“People in our [wine] industry are very down-to-earth and tend to be very genuine. If you like a product that comes from nature — from the soil, from dirt — this is [for you].”
Australian executive seeks to make wine a more accessible product
For some people, wine prompts occasions for celebration, warmth and friendship. For others, it connotes change, as grapes can be transformed into the magical liquid destined for sparkling goblets.
For Brett Tolhurst, chief executive officer of Wine Warehouse Corp. and chairman of The Wine Group of Companies, the beloved drink is close to his heart, as his family has been making it for almost a century.
Tolhurst hails from Loxton, a small town in South Australia, renowned mostly for agriculture and farming. It boasts of a population of 8,000, which a chuckling Tolhurst says “is about the same number of people in my condominium at the moment.”
“My family settled [on] land given as a reward to people like my great grandfather, who fought during World War 2,” he says. “It was close to the river, which was ideal for irrigation. We were one of the first people to plant grapes and citrus in that area. Living there gave me good country values and taught me to work hard, as well as other lessons that I’m grateful for, like my hands-on approach to doing things.”
At 16, Tolhurst set out for Adelaide, South Australia’s capital, to study economics at Flinders University, where he also played [football] for the South Australian League. Despite his rural background, Tolhurst yearned to work overseas. “I was fascinated by international trade and finance,” he explains. “Specifically, I saw myself as a commodities or forex (foreign exchange) trader. That’s why I studied economics commerce and then did a postgraduate course in securities.”
After graduation, Tolhurst traveled to Hong Kong and joined a forex company. There, he met the late businessman and social icon David Tang, who was instrumental in advancing his career. Tang, whose list of friends included Kevin Costner and Sylvester Stallone, as well as the late Princess Diana and Sarah Ferguson, owned several high-profile enterprises, including the Shanghai Tang boutique chain and Pacific Cigar Company Ltd., the exclusive distributor of Cuban cigars in Asia and the Pacific. “I helped him with business development and was general manager of his cigar company,” Tolhurst says. He spent nearly four years working for the colorful entrepreneur.
That experience led to an invitation to come to the Philippines to manage Tabacalera Incorporada, Asia’s first and oldest tobacco company. Tolhurst had been thinking about returning to Australia, but decided to give working in Asia one last shot. However, his six years with Tabacalera, where he developed invaluable connections, convinced him to stay and strike out on his own. “I had [actually] thought about going back to the family-related business, which was wine,” he says. “But my stint with Tabacalera provided that opportunity to reconnect with Australia [without having to relocate] and establish a business here [in the Philippines].”
In 2000, Tolhurst launched the Wine Warehouse Corp. “We were actually one of the pioneers of the industry,” he recalls. “Starting the company was the right thing to do. It allowed me to build on my background and relationships with winemakers and wineries in Australia.” Since then, Wine Warehouse has grown to reportedly becoming the Philippines’ largest wine distributor and importer, catering to 700 of the country’s top hotels, resorts, restaurants and supermarkets. Wine Depot, its retail arm, stocks on cheeses, meats and breads.
Heading one’s enterprise yields tremendous satisfaction, according to the Australian executive. “I enjoy the creative sides of the process, like planning brand and retail strategies. It’s a good fit for my skill set and an opportunity in a market that wasn’t at the time really saturated,” he says.
But there are also corresponding challenges, says Tolhurst, citing the red tape in setting up a local business and the issue of importation and logistics. “[We had to figure out] how to deliver to local markets, and there weren’t many people [we could work with at the time] who were knowledgeable about wine.”
Fortunately, the situation has improved over the years. “The Filipino population is dynamic and travels. There’s always knowledge growth. People are bringing back more information [after] tasting wine overseas. There’s [now] a growing demand,” he says.
“I started when there was no Greenbelt or BGC [Bonifacio Global City]. There has obviously been a rapid growth in restaurants and hotels. The Philippines is now a destination for people in the food and hospitality industry, when maybe before that wasn’t the case. As infrastructure improves [like the Bohol airport], more tourists come in and the demand for better products at the resort level is growing exponentially,” he adds.
The Covid-19 pandemic unsurprisingly made a huge dent on Tolhurst’s operations, particularly in their wholesale dealings with hotels and restaurants. It’s in retail they are now channeling their efforts toward.
“We weren’t considered essential at first,” he says. “Our sales were reduced dramatically because of liquor bans in place everywhere. But we quickly adapted and added food, such as cold cuts, cheese, meats and bread, to our portfolio to allow us to continue operating. We feel that these [additions] are a positive step.”
“Besides online retail, we’re exploring working [more intensively] with online and traditional supermarket partners,” he adds.
Amid the adjustments, Tolhurst still considers two things his responsibility above all others: motivation and empathy. “Motivation in that I have to keep people moving and understanding that there’s light at the end of the tunnel,” he explains. “And empathy, by being concerned with the staff’s welfare, especially given the difficulties everyone is having at the moment. I think that’s more important than the normal business of selling.”
Tolhurst remains hopeful, as well as determined. “Once Covid-19 is out of the way, things will rebound quite quickly, I think,” he says. “I’m competitive by nature and I like to win. Our company has established a five-year plan that takes advantage of what we see as marketing opportunities.” He reports to having invested in several premium wine divisions and creating their own craft spirits.
“I love the industry,” he declares. “People in our industry are very down-to-earth and tend to be very genuine. If you like a product that comes from nature — from the soil, from dirt — this is [for you].”
Tolhurst intends to work hard to make wine accessible to more customers. “That’s why we established Wine Depot, which aims to lessen people’s intimidation with the product and bring it down to a level, based on taste, rather than knowledge. It’s what we’re all about: making the path [to understanding wine] for the consumer as easy as possible. We will help them buy based on taste and explore other wines based on their taste profile.
“That’s the way I grew up. We studied it and understood it, but we appreciated it for what it is — as something for enjoyment.”
Heading the corporation pushes Tolhurst to work on balancing his personal and professional life. “I used to start working very early in the morning. But now, as soon as my daughter, Cameron, who’s 12, gets up, I stop and focus on her,” he says. “My wife Hazel also works in the industry, so we have to shut up and not talk about work at home, which can be challenging.”
For Tolhurst, it is important to make time for people close to him. “Free time doesn’t always align,” he says. “Weekends for us is just staying home and enjoying each other’s company. It’s time to decompress.” He also enjoys playing golf and reading books; he recently finished Phil Knight’s Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike.
With Tolhurst in the lead, the industry to which he is devoted will, like wine itself, only get better with age.