Tom Lockhart has a 10-second commute to work. He runs the Brompton Wine business from an office in his garden, meeting with his bookkeeper, web designer and marketing executive one afternoon a week. Less enviably, Lockhart has taken on the role of delivery man and spends roughly two afternoons a week in his “battered Citroen van” picking up orders from the warehouse and relaying them to customers.
Four years ago Lockhart set up his own business, initially as a wholesaler supplying wine to restaurants and caterers. He had been working for a London wine merchant but caught the winemaking bug after spotting details for a course at Plumpton Agricultural College. The two-year course allowed him to work part time on Denbies Vineyard in Surrey, and he visited vineyards in France and Spain during the course holidays. It was then Lockhart “got the first inklings” that he could set up a company importing and selling wine from these small boutique vineyards.
Remortgaging his house allowed Lockhart to release start-up capital for the venture and given his background, he was already familiar with the wholesale wine market. “London restaurants have high rents and limited storage, and they want next-day delivery on a broad range of wines. If you imported everything yourself you would need to carry vast amounts of stock, and would quickly run out of cash. So local wholesalers tend to distribute for agencies, who allow you to mix up palettes, meaning you can keep stock levels right down, while still offering your customers a broad range to choose from,” he explains.
But after building his business up to a “modest six-figure turnover” through supplying the corporate customers like “the Chelsea Physic Garden and the RAF Club, a few London Golf Clubs, plenty of local restaurants, and even the theatre at a dance school called Laban”, Lockhart was left wanting. “Relying on the agencies does take the fun out of it somewhat, and there isn’t much requirement to go to the vineyards.” The obvious solution, he says, was to set up an online shop that would allow him to undertake one-off shipments from smaller vineyards and sell the wine to the end user. “I could list what I already take from the agencies online, but also start bringing in wine directly from the vineyards, to sell as a ‘monthly mixed case offer’. No stock worries; when it’s gone, it’s gone, and next month I could offer the customer something different.”
Because Lockhart didn’t want to take on debt or offer equity, he found the costs of building an online shop extremely prohibitive, so he turned to the cloud. Through a friend he heard of Mr Site, an entry-level way to set up an ecommerce website. The consumer-facing site went live in the last week of July, and Lockhart has been able to keep the costs—“including paying Cassie who has helped with the design, buying all the photos, and paying the monthly ‘rental’ fee to Mr Site” —down to less than £1,000.
Nevertheless, Lockhart is well aware of the limitations of such a solution, “I would be the first to admit that the site isn’t perfect, and the level of technical support from Mr Site, is not always what you would hope it to be. But at that sort of price, perhaps this is to be expected?” He illustrates the example of the checkout, where he’d like to remove unnecessary steps. “But overall, I am very positive. It will ultimately be for other people to judge it, but I like to think that it looks professional, and I would buy from it. And it all works!”
Clearly, Lockhart has his work cut out. The next challenge is creating a buzz and raising the brand’s profile, to that end he’s embarked on a PR campaign and signed up to a web optimisation course at a local college.
Tom LockhartAge: 38
First job: Washer Upper, Little Chef, Popham, A303
First ever online purchase: Dinner and a Show, Lastminute.com (what else??)
Favourite wine: From my own list, definitely the 2008 Châteauneuf-du-Pape La Volonté des Papes. It’s superb.
Favourite gadget: The Panasonic HX-DC2 Handycam I have just bought. Hugely amusing! When I’ve learnt how to use it a bit better, I’m going to start embedding short films on to the blog.
Your typical working day in 100 words or fewer:
AM: Check email, do some admin (which there is plenty of and which I loathe), process orders and relay them through to the warehouse. Lunch: Sandwich at my desk, often a jog in Richmond Park. PM: A mix: I’m out delivering in my battle scarred van maybe two afternoons a week, have my bookkeeper in once a week, web designer one afternoon a week, and marketing person one afternoon a week. If I’m not doing that, I might have meetings with customers, to update their menus and price lists, so I’ll be out and about treading the streets of London, as wine merchants have always done.
Cricket in summer, running in winter; I try to do a marathon every year, at my own modest pace. Reading (low brow novels, and I’m also a bit of a politics/current affairs addict), cooking, theatre, and generally keeping up with friends in London. Have been doing as much of the Olympics as possible over the last couple of weeks, got tickets for the Tennis, main stadium Athletics, and saw the cycle race going through Richmond Park. It’s been a real buzz.
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