Franchise in focus

Franchise in focus

This week Andrew Mernin has a sniff, sip and spit with the man behind the UK’s fastest growing network of wine tasting schools.

An aftertaste from the recession for many professionals is a renewed vigour to kick-start their careers. Having sat tight in a job which they no longer find fulfilling, perhaps with a pay freeze in tow, the first sign of recovery is the time to shift gear and take control of their work situation.

Franchises offer one route to becoming a business leader. Much maligned in some quarters perhaps for their lack of flexibility compared to an organically grown start up, they do offer an instantaneous leap into entrepreneurialism.

Chris Powell’s national empire of wine tasting schools has seen its fair share of career changes in recent years. He recalls the celebrity tabloid journalist who is now teaching the good folk of Cambridge their full-bodieds from their florals.

Then there’s the twenty-something Londoner who has more than quadrupled the £20,000 to £30,000 salary he had at the job he left to take up wine schooling.

In another case, a senior player at the National Lottery’s marketing department has also seen his numbers come up by uncorking a new profession.

“Wine is about telling a story,” says Powell whose own story saw him turn his back on a successful career in project management to transform his passion for wine into a business.

“If you can put that wine into context by giving people a feeling for what the countryside is like, what the local foods are like, what the wine makers are like then it becomes much more than just a drink it’s a whole experience.

“And we try to tell the story of each wine we put on because every wine has a different story. That’s what excites people.”

Powell (pictured above left with a member of his franchise network) launched Local Wine School as a franchise model in 2008 and has since expanded it into nine regions in addition to his original self-run school in Newcastle.

In the UK he is currently looking to expand into Edinburgh and Bristol and sees Southampton, Nottingham and the M4 corridor as other potential areas for growth.

But he is also looking further afield and is currently in the process of planning an assault on the French and US markets – both territories that are steeped in tradition when it comes to producing wine. "It will be tough to crack those markets," he admits.

“Scotland is the market we’re trying to break into at the moment. We do wine tastings but we haven’t got anyone permanently up there so we want someone that’s a resident in Edinburgh.

“The States is well established because they grow and make wine all over but in somewhere like New York, you’ve got a huge number of wealthy people in a very concentrated area and you’ve got a big food and wine culture.

“As soon as I can meet someone who’ll help me do it I’ll be expanding there as soon as possible and looking to build a network.”

Franchises fail, says Powell, when their masters distribute them at close quarters to other members of the same network. But as with any business there must also be a niche – in Powell’s case it is that, unlike many wine tasting firms, there is no ulterior motive to sell wine.

“It’s important to remain independent. We can source wines from anywhere on the High Street or on the web and bring people the best wines at the best prices and show them where to get it.”

“Our customer demographic is anyone aged between 25 and 75. I would say the majority of our customers are busy professional people who like to relax in the evening.”


Plonk your money on red

The wine investment game is no less unpredictable than the stock market according to Local Wine Schools’ founder Chris Powell.

“All the advice out there is to buy top end Bordeaux, Burgundy and increasingly, Rhone Valley. I have to say, unless you’re very lucky, that’s the best way to go in terms of investment. These are the blue-chip bottles.

“Lately there are so many people buying these wines, however, that it’s driving the price up to incredible highs. The Japanese, Chinese, Americans and Europeans are all buying the same wines and it has become a commodity – this is a bubble that has to burst at some point.”

“The skill in the future will be investing in wines that haven’t reached their peak – new regions, new wine makers and new wines.” Powell believes such hunting grounds may include the Languedoc region of southern France, although “it may take 10 or 20 years to realise your investment”.

But a word of caution to those considering becoming a wine investor.

“There are a lot of sharks about and there’s a big forgery problem in the wine market at the moment. So you have to be very careful where you find it.”

Perhaps to stay on the safe side, it may be better to enjoy the wine as was intended.

“The great thing with investing is, even if the price goes down, you can still drink it and have great wine.”