Just like the New Zealand wine industry it champions, Fine Wine Delivery Co has been through quite a journey over the past two decades.
Back in 1997, the average house price in New Zealand was $181,000. Jim Bolger was prime minister, with Winston Peters his deputy. The world mourned Princess Diana, Titanic was released, and the fax machine reigned.
Over in Torbay on Auckland’s North Shore, Jeff and Virginia Poole were busy getting their new business, Fine Wine Delivery Company, off the ground — and “fax attacks”, as they called them, played a big part in recruiting customers.
The latest wine deals were sent out en masse, and the orders came in thick and fast. “We used to run out of paper with the fax returns we’d get,” recalls Jeff. “We’d lose the odd order because it would flick up underneath the machine,” adds Virginia.
In the 21 years that followed, a lot has changed in the world (apart from Winston, of course), and Fine Wine Delivery Co is no exception. Needless to say, fax attacks went the way of the dodo some years ago. “We were early adopters of email,” says Jeff, “and the responses were huge because it was uncluttered in those days. Nowadays people are getting a sea of emails, so even though you’re a good operator you can get a little bit lost in the crowd.”
The company launched New Zealand’s first interactive wine website in 1998. “It was a very clumsy and expensive thing, of course,” says Jeff. “I think we’ve had about 10 or 11 versions of the website since then.”
While much has changed, the company’s philosophy remains the same — being independent, tasting every wine sold and rejecting any that fail on either quality or value grounds. They taste and rate thousands of products every year, and have 100-plus years of combined expertise on their tasting panel.
This was always the vision. Prior to launching the business, the Pooles spent 10 years in Brisbane, where Jeff worked for Penfolds. They came home to Auckland in the mid 90s and Jeff took a job as sales manager at Negociants — but starting his own wine company was always the aim. “I made the decision with a bit of prompting from Virginia,” he recalls. “She said ‘stop talking about it and get on and do it’.”
It’s always been a family business, with Jeff and Virginia’s children, Richard Poole and Tracey Hawes, heavily involved as operations general manager and marketing and buying general manager respectively. Tracey (now 41) came on board as the first official employee in 1998, with Richard (44) following in 2000.
But everyone was lending a hand from day one. “The family would all rally round at night,” explains Jeff. “I was the only full-time employee at that stage and the others would pitch in after their jobs.
“We used to do everything — taste the wine, buy the wine, pack the wine, put the stickers on. And we gradually started to employ other people to help us as the business grew, and it grew quite rapidly.”
It was nothing new to Richard and Tracey, who grew up helping out Mum and Dad with various family endeavours. “Mum had a healthy muffin delivery business in Australia — we used to sell to gyms and cafes. So before school we’d be up helping do the prep and the deliveries,” recalls Tracey.
“Virginia would be making muffins from 11 o’clock at night until the morning, then we’d all jump out of bed at 4am, wrap and deliver the muffins, and then the kids would be off to school,” Jeff adds.
“And of course we never got upset about having to get up at 4 in the morning,” laughs Richard. “They worked out the value you could get out of your children very early on,” Tracey adds.
For the first year of Fine Wine Delivery Co, the family ran tastings in the warehouses of suppliers. “We brought long tables, white tablecloths, chairs, glassware and we’d go and set up a formal tasting in amongst all the pallets in the warehouse,” explains Jeff. “I would select the range of wines from the supplier’s portfolio that I wanted to showcase and get friends and friends of friends to invite people to come along. Then we’d pack it all up at night and take it home.”
Soon after Tracey came on board full time in 1998, Fine Wine Delivery Co moved into its first office, a small space on the ground floor of a building on Hobson Street in Auckland’s CBD. Over the next three years, the business grew to take over all three floors of the building.
They built New Zealand’s first wine cellar operation, where customers could fill a cellar with their collection and have 24/7 access to it. “It was a pretty bold move in 2001,” says Jeff. Before they decided to commit to constructing them, the company received expressions of interest for 37 of the planned 50 cellars. “So we felt pretty confident,” says Jeff, “until 9/11 happened and the world shut down.”
When the cellars launched in October, the month after the terrorist attacks, only three people were keen. Thankfully, things began returning to normal and the cellars eventually filled up, proving to be a fruitful addition to the business.
For the next few years, business was booming. Fine Wine Delivery Co took over a building in nearby Cook Street, added more cellars, and kept up with the latest technology, holding New Zealand’s first live video-streamed tasting in 2002.
“By 2007 we were absolutely flying and we planned an expansion into Christchurch, based on the fact we had a very strong South Island customer base,” says Jeff. “We chose a place in Riccarton Road, went through the whole resource consent, but by the time we opened doors in 2008, the GFC was just blowing everyone away.
“Our Auckland business, which had been in growth for all those years, was now actually negative, and we had this new business that was eating away at us.
“It was a really tough period. We knew around the start of 2008 that things were going to be pretty tough, but each month it just unfolded and got darker and darker and darker. You want to be meeting with your creditors to talk about deals and buying, you don’t want to be meeting with them to talk about how much money you’re leaching and saying ‘please don’t come and close our doors, let’s try to work through it’.”
With the support of its main creditors, the company went into voluntary administration, then still a relatively new option for businesses in trouble, whereby administrators look at the fundamentals of the business and decide whether it’s able to survive. After the 33-day process, Fine Wine Delivery Co entered into a Deed of Company Arrangement (DOCA), an agreement that aims to save a company and minimise losses to creditors.
“It was the most challenging time of our lives,” says Jeff. “It’s a horrendous thing for anyone to go through, but I think the family was always committed to the fact that while we were caught in a perfect storm, we weren’t reckless in terms of our goals and the things that we did, and we also felt a huge sense of responsibility to get money back to our creditors.
“It would have been easy to walk away, take bankruptcy and open up in the kids’ names somewhere else later. But it just wasn’t in our DNA as a family.”
Virginia adds that having the support of suppliers was crucial. “Because we had created such great relationships with our suppliers, when it came to the point they trusted us and really felt we could get through under the Deed of Company Arrangement. It was a very good feeling to know they had the confidence that we could come out of it.”
Staff and customers were equally supportive. “I think the big thing was we were transparent with everyone,” says Tracey. “It’s a very hard thing to acknowledge — you’ve had an error in your business and things haven’t worked well and you’ve got to fight back from that. Right the way through we were very honest about the story and how it all came about.”
Over the next four-and-a-bit years, 100% of secured creditors were repaid and around 86 cents out of each dollar was returned to unsecured creditors. The company was allowed to come out of DOCA and set about reinvesting in the business — and making some changes.
They decided to open their first retail “super store” at Lunn Ave in Mt Wellington, and Richard convinced his father, who admits he’d always been “anti” both, to diversify into craft beer and spirits.
“I’d had a couple of experiences with craft beer and I’d noticed the texture, the flavour, the whole experience you were having with craft beer was a lot different to just having your good old Heineken, Stella or Corona,” explains Richard. He’d previously worked for Pernod Ricard, where he’d developed a strong appreciation for spirits as well.
“I thought if we were going to have a super store, as we were going to call it, we were going to have to branch into areas that were foreign to us as a business, but opportunities for the future.
“The great thing is we were able to adopt the same philosophy that we use for wine — we pre-taste, we evaluate, we write our own tasting notes, we talk about the product in a way that it continues that journey for all the customers.”
With the company back on its feet, the Lunn Ave super store opened in 2013. “We were tracking along so well we thought maybe we should open another Fine Wine Delivery Co on the other side of the Harbour Bridge,” says Jeff. The second super store, on Constellation Drive in Albany, opened in 2015.
Perhaps not surprisingly, considering what happened in 2008, there are no plans to expand further afield. “We decided to focus on the Auckland market. We support all the customers we’ve built up in the South Island but we’re not actively expanding business outside of Auckland, as this is a huge market,” explains Jeff.
So while it’s been quite the ride for Fine Wine Delivery Co, one thing that hasn’t changed is its focus on New Zealand wine. That may seem like a no-brainer these days, but 21 years ago was a different story. Sure, there was a niche for fine wine, but it was mostly Australian and French, and in the mainstream market, casks were still hugely popular.
But Jeff saw the early signs that New Zealand was going to be a world-class producer. “Through our tasting programme we were always well informed and we saw where it was going. We believe now New Zealand wines are absolutely world class and we’re often benchmarking them against wines from all around the world.
“I think over the next five years there will be an absolute wave of international acclaim for New Zealand wine. In five years’ time, Kiwis will be saying ‘where’s this all come from?’ Well, it’s been building over 20 years.”
As a company they’ve watched trends come and go, and have many customers who have been shopping with them since day one, as well as second-generation customers carrying on the family loyalty.
They know innovation is key for the future, which to the Pooles means ramping up the shopping experience, whether in the bricks-and-mortar stores or online, rather than expanding with more stores.
As to whether the company will still be around in another 21 years, Tracey says “not necessarily in its current format, but in some evolution, absolutely. I think we’ve got an exceptional platform to go whichever way we need to or want to as the market changes. There’s so much richness of content and knowledge.”
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