Arts, Leisure & Wine by Michael Fridjhon

Wine by MICHAEL FRIDJHON

THE death last week of Graham Beck produced the reflections and reminiscences expected whenever giants of an age are laid to rest. There were plenty of anecdotes describing his personality, his role in business, his great but unshowy generosity, his hobbies and his wry, dry humour.

It is obvious from the strength of the wine brand that bears his name that he was a player in SA’s liquor industry – though relative to his antics in the world of mining, horse racing and yacht building, this seems almost incidental feature of his life. It was certainly a sideshow: I don’t recall him ever waving the flag for one of his wines, though I saw him many times with a tumbler of Scotch wrapped in his fist.

He came into the liquor industry in what seemed a frivolous and unmotivated kind of way – the sort of thing that rich men do because they fear succumbing to boredom. In retrospect, however, he did have a game-plan – one so prescient and strategically thought out that even his lieutenants failed to anticipate the gambits along the way.

His interest in horse flesh led him to Robertson, where the calcium-rich soils offer breeders a great environment for elevage.

In the early 1980s it would have been hard to see how this area – long denigrated by those with land in the coastal region – would ever become the force it is today. Add to this the tightening noose of sanctions and isolation, and it took courage even to plant a vine.

When, towards the end of the decade, Beck bought Union Wine (an old, ill-run and grossly underrnanaged spirits and wine business) from the late Jan Picard, the pundits had a field day speculating about the state of Beck’s mental health. He was happy to feed the rumours. To make the whole exercise seem even more serendipitous, he dismissed the purchase price as no more than a boat-load of coal. With no real interest in investing too much of his time in so lightweight a purchase, and very much aware of the shortcomings of the management he had acquired, he was swift to merge the business with Rennies Liquor Holdings (which included Douglas Green of Paarl and Superior Imports). As a result, he had a half share in a bigger entity with excellent management. Safren’s liquor business came in time to be part of Kersaf, giving Beck’s now evolving Robertson region wine interests a finely honed route to market.

At this point, it seemed as if his whole strategy had been revealed: his boat-load of coal had acquired him a capital asset through which to sell his wines. This is an altogether more cost-effective way of moving stock than the customary investment in advertising and promotion.

As his wine business grew, however, the need to retain his shareholding in wine and spirit distribution appeared to diminish. It was only a matter of time – so thought eyen his senior management before he would accept an offer from Kersaf and get out of wholesale liquor. So it came as something of a surprise when he reversed the trade, buying out his partners at what they had been prepared to offer him and thus acquiring a 100% interest in what became DGB (which incorporates the names of Douglas Green and Bellingham.) Years later he facilitated a management buyout, retaining a minority stake.

By then he had parlayed his boatload of coal into a substantial asset, at the same time turning his incidental wine farm in Robertson into the brand we all know today. Still under its founding cellarmaster (Pieter Ferreira), Beck’s Robertson winery is the country’s most accomplished premium sparkling wine business. The subsequent addition of Steenberg to his portfolio shows that Beck still had a card or two to play. Clearly, when it came to business, there wasn’t a frivolous cell in his body.

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