Barely 30 years old and already heading up international wine & spirits for Lidl with a catalogue of big wins behind him. How has TNT alumni Ben Hulme done it?
Lidl’s international head of wine & spirits buying sticks out like a sore thumb. Fresh-faced and barely 30 years old, Ben Hulme must be a decade younger than your garden variety category director. Yet he arguably wields greater power than a fair few combined.
Working out of Lidl’s head office in Neckarsulm, Germany, Hulme is responsible for buying and strategy for wine and spirits across 28 countries. Modest, reserved and utterly devoted to his employer, he’s the polar opposite of the ‘lazy millennial’ type British newspapers love banging on about.
So how did Hulme end up commanding such a vital part of Lidl’s business at so young an age? Like many employed by the discounter, he’s a ‘lifer’ who’s been with Lidl his entire career. After studying German at the University of Birmingham (and graduating with distinction), he was accepted onto Lidl’s graduate buying programme, and in under a year was working on the condiments, wines and spirits categories.
“It was a rather strange mix,” he laughs. “I was essentially buying wines, spirits and mustard for a while. Wine and spirits was so much larger and much more strategic, but some of those other categories allowed me to really cut my teeth as a buyer and hone my skills.”
Signs of his promise didn’t go unnoticed. By 2014 he was a senior buying manager, and in 2015 (by which point Hulme had developed a somewhat more finessed understanding of alcohol) he was named head of BWS for Lidl UK at just 27, having helped significantly shift public opinion around the discounter’s booze offer, an area in which Lidl (and closest rival Aldi) had always under-traded.
“We had to work out how to get the general public in the UK to take Lidl seriously as a retailer of wine,” he says. “We all knew we had great quality wines, but had never really been very good at marketing that.”
Enter the Lidl Wine Cellar. “We enlisted master of wine Richard Bampfield as a consultant, we started making booklets, doing adverts and press tastings - we’re now even doing TV adverts - and in the first year we increased our turnover by 38% in wine, which gave us the confidence to expand.”
The Wine Cellar has since been renamed the Wine Tour, but to this day it’s a fundamental part of Lidl’s success in the category, giving its buyers (now led by Hulme’s protégée Anna Krettmann) an opportunity to be more experimental and showcase less traditionally-lauded wine-growing regions such as Hungary.
Name: Ben Hulme
Death row meal: Just a really good rare steak with potatoes. I don’t need three courses, as I’m far less adventurous with food than with wine. To drink, I’d be going for a Syrah from Gimblett Gravels in New Zealand.
The best business advice you’ve ever received: Be yourself and trust your judgement. It was a really empowering thing to hear when I was learning on the job, and helped me develop into a very decisive person.
And the worst: An overzealous buyer once told me to never back down or be prepared to compromise.
If you could have dinner with one person, dead or alive: It would be my grandad - my father’s father. I’d love to have dinner with him because I never got to meet him. I’d love to get his outlook on life and what advice he’d have for a young man these days.
Top New Talent
It was primarily plays like that that in wine that won Hulme his place in The Grocer’s Top New Talent in 2015 - a “massively proud” moment for the young buyer. But it wasn’t just wine that he helped revolutionise for Lidl. Beer, too, required a rethink. “We did another concept called ‘The Brewery’ which was all about promoting smaller regional breweries across the UK and creating regional assortments, like having a specially selected Scottish premium bottled ale range in Scotland.
“We’ve not got a lot of wine production in the UK but we do produce a hell of a lot of really great beer. We’ve got so many breweries, all with their own character and that was something we really wanted to get involved in.”
In spirits, meanwhile, Hulme recognised that it was fundamental to challenge the belief that discounters couldn’t do premium, and began ranging high-quality spirits including whiskies and ports. A quick Google search of ‘Lidl Scotch’ reveals just how successful this move has been - and continues to be. It brings up a stream of tabloid headlines gushing about the discounter’s outrageously low £39.99 price tag for a 22-year-old single malt.
Or there’s how, in 2016, its Glen Alba single malt (£29.99/70cl) beat the likes of Johnnie Walker Blue Label at the World Whiskies Awards, alongside Best Islay Malt and Best Scotch Limited Release for the aforementioned Ben Bracken 22yo and Queen Margot 3yo Blended respectively.
“I still think that with everything we’ve done on wine, with ‘The Brewery’ and with spirits, we’ve got the most innovative alcohol offer in the UK. I truly believe that.”
That the discounter’s booze sales were growing so quickly didn’t just light a fire under Lidl’s British rivals - it drew the attention of the company’s head office in Germany. Last year, Hulme was approached about taking on responsibility for wine and spirits at a global level. He accepted in a heartbeat and upped sticks to Neckarsulm.
“It was a massive challenge,” he admits. “I was taking over from someone who had been in the role for 10 years, inheriting an extremely experienced team where I was a complete newbie, and having to contend with a new country and a new culture - let alone dealing with the most difficult wine harvest for forty years. There were some real moments of thinking ‘what on earth have I let myself in for?’”
But he adds: “Yes it’s intense, but this was a chance to grow, wield influence and develop wine on an international level. Of course I was nervous. But if you don’t believe in yourself in a role like this you might as well just quit.”
His move also came at a time when the traditional role of the buyer is significantly changing. As The Grocer’s Alcoholic Drinks Power List 2018 (on which Anna Krettmann features) explores, the age of the hubristic ‘rock star’ booze buyer of past decades is well and truly over. Many voices in the drinks industry now complain that buying has become an act of pedantic data and sales analysis rather than a creative, human endeavour.
Hulme isn’t convinced by this argument. “I think what’s changing is the amount of information available. There is so much data and information now. But this doesn’t necessarily make your job easier. You can so easily get overloaded with data, and there are so many different figures and statistics that they frequently contradict each other.
“Yes, you now need to be able to process a large amount of data in a small time, but you need to also make decisions and stand behind them. Retail, particularly discount retail, lives on innovation and being able to move fast. If you only base your decisions on data, you’re only ever going to do what’s already been done.”
Since taking up the international role, Hulme has put his UK expertise to good use, taking initiatives like its premium Scotch whisky project into new European markets such as France, Spain, Germany and Poland. And while his daily routine is less UK-orientated these days, Hulme still has a soft spot for the UK booze sector. “It’s probably the most interesting market in Europe,” he says.
“When I compare it to places like Spain, Italy and France where consumption is something like 99% domestic, in the UK we’d got to a stage where we were doing Hungarian wine promotions and selling things like Canadian iced wine. There’s a willingness to try new things which makes it one of the trendsetters for the rest of Europe in terms of BWS.”
And perhaps thanks to the broader market view the international outlook affords him, he’s less fussed about Brexit than one might expect, dismissing it as “a crystal ball situation”.
“There have been even more acute changes recently, such as the new levy on bourbon whisky imports into the EU, which we’ve had to react to fairly fast. We had to very quickly assess how much stock we had and exactly how much actual costs were going to come through.”
He’s equally nonplussed at the prospect of a Tesco discount chain trying to encroach on Lidl’s turf. “I don’t think anything really fills us with dread. I think the key to a successful retail concept is obviously to be aware of the competition, but don’t just follow and be led by what everyone else is doing. If someone comes along and they think they’ve got a better concept, we’re happy to let the customer decide.”
Think you could follow in the footsteps of Ben and the other illustrious TNT alumni? Then fill in the simple entry form here. Entry is free and open to anyone working in the grocery space, aged 35 and under at the time of entry. All winners will be invited to a special awards ceremony held in London on 12 November.