Stories of Growth

Andy Talbot, Off-Piste Wines: “We won’t stand still”

As part of our Stories of Growth series, we interview the MD of a Cheltenham-based wine developer and distributor.

15 August 2023

Off-Piste Wines was established in 2007, by founders Paul Letheren and Ant Fairbank, as a wine brand developer and distributor. The company secured an £8m investment from BGF in 2019. Here, Managing Director Andy Talbot tells us how he helped grow the Cheltenham-based business, with support from BGF.

Andy Talbot, Founder of Off-Piste Wines

My ambition is pretty significant – it’s how my mind works. I have a huge drive to want to get bigger. It comes back to a childhood where I couldn’t do what I really wanted to do. I had a lot of illnesses as a child that meant I was in hospital for extended periods, and so I couldn’t achieve my ultimate goal of being a footballer. I wasn’t physically capable and that left me with something to prove.

I was a modern-day Forrest Gump. I had callipers for a year – bars on my legs that clacked when I walked. I would still play football in them. I would break them every day and my dad would fix them every night. I lost two years of school while learning from a computer in a hospital bed. There was a mentality ingrained in me that, despite being physically held back, I wanted to go beyond what others thought me capable of.

“I was a modern-day Forrest Gump”

I left school at 16 and trained as an accountant, ending up fully qualified at 23 – one of the youngest ever to qualify with the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants. I started at Off-Piste as financial controller before becoming managing director in July 2018.

Ant Fairbank and Paul Letheren were the original founders. I had worked with them from 1999 to 2006 at wine distributor Western Wines. We built that up and Ant and Paul were senior at that business. I was junior. We did a private equity deal and a trade sale, which was the biggest private sale that Barclays had ever done in the UK. After that Ant and Paul decided to start their own business.

The company wanted me to work for them after the deal. I had a chat with Ant and Paul, and they told me their idea. As soon as they told me about it, there was never anything else I was going to do. We were on gardening leave for a few months and then started the business in 2007.

Off-Piste Wines co-founders with MD Andy Talbot

Controlling your own destiny

We were an early disruptor. That wasn’t even a word back then. We had a can-do attitude and had people who were brilliant at trading wines, building brands, and having all the retail contacts but without any of the corporate attitude. We could go into the buyer and solve all their problems without any agenda.

The wine brand Yellow Tail wanted to collaborate with us but didn’t like the name of our business. We said no, we want to be Off-Piste and for people to know we are different, and that we are an innovative fast-moving business. As soon as you say Off-Piste, people get you’re not just another wine company. We stuck to our guns and said we want to collaborate with you, but we aren’t going to change our name. What that really taught us was that we needed to control our own destiny. Being just an agent for someone else’s brand wasn’t the right strategy.

The big change since BGF is that we’re a lot more data-led and understand the market better. When we first met BGF, they were always our favourite to deal with. We went with a higher offer originally from a different PE firm. We had a six-month window where that company messed us around and tied us in knots and made it hard for us to operate as a business. In the background, we had stayed in touch with BGF because we liked the company.

When it became clear that the first transaction would not happen, we picked up with BGF. We had had our eyes opened to what life might be like in a more pressurised PE scenario. As a business that trades with a lot of external factors, we found that BGF, which has a patient, long-term approach and can wait for the right conditions and timings, was a more logical fit for us. We definitely ended up with the right deal. All’s well that ends well.

“BGF’s long-term approach was a logical fit for us”

To stay relevant, we must stay ahead of the competition. We were the first business in the UK to sell wine in a can in retailers. We had seen the trend in America, and we looked at the UK market and felt there was opportunity there. We created two wine-in-a-can brands – PinotPinot was one. It got really big distribution straightaway. The market is now worth £6 million for canned wines. From zero five years ago. There are frustrations with copycats but, ultimately, in our main area, where we sell bottled wine, we’re used to competing with 700 different products at one time. Imitation is the highest form of flattery.

We’re very selective about who we work with. A lot of competitors have 200-300 suppliers. We want to find someone that does everything in a country, and so only have so many contact points. It’s been useful post-Brexit and Covid. So much of this industry is meeting people and going to events. If you want to work with a new supplier, you need to visit their site and understand who you’re dealing with.

BGF’s influence

The biggest influence that BGF had was that the BGF Talent Network found us a new chair to take us forward, Andy Fennell. It so happened that Andy had come up with the previous PE company conversations, but he got ruled out without meeting him. BGF had to convince us and him to talk, and then when we met, we were perfect for each other. That showed me that BGF’s personal touch was brilliant. He’s the best mentor I could have wished for. A lot of our success post deal is down to recruiting him.

We grew from £37 million turnover to £52 million in first year with BGF, and now we’re aiming for £66 million in the near future, so we have seen significant growth, but we want to look at mergers and acquisitions, and we are considering a few right now. There is real potential to ramp up growth through M&A. Our wine brand Most Wanted is in the UK’s top 30 wine brands and we want to take that to top 10.

It’s exciting. The one thing you can say about us as leaders is we have a strong growth mentality. We never stand still. I’m always looking forward.

“We never settle for enough”

Seeing the team grow and seeing the people grow is really rewarding. We’ve managed to keep the small business feel that we had at 4-6 people now we are 42 people, which has been a real benefit. Everyone is excited now we’ve moved into new premises. Going from a very small office to what we have now is a sign of progress.

We never sit and pat ourselves on the back. We land the new business and we’re straight onto the next. Where is the next wave of growth coming from? We never settle for enough. We just want to keep going.

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