Growing the Kiwi wine brand in China

16:00, Jan 03 2014
Charlotte Read
CHANGING TASTES: Charlotte Read says markets are emerging in China.

This is the fifth and final in a series of profiles about Kiwis working overseas, who retain ties to home through Kea, the World Class New Zealand network. Kea connects more than 180,000 talented Kiwis and "friends of New Zealand" around the world.

Shanghai-based Charlotte Read is the Asian/Middle East market manager for New Zealand wine brand Villa Maria Estate.

The Kiwi wine has been one of the most successful in the Chinese market, having had a presence there for 12 years.

Sales of New Zealand wine in China have grown about $5 million a year since the free trade agreement was signed in 2008, reaching almost $30m in 2012. Chinese drinkers are predicted to increase wine consumption by 15 per cent in the next five years while Western markets remain flat or even weaken.

Read grew up on a vineyard in the Hawke's Bay and was educated at Havelock North private girls' school Woodford House, where she had a passionate female science teacher who wanted to see more girls study at a tertiary level to become scientists.

Read's mother dearly wanted her to be an accountant or lawyer but New Zealand was educating more in those professions than it could employ at the time. Read loved to cook - "and tinkering with ingredients, too"- so chose to study food science at the University of Otago.


"I did a Bachelor of Consumer and Applied Science in food science, then as a co-requisite started doing a BSC in nutrition after discovering that was my real passion. When the recruitment round came I was just finishing my double degree and the New Zealand Dairy Board [now Fonterra] was looking for technical marketers."

She only worked for the dairy giant on her home turf for a short time before being posted to Singapore then Thailand. She was responsible for marketing high-calcium low-fat Anlene, which became one of the superbrands in Asia's dairy market, and Anmum, the fortified milk powder designed for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers.

The next available suitable posting with Fonterra was in Dubai but she decided that she needed to do an MBA, which she obtained from Cambridge University.

And, Read said, having grown up on a vineyard, she really wanted to focus on wine.

"With my food science foundation and work at Fonterra I had an understanding of wine marketing."

She worked marketing wine for the off-licence chain Thresher Group in Britain, then was employed by Villa Maria in London to be its European market manager, a role she held for nearly five years with a focus on the United Kingdom, Republic of Ireland, The Netherlands, Russia and Scandinavia.

She moved back to New Zealand briefly to run Villa Maria's Asian market activities but commuting from New Zealand was "just too far" so she relocated to Shanghai in 2012.

"I love representing New Zealand exporters, I feel really in my element doing it overseas."

Read recently gave birth to her first child, a daughter, and will get in-home care for her once she returns to work.

"Thankfully childcare options are much more flexible in China than in New Zealand. It is incredibly expensive to work fulltime and have fulltime childcare in New Zealand."

Q: What were the biggest challenges in your industry last year?

A: 2013 was such a year of change for the wine industry with the leadership change in China. [New premier] Li Keqiang's anti-corruption austerity measures really affected the whole hospitality sector. Banqueting for government officials used to use wine [anecdotally it was more than half of China's wine consumption] but that's now frowned upon - having wine on the table is now seen as ostentatious.

Some wine-producing countries really suffered. Thankfully New Zealand wine is pitched into the top end of the market and didn't have so many government deals - it's more five-star hotels and the general food and beverage trade.

As an overhang from the general mood in the country, wine sales and all imports in China have significantly dropped. There was double-digit growth, now there is double-digit decline but it's just because it's a young developing market so you will see spikes and troughs more overtly than if it's a developed market like the UK. The emerging middle classes are getting into wine - there is a prediction China will be the biggest wine market in world in ten years. That will happen. New Zealand, on back of that having really good quality product, is going to benefit from it. I don't think we need to worry about it too much but we need to be persistent.

Q: What are you focusing on in your role this year?

A: I'm not going to be in China forever. Getting local competence is a key part of our strategy. Two years ago I recruited a Chinese national to be based with me in Shanghai and she has just done a brilliant job developing the social media capability. She's our eyes and ears as I don't have Chinese language abilities. I just recruited another, based in Guangzhou, who used to be at NZTE. One of my biggest triumphs has been facilitating people development in China. We have plans to expand and get more people on ground.

Q: Do you think it is important for New Zealand companies to have people on the ground when they're trying to operate in an overseas market?

A: Absolutely. It's critical. Our distributors would be happy if we were based in New Zealand and only checked up once a year on what they're doing. Wine importers juggle multiple brands, it's a bother if you're checking up on what they're doing frankly. By having our staff based in their office all the time we are a bother, but on the flip side it keeps New Zealand top of of mind.

Q: What's the first thing people say when they hear you're from New Zealand?

A: There's usually a big smile. New Zealand has offended no-one so it has connotations of warm fuzzies. People have generally seen The Lord Of The Rings or The Hobbit so they would talk about how beautiful it is and say "you're so lucky, why are you here?"

Q: What do you think about the New Zealand Story campaign?

A: It's a great resource. In my wine training the first 15 minutes are talking about New Zealand. Having good video footage really lifts our game to make our presentations really professional to hotel food and beverage chains.