Keeping it in the family

30 November, 2007

Once a delicatessen, Hennings is now a respected wine specialist. Emma Eversham reports

Hennings Wine Merchants in Pulborough, West Sussex, is a family-run business that started life as a delicatessen before Charles Hennings decided to concentrate on wine in the late 60s. It is now one of two shops run by Charles and his son Matthew, who employ five staff. Two of them - Pulborough store manager Colin Nicholson and marketing manager Nathan Fynes - will be flying off to New Zealand early next year, following the recent announcement that the store won New Zealand Winegrowers' Independent Merchants Competition. Matthew Hennings talks about the business.

How did you come to be involved in the business?

I studied hotel and catering management and decided that while I liked that side of the industry, I didn't want to carry on with those hours and was more interested in wine . I didn't feel like I had enough experience to offer the business at that time, so I worked for Majestic from 1989 to 1993 and ran the St Alban's branch for a while. In 1993 I felt I had sufficient retail experience with a progressive company and learnt to manage staff so I had more to offer. I worked in Bordeaux for four months and then came back to the family business at the end of 1994. My father is still part of the business - we are co-directors - and my wife co-runs the business, so it is very much still a family business.

As a specialist wine retailer, do you specifically seek staff with strong wine knowledge?

As a key to any good retail business you have got to be selling something that's interesting, but just as importantly, you have got to have the right people selling it. Because we have become a larger company, we are attracting people with more wine experience, but education is never a prerequisite. I think with retail you can't teach someone to have the right personality. All of our staff have the intermediate WSET certificate and Colin has done his diploma. We encourage them to study if they want to, as it's important for their progression to do that. The good thing about our business is we've got great experience at most levels. We've got a lady who does administration who's been with us for 40 years and our buyer has been with us for over 20.

There are two supermarkets with large beer, wine and spirits departments trading in the same town, do you feel pressure from them?

You would have thought that as an independent retailer having a Sainsbury's and Tesco nearby would have an effect, but it's quite the opposite because retail trade for us is very good.

The supermarkets get people interested in wine or give people their first experience with wine, but then they get to a stage where they want something different. Supermarkets have a limited offer and they can never compete with us on diversity. People also want to go to someone who knows what they are talking about. We recommend wines that we think customers will like, which gains their trust, and I think is one of the reasons why we are growing as a business.

Have you ever considered changing the shop back to a deli?

It has crossed my mind, but I feel that while we can push forward and be innovative with the wine, it's not something we need to pursue. We do a lot of things that keep our customers excited about wine. About six times a year we invite customers to special tastings and are always looking at different ways we can do things like that. We used to have big tastings of 350 people, but we are now able to focus on smaller, themed events, sometimes with winemakers. People want to know more and more which is why they come to specialists like us.

How is your new EPOS system helping the business?

Being able to manage information and to have a fluid stock control across the business is invaluable. There are always teething problems, but this is the right thing to do. It's good for recording information on customers and building the database. With this system, it makes it difficult not to take their addresses down when they are buying something, whereas before you might forget to ask .

Why do you think you won the New Zealand Winegrowers Independent Merchants Competition?

That's a difficult one. I have to say the quality and the calibre of the other finalists was very good, so it was very close. We had a fairly lengthy promotional period and we had a successful tasting of Craggy Range. Throughout the rest of the promotion it was very much down to the staff getting behind the product and selling it.

Range snapshot

Domaine Bergon Cabernet Franc 2005 (12.5 per cent abv) £4.99

Willm Alsace Pinot Blanc 2006 (12 per cent abv) £6.99

Tabali Chile Carmen ère 2005 (14 per cent abv) £7.99

Blind River Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2006 (14 per cent abv) £11.99

La Rosine Syrah 2005 (12.5 per cent abv) £16.50

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