13 Jul 2023

“Internationalisation is a key tenet for us” – Global Drinks Intel speaks to Stoli Group CEO Chris Caldwell

12/07/2023 – Interview

Earlier this week, Global Drinks Intel exclusively revealed a change of CEO at Stoli Group, with CFO Chris Caldwell replacing Damian McKinney at the helm. We caught up with Caldwell following the news.

Chris Caldwell joined Stoli Group three years ago from UK-based wine and spirits warehouser and distributor Enotria & Co

Global Drinks Intel: Congratulations on your promotion. Did you see this coming?

Chris Caldwell: We’ve been trying very hard to build succession into our organisation since Damian and I both joined about three years ago. In terms of the changeover, it happened a bit quicker than plans would have allowed for. Nevertheless, succession was built in, so we can handle it with good continuity.

GDI: You’ve transitioned to the CEO role from CFO, the same position you held at Enotria & Co prior to joining Stoli Group. What’s the company’s thinking in appointing you, with your financial experience?

CC: My background isn’t purely in finance. I’ve got lots of broad experience in leadership roles around different organisations in different parts of the world. I’ve got lots of geographical experience – I’ve been in the US, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and New Zealand. I’ve seen businesses operate in different environments and that’s helpful when you’re running an international business.

I’ve also held lots of different roles throughout my career that have effectively set me up for this position. I’ve run parts of businesses in other organisations, I’ve run global functions and I’ve been in private equity businesses getting ready for sale. So, it’s not correct to think I’m just a numbers person.

These days, having a good grasp on the financials of a business, on how the economic world operates and the commercial realities is even more important for CEOs. The current climate is challenging and highly competitive – you’ve got to be very aware of managing the business in the round, strategically, operationally and financially.

GDI: The current macroeconomic situation suggests that someone with your experience is well-placed to lead an organisation.

CC: We certainly live in a world where volatility, uncertainty, change and ambiguity are first and foremost. Understanding how the macros impact on your business and being able to ensure you’re as protected as it can be against shocks is an important skill these days. It’s not just the strategic thinking dimension, which was often the case in the past.

GDI: What’s the definition of success for Stoli Group at this particular moment in time?

CC: We started our journey to broaden out from being primarily a vodka company in the US three years ago. While it’s important that we don’t lose sight of how important the US is, you can’t be exposed to a single economy. I’m going to continue the expansion of our business around the globe. There are lots of very exciting opportunities out there – the growth of Latin America is fabulous to see, I’ve spent a lot of time in Africa, so I’m passionate about the potential there and the Asian economies – especially as they come out of the COVID situation and we see travel coming back – will continue to be fast-growing opportunities for us. So, internationalisation is going to continue to be a key tenet for us.

Broadening and developing our portfolio is also important, particularly along the lines of those consumer trends that are emerging – accelerating in many cases – from the pandemic. We bought into a non-alcoholic brand earlier this year [The Pathfinder Hemp & Root] and we’re constantly scanning the horizon for those opportunities, either to innovate within our portfolio or to buy where we feel that’s a better route to success. You have to be – That’s how dynamic the marketplace is.

GDI: Is Stoli Group going to remain acquisitive going forward or is the priority to integrate its recent purchases?

CC: It’s a bit of both. We want to integrate them successfully into the business, but we’re not going to miss out on opportunities if they arise.

We’ve got our business back to beyond pre-pandemic levels of performance, which is fantastic. We’ve got the relaunch of the Stoli brand this year, which is super exciting for us – we’re at the right time for the relaunch. Whilst vodka’s been pretty much static for a good number of years, it’s seeing a resurgence now as categories like gin get a bit of fatigue in them, particularly associated with flavours, which are working really well with the cocktail trend.

GDI: It’s remarkable how short the cycle is in vodka. It seems like only four or five years ago that the talk was all about flavours, and now it’s back again.

CC: It’s still a very versatile category! While gin played to its botanical notes and craft styles, it doesn’t necessarily open itself up to a broad range of cocktail styles. Vodka has that versatility that it can complement lots of other flavours without being overpowered.

GDI: What proportion of group sales comes from the US and what proportion comes from brand Stoli?

CC: They’re quite similar numbers. The US is about 60% of our business – I still need to internationalise us a bit more. I wouldn’t see the US diminishing much below 50%, because it’s such an important driver of growth and a big profit pool. That’s true for all the big alcohol players.

From a brand perspective, we’ve grown the rest of the portfolio really successfully in the last three years, Stoli accounts for roughly 55%. I see that continuing to shift a bit more over the coming years.

GDI: Have you experienced as ‘interesting’ an ownership structure as Stoli Group before [the company is controlled by exiled Russian ‘oligarch’ Yuri Sheffler]?

CC: For five years, I worked in dairy company Fonterra, which is a cooperative. People think cooperatives are a challenge with lots of shareholders making it difficult to get consensus. I never found that to be the case. If you’re transparent with the owners and shareholders of your business, if you build a compelling strategy and deliver great results, it’s pretty straightforward.

I’ve got a great relationship with Mr Scheffler. I find him incredibly inspirational and transparent, so I look forward to taking the business on – I was deeply honoured when he asked me!

“It took some time to find our space in the culture of a tequila-led company” – Global Drinks Intel speaks to Bushmills brand director Donagh McHenry and Proximo Spirits marketing director Michael Cockram