You would think, after a turbulent time at Carlsberg UK - which ended with a high-profile Tesco delisting - that Lousada would want to steer clear of selling booze to the supermarkets.
Not a bit of it. After eight months out, he rejoined the fray in June, taking charge of Conviviality Trading, the new off-trade and brand agency division of drinks group Conviviality. And he’s raring to go.
“I’m a marketer and a brand guy, that is my background,” Lousada says. “I’ve been on the brand side all my life and I understand what brand owners want, how they need to be managed and how we can give them confidence.”
Lousada views his two years at Carlsberg as a broadly positive experience, citing the “stellar” success of San Miguel as a particular highlight. But there were differences of opinion. “We needed to go out and invest in the Carlsberg brand, and other brands, as well as in logistics and broadening the wholesale offer. But the group went another way and decided to downsize the business,” he says. “I left because there was no appetite for growth and investment and doing something new.”
Name: James Lousada
Place of birth: Northampton
Family: Wife and three daughters (22, 16, 13)
Potted CV: Graduated in economics. Marketing focus initially with St Ivel and then CPC/Bestfoods. Marketing director of Anheuser-Busch. Into wine industry with Southcorp/Foster’s in 2002, moving to Constellation as GM for UK/Europe in 2008. CEO Carlsberg UK from 2013
Career lowlight: Short time in a huge dotcom startup - Vizzavi. Great idea but tech not ready
Best piece of advice: Surround yourself with brilliant people and listen
Business mantra: Be curious
Business idol: August Busch III
Favourite film: Zulu
Favourite album: The Cure - Head on the Door
Favourite meal: Roast rib of beef
Favourite tipple: BrewDog Punk IPA
Favourite wine: Too many to list
Favourite wine region: Marlborough, NZ
Hobbies: Running, golf and cooking
That’s not an accusation you can level at Conviviality, which swooped to take over a business more than twice its size last year with the £200m deal for wine wholesaler Matthew Clark, followed by the £60m acquisition of Bibendum PLB seven months later.
He finds the ambition and can-do attitude at Conviviality “incredibly inspiring”. And while Conviviality Direct, the on-trade arm made up of Matthew Clarke and Bibendum, and the network of Bargain Booze and Wine Rack shops that make up Conviviality Retail, are already well-defined businesses, Lousada sees Conviviality Trading as more of a blank canvas on which he can make an impression. “It is genuinely a differentiated business to anyone out there and that is the reason we will [be] the most successful brand agency in the UK.”
It might be the smallest division in the group for now - with 150 staff and sales of £79m in the first half - but it’s also the most diverse, made up of seven separate businesses. PLB is a nine-million case wine wholesaler to the supermarkets; Instil represents brands in the high-growth world of craft beers and spirits, including Estrella Galicia; premium wine specialist Walker & Wodehouse sells to independent outlets on the high street; and the Catalyst portfolio includes Diageo and Beam Suntory brands, as well as Bottega Gold prosecco, which is doing something “unbelievably different”.
He’s equally enthusiastic about the three events firms - Peppermint, Elastic and The Wondering Wine Company - that complete the Trading division, which take the group and its customers outside the usual on and off-trade outlets and into the “muddy fields” at festivals, the Henley Royal Regatta and Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park. “No one can repeat that capability,” Lousada enthuses. “And that makes it an easy sell for brand owners and suppliers to trust us with their crown jewels.”
But what about competitors? “I’m not really thinking about the competitor set because we have something unique. You would have to go and cherrypick a lot of people and capabilities to help get to the level of distribution the wider Conviviality group now offers. And we also can give great marketing expertise and have the ability to position brands effectively in the UK. That combination is very compelling.”
Being part of a group with 23,000 trade customers and more than 700 retail stores also gives Lousada’s division access to an “unparalleled” mountain of data. “It is gold dust in terms of helping brands be successful and in answering questions such as ‘Where should I go? How should I launch? To which consumers? At what price point?’” he adds.
However, it’s not just drinks brands Lousada wants to look after: he sees a starring role for PLB - the biggest part of the division - in helping take the pressure off the supermarkets when it comes to their wine fixtures.
The wholesaler buys from 750 suppliers and has access to more than 7,500 wine SKUs, making it one of the biggest off-trade players. “We see ourselves growing in the off-trade not just by doing more of what we already do but becoming a solution provider for the retailer,” Lousada says.
“Consumers want choice but our customers don’t want to hold vast amounts of stock or have the resources to manage copious supplier relationships. Our business has the scale and expertise to offer added-value service solutions. The multiples have now been through their supply base culls, driven by the discounters, to get rid of duplication. They’re now ready to ramp up their SKU count again with profitable local and craft brands - but this time without increasing their supply base again.”
Lousada is also planning a reset of his own among the 60 or so brands Catalyst and Instil manage, which he admits is too many. “We will be looking at the portfolio and deciding categories we don’t want to play in, and where we have crossover we might also make choices,” he says.
So what has the Tesco delisting experience taught him? Lousada cites two lessons. “First you should be consistently investing. If it’s a cash cow for your business, you need to make sure you continue to nurture your brands.” Otherwise retailers will clear the space, as Tesco did with Carlsberg, for fast-growing craft brands such as BrewDog and Innis & Gunn. “If you want to make space for all these fantastic high growth, higher margin craft products then something has to go,” Lousada says stoically.
But it’s a cyclical business too: “Clearly the Carlsberg brand had been under-loved and under-invested but there was also a dynamic in the category that is almost impossible to overcome: in an industry where there are so many fantastic things happening, the mainstream lager category isn’t that interesting.”