Chris Lincoln Interviews the CEO of Majestic Wine, John Colley

1. Let’s start by looking back over your career and how you worked your way into Majestic fame and glory

I have always worked in retail, for companies including Woolworths, Homebase-Argos, Screwfix and B&Q, as well as Maxeda in the Netherlands. I started on the shopfloor and worked my way up through various buying and commercial roles to become the youngest ever director of Kingfisher, the group that owns B&Q and Screwfix. I initially joined Majestic in 2015 as CEO of the retail division, before rejoining Kingfisher as Chief Trading Officer. I returned to Majestic as CEO and Executive Chairman in December 2019, after it was acquired by Fortress Investment Group.

2. As the CEO of Majestic Wine, what in your opinion makes it such a special place to work?

The people – our culture and the family feel we’ve managed to retain as a company despite being in business for 44 years is really special. Everyone works incredibly hard, but there is no other place in the UK you can go and get the same level of advice and experience you get when you walk into a Majestic. The teams are so passionate about what they do and our customers love them, too – it’s not unusual for customers to bring in gifts for our colleagues to thank them for the service they’ve received.

I get emails from customers on a daily basis praising us for the quality of our wines, the expert knowledge of our colleagues and the convenience of our service. Delivering that experience every day for our customers gives everyone a buzz and that’s what gets us out of bed every day. 

3. WSET training forms a large part of your training. What benefits do you think this offers both your employees and your customers? What other development do you offer your teams alongside it?

WSET training is a fundamental part of what we do as a business and we are proud to be one of the biggest wine educators in Europe. In our 2023/24 financial year alone, our colleagues achieved 507 WSET qualifications across Level 2, Level 3 and Diploma – considering we only employ 1,500 people, that’s an incredible number.  

For our colleagues, WSET qualifications allow them to continually develop their wine knowledge and feel like they are constantly learning new things and gaining new skills that will help them build a long-term career in the wine industry. Feeling valued and invested in is hugely important to colleagues in any business, and we know that supporting their learning and development in this way plays a big role in their happiness and wellbeing.

The knock-on impact of that for our customers is huge. They benefit from the expert knowledge that our colleagues have obtained through the WSET courses – knowledge and advice that you simply cannot get when buying wine in supermarkets. And they also benefit from the friendly, convenient customer service that colleagues can only really provide to the best of their ability if they are truly happy at work.

Alongside our WSET education, we run a number of internal learning and development programmes that help our colleagues build their careers at Majestic. For example, our annual Rising Stars Programme gives bespoke learning, development and mentoring opportunities for high-potential colleagues from across the business. We also run a Buying Academy and a Commercial Development Programme, for colleagues looking to join the buying team or become an area sales manager in Majestic Commercial, our B2B division. And for colleagues wanting to progress in the retail business, the ROM Development Programme arms store managers with the skills they need to become Regional Operations Managers.

We also offer regular incentive trips for colleagues to go and spend time with wine producers around the world. These are money-can’t-buy trips that further our colleagues’ wine knowledge by getting up close and personal with the winemaking process. Last year alone, around 250 of our colleagues enjoyed trips to places like Chile, California and New Zealand.

So there are loads of development opportunities we offer our teams and it’s something we are extremely passionate about.

4. Majestic Wine has won multiple awards for its working environment, what initiatives do you use to ensure a happy workforce?

We’re very proud of the culture and working environment we have established at Majestic over the past 44 years – and it is our responsibility as a board and senior leadership team to protect and cultivate that DNA for the next 44 years.

The learning and development opportunities I talked about before are obviously at the heart of that, but that’s just one piece of the puzzle. Communication is vital – keeping colleagues involved in and informed about key decisions we are making as a business, and making sure they have a voice in shaping the future of the company. We host listening groups across the country every year, giving colleagues the opportunity to give their feedback, and we as a Board host regional roadshows every Spring, and a company-wide conference in the Autumn. These sorts of events not only allow us to communicate key messages around performance and strategy, but allow colleagues to raise questions or speak to senior directors on a more informal basis during wine tastings or dinner, ensuring their views are heard.

We have also created a series of colleague forums to ensure regular bottom-up communication and feedback. The IT Forum, for instance, allows store teams to give regular updates on any bugs they encounter on their systems – feedback that now goes right to the top of the organisation and can be swiftly acted upon, ensuring we remove any frustrations and unnecessary task for retail colleagues. 

5. You recently purchased Vagabond Wines saving 170 jobs and re-invigorating the company. What was the thought process behind the purchase and what does the future look like?

We absolutely love Vagabond as a business. The passion and knowledge of Vagabond’s colleagues, and the focus on experience and wine discovery all align perfectly with what we do at Majestic every day in our stores. We believe Vagabond will be a great addition to the Majestic family.

From a strategic perspective, we think there is scope to open more Vagabond bars in major cities across the country where the right opportunities arise, and we think we can leverage our existing CRM capability to build an even stronger relationship between Vagabond and its customers. We don’t know exactly what the five-year plan looks like yet as we are only in the first few weeks of our partnership, but we have committed to investing in Vagabond and returning the business to profitable growth – so I think the future looks very exciting!

 6. What are your observations of the consumer environment at the moment, how have they changed and how do you feel Vagabond will be able to tackle some of the challenges?

There’s no denying it’s pretty tough out there. Consumer spending is still being squeezed by the cost-of-living crisis; we remain in an inflationary environment; confidence is low given everything going on in the world with conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East; and there’s political uncertainty with a looming General Election. All of that is impacting customers’ willingness to spend, particularly on big ticket items or anything deemed to be ‘discretionary’ – like an expensive bottle of fizz or a few drinks at a wine bar.

But we are hugely confident in the underlying fundamentals of the Majestic and Vagabond businesses. A phrase we often use at Majestic is: ‘we can only control the controllables’ and that’s what we will be encouraging our Vagabond colleagues to do as well – focus on what you do best, delivering high quality wines, expert knowledge and friendly service to our customers every day. Our collective mission and ethos around helping customers discover new, unique wines, in an environment they enjoy coming back to, is something that breeds customer loyalty – and that’s what will help us weather the current storm and drive long-term growth.

7. Finally, what is your favourite food and wine pairing at the moment?

I have just returned from a family holiday in Greece. Greek wines are really becoming incredibly popular – and increasing in quality and availability. So I have been enjoying some fantastic Assyrtiko with some delicious grilled fresh Octopus.