Libra Drinks is attracting the right customers with the right products. Tan parsons reports.
- Founded: 2005
- Number of SKUs: 1964
- Turnover: £13m
- Depot size: 12,000 sq ft
- Buying group: Today’s
One of the reasons Gary Beagley and James McMurtry left Molson Coors in 2005 to become wholesalers was because they believed they could succeed with their own business by focusing on a smaller area.
The Nottingham-based duo are the directors of Libra Drinks, an on-trade specialist that serves venues within a 50-mile radius ranging from multiple pub groups, hotels and restaurants to independent city bars and sports clubs. The business is now turning over £13m per year and is seeing growth in customer numbers, margin and average spend.
Beagley says: “We felt we could do better in a small area by giving people what they want – being easy to deal with while being seen as having the capability and professionalism of some of our bigger regional and national competitors.”
That process of becoming an expert in your territory relies on offering an unparalleled service. The tenets of Libra’s mission are to offer a fantastic range of drinks at a competitive price with brilliant service. While the bulk of Libra’s business relies on big-brand lagers, Beagley and McMurtry pride themselves on their ability to help customers discover great speciality beers, ciders, wines, spirits and soft drinks.
McMurtry says: “The categories we are focusing on are cask ale, craft beers, ciders and wine, with a bit of speciality soft drinks and spirits. The point is that hopefully the competition isn’t so great and you also get a better type of customer – one that’s more likely to be around tomorrow and with whom you can build a business. Long-term, that’s where the opportunities for innovation and growth are going to be.”
Attracting the right customers is all about picking the right kinds of products, says Beagley. “We’re trying to create a range of products that our customers like and wherever possible is different to our competitors.
“The problem with the commodity products is that it’s just a bunfight for price. Carling is Carling – it’s all about the price, that’s the bottom line. If all of a sudden you’ve got a product that’s only available from one or two distributors, that gives us a higher margin.”
In May this year, Libra Drinks struck a deal with the Camden Town Brewery, which is building a network of exclusive distributors across the country. With consumer desire for ‘craft beer’ at an all-time high, Libra will benefit twofold – first from a regionally exclusive deal and second from Camden’s success in building its own brand. A similar deal with the Meantime Brewing Company is already opening doors for the wholesaler.
“If people speak to Meantime and say ‘I like your product – where can I get it from? I’m based in Sheffield,’ then they will get referred to us,” says Beagley. “So that’s potentially a new customer for everything else we sell.”
Having products that attract great customers and deliver strong wholesale margin is only part of the picture. To retain business, it’s important to offer first-rate service.
“We’ve never said we are the cheapest in the market,” says McMurtry. “That’s not to say that we won’t be in certain cases but we don’t set our stall out as ‘Come to us, we’re the cheapest’ – we couldn’t really afford to do it. But if you combine a competitive price with a better service and a better range then you’ll find that price isn’t the only driver. That’s how we win the business and how we keep it.”
Libra Drinks has a technical services engineer responsible for installing and managing drinks dispense at customers’ venues. This service is on behalf of regional independent brewers and can speed up installation by a matter of weeks. If a customer decides to stock Camden Hells, for instance, Libra Drinks can install it for them in under 48 hours, compared to the three or five weeks it would typically take a national operator to do.
Gary says: “With a larger company, the salesman can come back in four weeks and say, ‘Have you had your dispense installed?’ and the customer will say, ‘No, I’ve not heard anything and I don’t want it any more so can you cancel it for me.’ That’s not uncommon. But we can do it in two days.”
Libra’s delivery process is another important part of the service. Where possible, it maintains drivers on the same routes because this helps to build rapport with customers and the drivers can make the drops more quickly.
“Things that really annoy customers, like not putting the stock in the right place and not collecting empties – we can avoid things like that and that’s all part of the service,” says McMurtry.
On the long-term security of the on-trade sector, both men are confident, despite the regular reports of pub closures. While some good pubs might have been lost along the way to multiple convenience stores, most of the pubs that are closing are probably “not very good pubs”, says Beagley.
For Libra Drinks the goal is solid, sustainable growth. McMurtry says. “How will we be in another five years? Hopefully still stable, slightly bigger and better.”
“And still enjoying it,” says Beagley.