COMING UP FAST: How your company can take on the big boys - Wolf Blass won hectolitres of the mighty French wine market for the Aussies, and rookie cosmetics firm Lush is snapping at the heels of Body Shop How do giantkillers do it?

COMING UP FAST: How your company can take on the big boys - Wolf Blass won hectolitres of the mighty French wine market for the Aussies, and rookie cosmetics firm Lush is snapping at the heels of Body Shop How do giantkillers do it? - It's the basis for m

by REBECCA HOAR
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

It's the basis for many a Hollywood plot: the nerdy, bespectacled new kid on the block who singlehandedly fights off the heavies to get the girl or save the world. Yet the David and Goliath scenario isn't limited to myths and movies - it happens in the corporate world too. While most entrepreneurs dream of breaking even or making it to an AIM listing, some dare to go beyond that, coming from nowhere to take on the big boys of their chosen industry.

Take Wolf Blass, the German-born winemaker who has for four decades led the successful charge of Australian wines against the international dominance of the French. The battle has been convincingly fought. Recent figures reveal that none of the top 10 wines on the UK market is now bottled in France, but that seven of them are from Australia. And Aussie wines command nearly 50% of British wine sales in the key pounds 4 to pounds 6 a bottle price bracket.

None of this could have been predicted when the 27-year-old Blass arrived in Australia in 1961. He had just left Britain, where French wine ruled the dinner table. Australian or New World wines were hardly heard of and rarely crossed the palates of Britain's snobby wine connoisseurs. The situation was little better in Australia. Trying to persuade the members of a beer-loving nation to raise a glass of wine was about as easy as rounding up 3,000 merinos for the sheep dip. Yet Blass refused to acknowledge any obstacles. 'At that time, Australians were drinking 135 litres of beer a year,' he says. 'Wine-drinking was practically non-existent.'

A qualified wine-maker, Blass had moved to the UK in 1957. He attended a wine tasting at the Australian Commission and was invited to Australia to work on the Pearl Wines brand, with a brief to market the sparkling wine to female drinkers. 'Having had a taste of the wines, there was no question in my mind that I could contribute to the Australian wine industry. They were bloody awful.'

Within three years of his arrival in Australia, wine sales were up and Pearl Wines accounted for 80% of all sparkling wine consumption in Australia.

In 1964, he set up as a freelance consultant to small non-professional wine-makers. He also registered the business name Bilyara - Aboriginal for eagle hawk - and produced his first private vintage.

There followed a brief stint at United Distillers before he fell out with management over his Bilyara production. So in 1973 Blass set up Wolf Blass Wines International with a Adollars 2,000 overdraft, an old army shed and a small plot in the Barossa Valley.

He experimented with new ways to produce red wine, introducing processes such as selected oak maturation and blending in the bottle. 'Up to that point, I had no idea about red wine-making,' Blass recalls. 'All I knew about was riesling and sparkling wines.'

As Australia became known for its bold-tasting wines, sparkily packaged and labelled, French wines started to look fusty and old-fashioned. While Blass marketed his wines aggressively, his French rivals complacently believed their wines spoke for themselves. He sensed the weakness and pushed his wines tirelessly.

He was adept at publicity. His most enduring claim for Wolf Blass Wines was that 'they make weak men strong and strong women weak.' The nudge, nudge, wink, wink sentiment lured Australians away from their lager. And Blass took his skill with a soundbite to other countries to promote his wines. In the late '70s, Wolf Blass Wines began exporting to the UK - and encountered its first difficulties. 'The entry into England was a nightmare,' says Blass. 'We just couldn't get the right distributors.'

The company went through five distributors from the mid '70s to 2001. Yet UK consumers took notice as interest in all things gastronomic grew in the late '80s and early '90s. Wine columnists wanted something new to write about and Australian wines fitted the bill. TV shows like Food and Drink rammed the message home, and supermarkets and off-licences began selling Aussie wines.

French wine producers were forced to look over their shoulder at this New World challenge to their market share. As exports increased, Australian wine production rose to meet it. When Blass first arrived, the country was 35th in the world rankings of vineyard and wine production. Today it's sixth, and annual world exports have passed the 400 million litre mark, worth a record pounds 732 million - up from pounds 367 million three years ago.

Exports to the UK continue to rise, too. In 1990, Australia sent 85,000 litres of wine here. In 2001-02, that figure was 194 million litres.

Blass increased both his production capacity and his exports. In 1980, Wolf Blass Wines was producing 150,000 cases of wine a year, of which only 10% was exported. Today, the company produces 1.3 million cases of wine a year, and 66% is exported.

Blass says it was anything but plain sailing. 'It was as if we were water off a duck's back at first. Nobody noticed us or took us seriously. I had to knock on all the doors.' But he and his team persisted. They believed the Australian wine industry had been under-estimated and that the French had become arrogant in seeking to control the world market. By contrast, Australian wine-makers went out 'person by person and company by company to do wine tastings, to promote themselves'. Rival Australian wine companies joined forces to promote themselves abroad.

Grant Ramage, a wine-buyer at Oddbins, was one of the first to start stocking New World wines in the early '90s. He agrees with Blass about the persistence of the Australian wine sellers. 'The Australian Wine Bureau persuaded the Australians to come over here and to get out and talk to people,' he says. 'Their success has been down to a lot of hard work.'

Australian wines did well, he believes, because they developed strong brands such as Wolf Blass, Penfolds and Hardys. The French wine industry, in contrast, remained fragmented into hundreds of small independent chateaux. With a strong brand, customers know exactly what they're buying; an independent French wine is less predictable.

The hard work paid off. The latest figures show that the Australian market share of take-home wines in the UK has reached 18% by volume, coming close to France's 22%. And Aussie wines have infiltrated the French market, too: exports to France totalled 4.5 million litres last year.

Wolf Blass Wines is no longer the upstart but a subsidiary of the Foster's drinks group. It has merged with the California-based Beringer Wine Estates to form Beringer Blass Wine Estates, with a market valuation of pounds 2.2 billion.

Not bad for a firm that began life with a Adollars 2,000 overdraft. And Blass sees room for expansion. 'I think we'll overtake the French. We'll become the number one in the UK because of our consistency and the fact that our wines are value for money.'

Lush, the UK-based manufacturer of fresh, handmade cosmetics, is another enterprise that apparently came from nowhere to take on its big rivals.

Founders Mark Constantine and Andrew Gerrie opened their first London store in Covent Garden in 1995, and seven years later were one of a handful of firms considering a bid for Body Shop.

It was March 2001, and Lush had an annual turnover of pounds 34 million while Body Shop was turning over about pounds 370 million. Anita Roddick treated the idea as 'an early April Fool's joke', but Lush was deadly serious.

In the end, the Roddicks didn't sell. Lush, however, continues to grow. It now has 125 stores in 21 countries, and rivals such as Boots are frantically trying to keep up with Lush's innovative product lines, launching their own copycat ranges. 'It's important to have an original, exciting business,' says Constantine, who began his cosmetics career supplying products to Body Shop. 'If you have something slightly original, people talk about it.'

Innovative products have been crucial to the success of both Wolf Blass and Lush. Their respective rivals had been around for a long time and were becoming slow-footed and complacent; new products tended to follow the same formula. Wolf Blass and Lush weren't afraid to introduce something new - and to shout about it.

The managers of the two firms also believe in hard work and a refusal to countenance any obstacles. Says Blass in his biography: 'If you want to do things right, it will take time, effort and energy. If you want to get a quick return, you will not be around for long.'

At 68, Blass has no plans to slow down. His latest project, the 'Riesling Challenge', is an attempt to re-popularise the much-maligned sweet wine. 'Riesling has lost its reputation because of poor marketing and quality from the Germans,' says Blass, a German himself. 'Wouldn't it be funny if Germany came to Australia wanting riesling?' With Blass spearheading the campaign, it's not such a difficult idea to swallow.

HOW DAVIDS CAN SLAY GOLIATHS

- Be original. Wolf Blass used new methods to make red wine; Lush created products no-one had seen before. Find something new with which to break into your market.

- Shout loudly. When you're the new kid on the block, you need to get noticed. Work out ways to get coverage without spending a fortune on PR or advertising.

- Study your opposition. What do you do well that they do badly? Find and exploit their weaknesses.

- Persistence pays. You won't overthrow an industry overnight, but in time you can make a huge impact.

- Think positive. Don't be deterred by the size of the task. Be confident in your ability to push forwards.

- Surround yourself with a supportive and expert team.

- Ignore the doom merchants. When you try something audacious, there will always be someone predicting your downfall. With luck, time will prove them wrong.

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