Tim North stepped down after 17 years at the helm of the firm, which is the largest exporter of French wine to the UK, and it has promoted Mark Kears to replace him.
Kears, who has also worked in a range of senior commercial positions at Treasury Wines, Anheuser-Busch and Bulmers during his career in the drinks trade, is in charge of 30 commercial and support staff and is busy plotting to drive growth in the business.
France is the third biggest country of origin in the off-trade but it is struggling, with sales down 6.4%, and the two biggest brands – both owned by Les Grands Chais – are in decline.
Calvet, the pan-French AOP brand, is down 17.6% and Chenet, the brand it uses to champion varietal expressions, is down 10%.
But Kears told OLN: “We will get Chenet back into growth. Trust me. I am confident of that.
“We had blends in the market, which we withdrew to put our focus back on the classic proposition. It has cost us volume but we will bring that back.”
Aside from supplying the two leading brands, Les Grands Chais has 14,000 SKUs in its portfolio spread across still wine, sparkling and spirits, and offers everything from entry-level wine to Pétrus.
It has made inroads in the independent channel after striving to break down stereotypes.
Chris Davies, who heads up the independent division at Les Grands Chais, said: “We have made a real focused effort to treat the independent sector as a sector in its own right. It’s an exciting part of the market.
“The first change was our name, reputation and the understanding of our business, but we have overcome a lot of those issues. There are not so many doors slammed in our faces now.
“We can do a mixed pallet option of 600 bottles from 50 or 60 different appellations from across France. As well as our own properties we have a formidable negociant portfolio and we are a force to be reckoned with in en primeur. Independents have access to 42 chateaux, from just over 1,500ha of land under vine, and we have some exclusive partnerships with other chateaux.”
When it comes to the multiples, Kears feels there is value in France and senses an appetite among buyers to ensure the category’s continued success.
He points to IRI figures showing it has the second-highest price point of the top 10 countries of origin, at £6.17, just behind New Zealand, as evidence that France can help drive value into the market.
“The biggest factor is what retailers determine is their strategy in French wine,” said Kears. “It’s their decision ultimately. If they let the New World dominate it will be a difficult landscape. But there is value in France and retailers want it to be successful.