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Lessons from Leaders: Distell Commercial Director Joseph Walsh, Filmed Interview Part 1

By Matt Dallisson, 25/01/2019

Part of our ‘Signium Speaks’ interview series where we reveal insights and lessons learnt by successful Leaders…

Joseph Walsh is Commercial Director UK & Ireland for Distell International, the leading producer and marketer of wines, spirits, ciders and RTD’s most of which are produced in South Africa and sold in more than 100 countries. With c£1bn of revenues, Distell has an extensive worldwide distribution network which is supported by local production capability in Scotland, Angola and Kenyathe.

On February 1st 2016 Joseph Walsh was charged with establishing their first in- market UK office, building a strategy and team that has since delivered impressive growth in a business where revenues are up +10% and EBITDA is +7%, no mean feat in today’s competitive landscape.

This big player, small on scale here in the UK/I has ambitious plans it is on track to achieve to double in size, which makes it one challenger well worth following…

What leadership characteristics do you look for when you are recruiting? What’s the most important skill set for successful leaders to develop?

Probably the three E’s, empowerment, enabling and empathy. I think I see myself as a bit of a fixer and I know when I speak to the various different channel heads or different departments, I like to try and let them fix things for themselves. But there comes a time when they have to come to me and then it involves moving it along the chain to see if we can get a resolution. And then I think having empathy, trying to understand who the people are, what makes them tick, what motivates them every day. And then I think empowerment, you’ve got to let people have the freedom to succeed. I’ve probably taken that through various different roles in my career and previous different organisations that I’ve been in I’ve been fortunate enough to work for a lot of good bosses, and they’ve always given me the freedom to succeed and that’s something I’m passionate about.

There was probably one defining moment in my career. I remember being approached by the Head of Channel at the time who said to me, I’ve got this other role for you. We don’t want to lose you, do you want to come and speak to me? We met in The Belfry in around Birmingham, and I didn’t want to do it. I’d made my mind up. I didn’t want to take this position.

I thought it wouldn’t be as exciting as the job I was doing. And he said to me, look, why don’t you take it, it will give you some very good grounding, it will give you a good background and do it for a couple of years. He said, if you don’t like it, move on and if you do like it, you’ve got it on your CV and curve a niche out for yourself.

And I say this to everyone in my team, make yourself indispensable, curve a niche out for yourself that no one else is doing and you’ll be a valuable asset to the business.

Interviews are difficult. You get a couple of hours with somebody. You can do your due diligence, you can speak to the current employer or you can canvas around if anybody knows them, but you’ve got to take them at face value and you got to try and gauge whether they’re right for your organisation. So I think trust is important. I also think they’ve got to be respected by their teams, by the structure and I think they’ve got to be seeing that they will run through a brick wall for that particular person.

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I think we’ve had a few structural changes and I’m happy with my direct reports. Now I think we’ve got a great bunch of guys in my direct reports and I do think we’ve got a great deal of energy, great deal of motivation. We have clarity on what we need to do to achieve results.

In terms of interview questions, what do I always ask? Probably two curve balls that I throw in, the first of which is when was the last time you screwed up? And I ask that because I don’t think people are expecting that, but you try and gauge if they answer honestly, if you get an honest answer out of them. And the other one is a bit more cryptic and it would be, is it better to be good and on time or perfect and late? It’s interesting how people answer that because they don’t know what the right answer is.

And the answer is, some people say there’s no perfect, you can never be perfect so it’s better to be good and on time. But I like to say, and actually I don’t have that right answer, but psychologists will say it’s better to be good and on time because if you’re perfect and late then you’ve failed. 

If you were to start from nothing with what you know now, would you have sought more help with? 

I think it’s probably the importance of relationships. In a previous organisation I thought is was very much all about the brands in that if people move on, the brands still exist and that’s true. But I think as you get older and a little bit wiser you realise those people still pop up in other places and still have a great deal of experience to offer. I think I’d probably sought more advice from my colleagues and around me and asked for more genuine 360 feedback.

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We’re going through an exercise now actually which HR…we have a relatively new HR director and we’re doing an exercise where you can nominate so many people to give you 360 feedback, I’m keen to see how I fair it’s an interesting exercise. One thing I’m passionate about is I don’t believe in anonymous 360 feedback, so on every exercise that I complete I’m going to make sure I have to follow up face to face with people so they know what feedback I’ve provided.

Which business achievement are you most proud of and why?

When I joined Distell in February 2016 we had pockets of the organisation focused on wine down in Richmond London, and we had a small structure in Scotland which focused on our spirits and they were never really integrated. Historically, we’d always traded up in Scotland so that’s where the bigger part of the organisation was.

I was keen to merge the organisation together so we consolidated the offices to Richmond and built up the capability here to build the UK infrastructure missing which meant we could only ever really supply big customers like Waitrose, Tesco, Matthew Clark.

One of the things I was keen to do was to speed up service because we were delivering direct from South Africa on a lot of key wines. What we can do now is we can take an order day one and then deliver on day three. That’s a big step change for us, that we weren’t able to do.

So we built a UK hub, we built up the sales capability, and we built up knowledge in our people as well. We’ve got brands with great stories but it’s about communicating that to the customers, so we have to build up our own knowledge, which we’ve done as we’ve moved a lot of things away from agencies.

So we’ve grown exponentially our customer base because we can service so many different levels of customers on the different portfolio that we were never able to do before. So they were difficult conversations with the agents we released especially having been with them many years and it wasn’t through anything they weren’t doing right. But I think once you bring it in-house, you’re not just an agency with a number of brands from all over different brand houses, you’ve got focus. Nobody knew who we were and even now, we’re still growing. No one had ever really heard of Distell because we’d hidden behind the agencies, whereas now our name is out there.

We’re at various different trade forums and shows and different hospitality occasions, and we’ve done some work around raising awareness on who Distell is and what we’re about, and people know who we are now which I’m proud of. It’s incredibly exciting. There’s no two days the same. It can have its frustrations but ultimately, I buy into it because I believe we can make a difference.

I think one of your earlier questions was what does success look like? And it’s probably doing something that no one else has done before. That’s what excites me. We‘re an interesting business because we’ve got this huge scale business in South Africa and we move like a big scale business in South Africa. And one of the things that I wanted us to do in the UK was be agile and be flexible and listen to what the customers and consumers are telling us that they want.

And we have a changing culture because we are humble and accept that what we are in South Africa we’re not in the UK yet, we’re still getting our name out there. People need to buy into what we’re talking about. I’m talking about people in Distell to say, we can switch it on first and we can deliver on time and full and think out of the box. You know just because we’re doing it, think if we’ve always done it one way, let’s think a different way.

It’s been tough because not just in Distell UK but Distell globally there has been a period of continual change for a couple of years. I think this year more than previously we seem to settled. Everyone in the UK knows we’ve got three more supreme battles, it’s premiumisation of wines and spirits, it’s winning in whisky so growing our global whisky malt brands, and it’s growing global brands as well, Amarula, Savanna, Bain’s.

We’ve got a big diverse portfolio. I think when we first started, everyone was running around trying to see what’s going to land. Is it going to be this? Is it going to be Klipdrift? Is it going to be Two Oceans wine? And now we’ve said, look, strip all that back. Let’s just get absolute focus on what we’re trying to do. Let’s have a core ten or 11 brands, which I still think it’s a lot, and let’s really drive hard behind them.

When you try and create a new culture in the organisation and try to become a high performance organisation, there are going to be some casualties and some very difficult conversations. And then it’s the worst part of the job because people are human, and it’s families and it’s people’s reputations and people need to survive on an income. I remember someone said to me don’t burn your bridges because it’s a small industry and people talk, and I think you should always go in the right way. But conversely the company should do it in the right way too, I think that’s important.