The Dragon is incredibly proud of ODs continuing to reach for the sun and who, in doing so, have become hugely successful in a wide range of fields. From making a piece of history like Francesca Wilcox (OD 2013) to developing life-saving apps like Michael Dent (OD 2002), capturing snow leopards on camera like Dan O’Neil (OD 2005) to playing for England like Maia Bouchier (OD 2012) … Read on for the next feature in our Diversity of Dragons series, where the Dragon interviews entrepreneur Michael Saunders (OD 1976), CEO of Bibendum …
Without a sense of humour, it’s impossible
Michael Saunders (OD 1976)
In 1976 you left the Dragon, and just six years later, in 1982, Bibendum was founded by your wine-loving friendship group. Tell us a bit about your start-up story.
I had a plan after leaving school that sadly went badly off the rails (I was living in Argentina when The Falklands War broke out) so I needed to find another one. A friend’s brother had started Bibendum a couple of months before – and the ‘business’ (it really was barely trading) needed another person (number three) to join. My employee number is still 0003! I thought about going to university, but my parents had different ideas, as I had rejected that idea the first time. No one involved in Bibendum at the time could possibly have dreamt of what it has achieved and where it is today – and all the many highs and lows along the way.
What has been the most important lesson learned?
It’s hard to think of only one! (1) tenacity – things never ever go according to plan. (2) belief – you have got to believe in the dream and live it every day. (3) flexibility – be ready to change your plan. I can’t remember a business plan turning into exact reality. And (4) a sense of humour. There are good days to celebrate, but also bad days to navigate. Without a sense of humour, it’s impossible.
What and who should you listen to when establishing a start-up?
Everyone has a view. It’s worth listening to as many people as you can, and then picking the ideas you really believe in, but only from those people you believe in. There will be many who say don’t do it (people who have tried themselves often); there will be many who say do it (people often from a position of secure employment with zero risk). What you need to be ready for is all in: every hour; every day; every penny (and more). The chances (and usually the need) are that your dream will completely dominate your lifetime and thought. Are you ready to give all that? But the absolute key person to listen to is yourself.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given, as an entrepreneur?
I have been lucky to be given loads. There is one person who stands out, who was kind enough to let me use her as a mentor during some very tough times. She is one of the leading business people in the hospitality industry – and very wise. Her questions were always simple: do you believe in the business and the plan? The answer was an unfailing “yes” from me. And as it happens, from her. She was adamant that the aspiration for the best quality and service should not be compromised. And that we held to our dream, irrespective of some (pretty major) bumps on the road. It was very therapeutic.
What strategies have you employed to differentiate Bibendum from your competitors? What makes you unique?
That’s a question I get asked often. And the answer is very simple. Find the best producer partners; have the best team that you can – who share the dream and enhance the culture of the business; have stand-out marketing so that through great communication the customer base knows what we stand for; and strive for excellence in all areas. And lastly be leaders, not followers. That involves taking calculated risks and not being afraid of things not working (and there are many examples of this).
You’re described as a “charismatic leader that’s as much part of the team as [you are] leading it.” What makes a successful leader?
I have no idea. I have just done the best that I can. I have tried to be very open and honest; be willing to show vulnerability. Clearly, no one can get every decision right, so listening to team feedback and changing when needed is critical. Perhaps most importantly it’s understanding what you are good at and therefore by definition what you are not good at. I have always been clear on the ‘not good at’ bits – and have been lucky to find brilliant people to work with me who are great at those bits. It has led to a team that works well together, has a shared vision, and importantly has fun – I can’t imagine working in a business that isn’t fun (most of the time).
As early adopters of social media (your virtual Twitter tasting pulling in more tweets than Obama’s inauguration on the same day) you must have seen incredible movement in the role social media plays in marketing your product and the consumer’s behaviour?
It’s almost laughable that I am answering a question about social media! I can barely turn on my phone. But I have been lucky to have a series of marketing directors who have persuaded me that social media could propel Bibendum and its values to a wider audience, so we went early and hard (compared to our peers in the industry). Our share of voice is market-leading. We work hard to stay in front and the reach is incredible. Of course, that reach is important not just for our customer base (current and future), but also for our international supplier base.
When returning to Bibendum as CEO in 2018, you described it as being given the keys to the car with the responsibility of driving it. What’s been the best part of your journey as CEO, so far?
It was humbling being asked back by the C&C Group after a short time away. And the first week was very, very emotional. The greeting by stakeholders – colleagues, suppliers, and customers – was simply overwhelming. Was that the best? I don’t know. But it clearly showed how valued Bibendum was in the industry, which made us very proud. Perhaps one of the standouts was in 2007 when we celebrated our 25th anniversary and I threw a party for all colleagues, past and present. The turnout was fantastic – and the number of people who came to tell me their years at Bibendum were the best in their careers was just great. It showed Bibendum is more than a business, it is a real community.
Bibendum is going from strength to strength, winning a record 50 golds and 7 critics’ choice medals at the Sommelier Wine Awards in 2020 and scooping ‘Merchant of the Year’ for the fourth time in six years. Bibendum won the 2020 coveted top award of ‘Drinks Company of the Year’ and just last year was named the IWSC On Trade Supplier of the Year. What’s does success for Bibendum look like, for you?
Of course, we love getting awards – it’s great peer recognition. But success for me is having a thriving business that is growing; one that attracts the best partners from around the world; one that is winning in the market; and one that makes people proud to work in.
2022 marked Bibendum’s 40th birthday, congratulations! How do your mission and spirit compare now to when it was founded in 1982?
A few years ago, I was in a restaurant when I saw a man who was one of the founders, long gone from Bibendum and who I hadn’t seen for many years. He was incredibly gracious about what we had achieved – and said the thing that made him even more delighted was that we hadn’t moved from the original idea of quality, making wine accessible and excellence, despite Bibendum having grown so much into a business of some scale.
Let us know what you’ve been up to since your Dragon Days, we’d love to share your story.
Header Image: Bibendum, Primrose Hill
Gallery Below: Michael Saunders at Bibendum c. 1982/3