you know a business thing but I was so relieved to see this. The Sunday Times had done three or four of that sort of thing and we needed more because I, on behalf of my friends out in France. I was incensed that you know people were not getting what they thought they were getting and these guys in France worked their wotsits off to produce the really good stuff and to do it properly and it wasn’t getting here.

Elliot Moss
So you see the lesson is actually channel your anger and you will get lots and lots of business from it. Much more coming up from Tony Laithwaite, my business shaper, but latest travel in a couple of minutes first and before that some words of wisdom for your business from our programme partners at Mishcon de Reya.

You are listening to Jazz shapers with me Elliott Moss. Every Saturday morning from 9.00 till 10.00 you can catch me talking to a phenomenal and interesting and hopefully insightful person who is shaping the world of business and indeed has been shaping the world of business for many, many years in the instance of my business shaper today, Tony Laithwaite, he is the co-founder of Laithwaites Wine and if you were listening earlier which I hope you were you would have heard that Mr Angry became Mr Very Successful in business. So Tony you write in a letter responding to one of these number of exposés about the wine business in the Sunday Times. Business starts to flow. Suddenly things are ramping up and I imagine that actually as much as the stress of not having business is one thing the stress of having business becomes a totally new ball game. Can you go back then and remember those years when suddenly you were growing at a pretty rapid rate, how did you cope?

Tony Laithwaite
I coped well thanks to Monsieur, Monsieur Cassin, he continued to give us advice, but and of course there was Barbara and Barbara had come along …

Elliot Moss
Is your wife.

Tony Laithwaite
As my, well yes she was my girlfriend then and she was always telling me you know you are doing all wrong and you know your sums don’t add up and things like that and so just one day I said ‘well if you think you are so bloody clever come and show me how to do it’ and she actually packed in a really good job, they have already told her she was mad, and came and helped me and she basically took over that side of it so I am not really what you know I can never claim to be a proper entrepreneur who is a bit of a whizz with business plans and you know doing clever financial transactions I am hopeless at all that, but Barbara can do it.

Elliot Moss
But that is the point isn’t it though because again it sounds like team work between the two of you whether it was someone else it happened to be your girlfriend who then became your wife and so on. I don’t think anyone ever claims they can do everything but you are being very, very honest about the fact that excuse the pun, you had a great nose for what would sell and how the fact that you were passionate about something. I mean of course the numbers need to be worked out and of course there needs to be a business plan but you must subscribe to the idea that the passion behind any successful business is really the thing that drives it, is that true?

Tony Laithwaite
Yes I think, I mean I was told back then, you are going back to the days before you know there wasn’t much encouragement given back then to small businesses, you couldn’t get premises, you couldn’t get loans and stuff and everybody said, and the top rate you know people used to tell me that oh you start making money and you know the top rate of tax is 98% so ‘ah really‘ and then other people would always say of course you know in the wine trade the only way to make a small fortune in the wine trade is to start with a big one and things like that nobody makes money in the wine trade, But I decided well I don’t care this is what I want to do. I love this game, it’s fantastic. Driving down to France every month and collecting wine well I couldn’t think of a better way to pass my life and Barbara didn’t seem to mind staying at home and doing the accounts and so I thought that you know because it was all I really wanted to do because it was my passion thing that would see me through and that would be fine. I would settle for that but as you say it starting ramping up and it did get hairy then. That got a bit scary because suddenly you are talking large sums of money and …

Elliot Moss
And I want to hear all about what got hairy and how you handled that. Time for some music. This Black Cat Has Nine Lives coming up from Louis Armstrong. It’s the final track from his final jazz album recorded to mark his 70th birthday.

That was This Black Cat Has Nine Lives from Louis Armstrong. Tony Laithwaite is my business shaper and we were talking about it getting hairy. 1994 if I am right Tony, your business your point about numbers was around fifty million turnover so the young Tony who had gone off to get a few bottles from the polite Monsieur Cassin was now with his wife involved in a business as you said turning over significant amounts and fifty million now is a lot, in ‘94 it was an absolutely extraordinary amount. You had to get I imagine to manage those hairy moments you had to get much more organised and I believe you then did what businesses have to do, you had more of a board, you had people that came in to look after the numbers, to look after the technology, to look after the supply chain and so on and so forth. Was it weird for you having to get more structured for a person that enjoys you know just the …?

Tony Laithwaite
Well yes for the first twenty years it was basically Barbara and me you know and some people helped us obviously but it was a mom and pop shop and it grew to about fifteen million with just that. Then I had a heart attack and there were other reasons but basically I think the pressure was getting to us. Barbara also, she had a brain thing which you know it is quite stressful. So we both realised that well we had to get out of it. Well that’s what we were told, the doctors said you know sell and ‘no we can’t we don’t want to sell but we will’ … so we went out and found a bunch of guys who came in as a proper structured board and they were good you know we really seem to have picked a very good team because it went from fifteen million which as you say in ‘94 was up to fifty million …

Elliot Moss
And then it went up to hundred million.

Tony Laithwaite
And then went up to hundred million and then hundred and fifty million I mean …

Elliot Moss
They were doing something right.

Tony Laithwaite
Yes they were. They you know I take claim for having sort of set up the model that really worked but you need a proper structure and you need proper software and all that sort of stuff and they did all that.

Elliot Moss
And at the heart of that are personal relationships. The story goes that you you know there were fights as there would be, you are the owner, it’s your baby, it’s your wife’s baby too, they are coming in and they are quote unquote professionals, they know what they are doing and yet and if I am not mistaken, tell me this is wrong if it is, but I think you engaged the London Business School to help you actually mediate some conflicts through those …

Tony Laithwaite
Yes we did.

Elliot Moss
I mean but that is a very, that’s a very wise thing to do because some owners who can’t let go just say ‘oh forget it’, kick out a bunch of really qualified people and they never move on. It sounds like you kind of knew but it wasn’t very comfortable emotionally.

Tony Laithwaite
Yes that was right. It was me and the managing director we got t a point where we couldn’t really look each other in the eye and talk you know.

Elliot Moss
A bit tricky that.

Tony Laithwaite
I mean, you know, I didn’t want to get rid of him because I mean he, well he was just making the business really seen but I felt it had to move on because the world market I mean the markets change and everything was changing so that was the basis of what could have been a lot of disagreement but …

Elliot Moss
You got through.

Tony Laithwaite
No we got this woman in from The London Business School and she was great. We would go out to a pub somewhere and take a room and you know she would sit between us and like you know, a teacher at school like ‘will you look at him, will you say what you want and then you know, well he wasn’t nice to me today’ and then he would growl back at me but by the end of the day we were fine. It was like marriage guidance really but it allowed it all to come to a nice – I mean Greg was with us for 14/15 years. Finally he wanted to move on as much as I thought we probably needed a fresh frame.

Elliot Moss
A fresh start. Our final chat coming up with Tony plus we will be playing a track from DJ Gilles Peterson’s latest project, that’s after the latest traffic and travel here on Jazz FM.

That was Southern Freeze from Sonzeira and it’s off the new album Brasil Bam Bam Bam produced by the phenomenal Gilles Peterson. Tony Laithwaite is my business shaper just for a few more minutes and he has told us in very kind of down to earth terms what business was like going from a couple of bottles to the mere few hundred million pounds with a few arguments along the way.

Tony Laithwaite
Down to earth is all I can do.

Elliot Moss
Down to earth is all you can do exactly. You have always remained involved with your business and you are still here to tell the tale. Those health scares for both your wife and you obviously had an impact. Do you think you continued to be watchful of that over the years?

Tony Laithwaite
My health?

Elliot Moss
Yes I mean.

Tony Laithwaite
Oh God yes.

Elliot Moss
And how have you done that because it is very hard for people? You said oh you know we knew there was stress being created; how do you manage the stress and the ownership bit and still control your instincts?

Tony Laithwaite
It is difficult but you know it is better than not having the business. I couldn’t you know, I couldn’t be without the business and Barbara couldn’t either because she is now quite into it. She has got her own vineyard and has started making her own wine so she is more into it than she ever was.

Elliot Moss
And as technology has changed, obviously tons of stuff is on-line now, you have obviously got great, you have got people in the business that have been helping you move along in terms of the way that the channels bring your product to market.

Tony Laithwaite
Yes.

Elliot Moss
Any difficulties going well that seems a bit weird and faddish or have you again accepted reality is more than that embrace them?

Tony Laithwaite
No I am fine with all that. I think we should still keep some of the there are some eternal truths and there is eternal things about wine which you shouldn’t, you break with at your peril but all the new channels and so on and so forth I am all for that. Don’t ask me to do it or necessarily understand it but I think it is fantastic.

Elliot Moss
And over the years have you, have there been people that have stood out for you as people that you have really taken counsel from in those darker moments and who would they be?

Tony Laithwaite
Well apart from Monsieur Cassin there was another French guy called Maurice Gouzon who had started with a bicycle and built a big business all across France and he gave me lots of advice. There was the Moueix, old Jean-Pierre Moueix, who again started with a bicycle and built up and he ended up owning Chateau Petrus and a few other things.

Elliot Moss
What would they have said to you if you recall? Were there moments, I mean were there specific things that really stick with you?

Tony Laithwaite
I always remember the finger wagging saying quality Tony, never forget the quality, the quality. If you pursue price, if you pursue, you are taking a risk just go for the quality that will give you higher prices than you probably want but you deviate from that and it will start to go wrong. Age old wisdom of wine.

Elliot Moss
And you talked before about it being difficult to make money in the wine business and obviously you have made money in the wine business. Within those A, B and C or 1, 2 and 3 things that have been at the centre of how you have made money and probably quality was a big part of that, what else? What other advice would you give to any one in any business in terms of being able to deliver success on a, you know on a decade by decade by decade basis as you have done? Because it is phenomenal, how have you – what do you think have been your values as you have gone along? What do you think have been your …

Tony Laithwaite
Well I think I would say, well I would wouldn’t I, if you could do something you would like to do irrespective, you know you don’t go in to something when you think ‘oh I could make a lot of money at that’. I never did that. Barbara didn’t really do that. She thought she could save me from bankruptcy but she didn’t think that it was going to be you know a big fortune and we are still a bit bemused by that and you know but it has been all these years. It’s not as if we are a flash in the pan or anything or a sudden success and I got the sons, the sons, all our three boys are sort of doing a similar sort of thing and you know Will didn’t want to do wine he wanted to do beer so he started up a brewery and he loves the business and he is also quite surprised he is just beginning to make a little profit so that’s fine. I think that is you know, a guy asked me yesterday, one of the guys who works for me, we were doing a presentation and he said what you just said what should I do to I want to be a graphic designer. I said well if you love graphic design and so on and so forth that is what you do, you just stick to doing exactly what you like. That gives you the sustainability because you can then, you can take the knocks because you will always get knocks, there will always be bad patches. God knows there is plenty of bad patches but if you enjoy it anyway so you go through the bad patches.

Elliot Moss
Very wise advice. Just before I let you go Tony, what is your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Tony Laithwaite
I have chosen a Fats Waller number because I am not very musical myself but my parents both were and my father in particular. He played, he was good on the piano. I miss him a lot and I grew up the first sounds I ever heard were sort of jazz and particularly Boogie Woogie piano and yes, I always wanted to be able to play Boogie piano and I can’t. I have had lessons though, people have tried to teach it me but I can’t, I just can’t do it but I still love to listen to it and Fats Waller as well as being at the piano he is so funny you know and it’s nostalgic for me.

Elliot Moss
Tony Laithwaite thank you very much for being my business shaper.

Tony Laithwaite
My pleasure.

Elliot Moss
This is Fats Waller and Moppin and a Boppin.

This was Fats Waller and Moppin and a Boppin, the song choice of my business shaper today, Tony Laithwaite. What a down to earth man indeed. Totally hands on through the forty years or so that his business has been going and someone who fundamentally believes in the importance of passion behind any great business. Do join me again, same time, same place. That’s next Saturday, 9.00am here on Jazz FM for another edition of Jazz Shapers. In the meantime though stay with us Nigel Williams is coming up next.

 

…he didn’t know an awful lot about business, he basically knew about growing grapes.

…one of them started telling his friends and then I went a did a tasting for them and a couple of those were really nice to me and they told their friends, and so it just kind of started on that basis…

My grandmother was a business woman. She had a small corner shop and she gave me £700, which was quite useful…

these guys in France worked their wotsits off to produce really good stuff..

…she was my girlfriend then and she was always telling me: you know, you are doing it all wrong, and your sums don’t add up and things like that…

I can never claim to be a proper entrepreneur who is a bit of a whizz with business plans and doing clever transactions. I am hopeless at all that.

There wasn’t much encouragement given back then to small businesses, you couldn’t get premises, you couldn’t get loans and stuff…

I love this game, it’s fantastic! Driving down to France every month and collecting wine …well, I couldn’t think of a better way to pass my life.

It was me and the managing director and we got to a point where we couldn’t really look each other in the eye and talk, you know?

Down to earth is all I can do.

There was another guy call Maurice who had started with a bicycle and built a big business all across France and he gave me lots of advice

Quality, Tony. Never forget the quality, the quality.

I always wanted to be able to play Boogie piano and I can’t.

Tony Laithwaite

Tony Laithwaite chose to work and study Bordeaux’s wine industry as part of his geography degree. The rest, as they say, is history!

Tony’s time spent in Bordeaux gave him an idea. In 1969, he started with a small van and the idea of bringing ‘real’ wines – wines of total authenticity and strong character – and delivering them directly to UK customers. This started from Bordeaux and grew from there – hence the original company name; ‘Bordeaux Direct’ which – to avoid confusion – became ‘Laithwaites Wines’ in 2000.

Now, 40 years on, that original idea is exactly the same; it is the heart of Tony’s Company. But Laithwaite Wine now works with hundreds of outstanding wine producers around the world and corresponds regularly with about a million customers in the U.K., USA, Germany, Poland, Switzerland, Australia and Hong Kong. Since the 1980s Laithwaite Wine has also been produced its own wines. Cheers to that!