Personal finance and KiwiSaver columnist at the NZ Herald

Executive Success: Home to plump up wine sales

With a mere 2pc of the market, the field is wide open for New Zealand tipples.
Simon Towns returns to New Zealand with Constellation Brands. Photo / Chris Loufte
Simon Towns returns to New Zealand with Constellation Brands. Photo / Chris Loufte

Show up to Simon Towns' place for dinner and, if you're lucky, he'll bring out a bottle of Mondavi Reserve cabernet.

It's a favourite California tipple of his, a case of which is winging its way to New Zealand as he transfers from the United States to head up wines and spirits company Constellation Brands New Zealand business.

Constellation, the US company that owns Kim Crawford, Nobilo, Selaks, Monkey Bay and VNO, have had him overseeing strategy and development in the States.

"I think, in hindsight, they probably hired me and put me on the bench knowing something maybe I didn't know, because I only did that role for seven months and they sent me down here."

It's the latest move in a career that has taken Towns, 43, from a graduate programme with ASB to investment banking in London, back to New Zealand, then to Australia and North America with Boston Consulting Group across a range of sectors, including several years in the wine industry.

He then landed a role running strategy and finance for Pernod Ricard's wine business in the US, before moving to head up sparkling wine-maker G.H. Mumm's Napa Valley operation and finally joining Constellation.

Viewed from the outside his career trajectory looks deliberate and considered, says Towns.

"I'd like to say I planned it out a long time ago but I didn't. I was lucky enough to take advantage of opportunities as they fell."

Although Towns has lived most of the past 15 years outside New Zealand, sports buffs will recognise the name. Dad Kevin coached the men's and women's Black Sticks, with Simon playing for the national hockey side from 1992 until he retired in 2005.

Hockey took him to two Commonwealth Games (he won a silver medal at Manchester) and the Athens Olympics.

Towns says he was lucky to play hockey at a time when it was possible to successfully juggle a career with training and tour commitments.

As for shifting gears career-wise from consulting to a more hands-on operational role, Towns says it suits him fine.

"I think the biggest challenge of it is a solution that looks elegant on paper cannot always be implemented in its purest form."

He says it can mean getting your head around tweaking the strategy to take into account real-life situations while uniting people around change to get to the place you'd envisaged.

"The reason I like running a business is my competitive nature that I could take out on the hockey field for a number of years.

"I can translate that into business, but we need to win with an even bigger team.

"With 16 people it's pretty easy to get them walking in the same direction because you've all chosen to play the sport.

"Here, people have come to work for different reasons and so that makes it a bigger challenge, but when you get everyone heading in the right direction they have a lot of fun along the way."

The focus for Towns during the next year or so will be two-fold.

Locally the wine exporter is doubling capacity at its Drylands facility in Marlborough to meet demand for high-quality New Zealand wine for the US market.

"That's the biggest export market we have.

"We're getting up to 2 million cases and still growing at 15 per cent.

"And making sure that we're maintaining that quality, not just for our company but also for New Zealand wine in general, so we can sell it for a high enough price."

And Towns will be turning his eye to Australia where the brands have historically been represented by a third party.

The result is a 2per cent share of the New Zealand wine category in Australia, he says, "which is kind of crazy when we have 40 per cent of the US market".

"It comes down to controlling your own distribution channels and your own sales force. Your own sales force always does a far better job with your wines and Constellation Brands, as a wine company, is the second largest in the US with about 15 per cent share, so they have the ability and the relationships to really drive brands."

For Constellation, and possibly even the wine industry as a whole, the US is its most important market, says Towns, yet New Zealand wine only accounts for 2 per cent of the total market.

He says the industry needs to stop fretting about whether it's a bumper harvest or not, but should be looking to ensure volumes grow without compromising price or quality.

"We do not want to go down the track of the Australians.

"People get too worried that oversupply does that. I disagree.

"I think it is about 'How you create sustainable demand at the right price?' is the thing we should be worrying about."

- NZ Herald

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