Roger Gabb: Western Wines

There was a time in the early 2000s that one in every 13 bottles bought in the UK was sold through Western Wines.

Shropshire provided Western Wines with its headquarters, first in the form of a restored stable building near Bridgnorth, and latterly larger premises in Central Park, Telford.

Roger Gabb was the Western Wines founder and the man who oversaw its mushrooming evolution through the two and a half decades from its inception to its sale in 2004 for £135 million.

The son of the organist of St Paul’s Cathedral, Roger was originally a Londoner. His first introduction to Shropshire came in 1962 when he was a young officer in the Welsh Guards and he was sent to Oswestry by his commanding officer to run an adventure training wing.

“I had to first ask him where Oswestry was,” recalls Roger, “and when he told me it was in Shropshire, my next question was ‘where’s that sir?’!”

After two years in Oswestry, Roger returned to Pirbright and joined the Guards Parachute Company.

“This took me to Borneo on special services operations behind enemy lines – this turned out to be one of the most successful military campaigns in the last century. We also did some semi-confrontational work in Kenya against Somali incursions.

“But after that, because I had met someone called Annie Thompson from my time in Shropshire who I wanted to marry, I decided I wanted to leave the army .”

And this was when Roger made his initial foray into the drinks industry. His ability to speak several languages, particularly French and German, held him in good stead and persuaded what was then called The Distiller’s Company – now part of Diageo – to take him on.

“I was made the European manager for Haig Whisky. The markets included Italy and my job really was to stimulate sales, obtain market information, write reports and help salesmen to sell.

Roger was headhunted by a whisky company in the US but returned back to the UK to start something new.

He set up Montrose Whisky Company with two associates, buying whisky in bulk and shipping it all round the world, but then his head got turned by something altogether less alcoholic.

Through a friend of his, Roger was granted the agency – or licence – for selling and distributing a brand of mineral water which was massive in France but unknown at the time in the UK. It was called Volvic.

“I started Volvic in the UK from zero, selling largely to small shops in London, as well as the likes of Harrods and Fortnum and Mason. Mineral water simply didn’t line the shelves of supermarkets in the way it does now, but nevertheless we managed to sell towards 300,000 cases before selling the agency for Volvic in the UK. Now there are 20 million cases sold each year, but there we are, I was 30 years ahead of the market!”

Having dealt with the whisky and water markets, next up on Roger’s hit list was the third ‘w’ – wine – which brings us to 1980 and the office in the corner of the kitchen which is where the Western Wines story started.

“In the very beginning I started working with wholesalers but diverted into supermarkets. The son of someone who did some work for me was a supermarkets expert on Italian wines, and I persuaded him to come on board at Western Wines.

“I had been made the agent for a big consortium of operatives in Italy CCCI which enabled me to help get into supermarkets. We really started with the supermarkets in about 1987.”

Looking back on it now, Western Wines was a key part of the huge movement of selling affordable wines through supermarkets.

“It changed everything,” admits Roger. “The focus changed from selling to impoverished wholesalers to supermarkets who at least paid their bills!

“We continued to develop the business, employing more salesmen and taking on Italian wines through the consortium I was involved with in 1994. It was at about this time that I was debating with some Italian wine associates where the next market of production would be for the English market.

“We concluded that it would be South Africa – it was the end of apartheid, and therefore the end of the trade embargo, and Mandela was all set to get into government.

“I immediately sent my sales director out to South Africa where we tied up about five co-operatives and a few private estates. The result was that two years later Western Wines had more than 55% of all South African wine exports, worldwide, all operated from our headquarters here in Shropshire.

“The mid to late 1990s saw us develop in a very fast way. In about 1996 we decided to make a brand, and we called it Kumala after the name of the dog in the book Cry the Beloved Country.”

By 2002 Western Wines were selling three million cases of Kumala each year, and it was the second largest brand in the UK after Jacob’s Creek.

“We were approached by a Canadian quoted company called Vincor,” explains Roger. “They made us an offer but I told them we weren’t interested and suggested they come back in a few months – for the time being we would stay with our business plan – knowing full well that we had a fish on the line.

“Sure enough, they came back six months later we managed to persuade them to purchase all the shares for £135 million.”

The fact that scores of staff members who devoted themselves and contributed so much to the success of the company could be rewarded handsomely means a very great deal to Roger. In a way, this was his most satisfying achievement.

As he says: “I brought together a team and let them run. Everyone developed in their own way and they were given a sense of ownership of the company.”

As he concludes: “I suppose my company was very much part of the movement to make wine unsophisticated, uncomplicated and easy to drink.

“We were about reducing of reliance on French over-priced but often very average wines, and bringing the new world wines – particularly from South Africa and Chile – to the UK market.”