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Wine to 5: Rob Cooke, chief operating officer at Majestic Wine

Inside a professional’s everyday life, Decanter speaks to Rob Cooke, chief operating officer at Majestic Wine.

Rob oversees Majestic’s buying, e-commerce, marketing and on-trade businesses. He has played a key role in re-establishing the retailer’s reputation for selling interesting, unique, quality wines since its acquisition by Fortress Investment Group in December 2019. Rob joined Majestic in April 2019 from Tesco, where he was category director for beers, wines and spirits. He was also previously head of buying at Sainsbury’s. Rob was crowned Drinks Business Man of the Year in 2020 and his buying team has won more than 25 awards during the past four years. Rob was also named an executive board member of the Wine and Spirits Trade Association in April 2023. 

How did you get here?

I started my career at Deloitte before moving into retail with WHSmith. I then held a number of trading and buying roles at Woolworths in the early 2000s, then Sainsbury’s and Tesco. I spent a few years in general merchandise for Tesco in Central Europe and Turkey, before taking on key commercial roles in the core UK business. But wine was always my biggest passion, and taking on the role of beers, wines and spirits director at Tesco allowed me to live and breathe that passion every single day.

If you love wine in that way, the opportunity to join Majestic is one you simply can’t say ‘no’ to. I came here in April 2019, initially as buying and merchandising director. I was promoted to chief commercial officer the following year and became chief operating officer last October, with overall responsibility for trading, buying and merchandising, e-commerce and marketing, as well as our fast-growing B2B business, Majestic Commercial.

What’s the best thing about your job?

It sounds like a cliché, but it has to be the people. The passion and knowledge of the people I get to work with at Majestic is genuinely infectious – we have an incredibly talented and hard-working team that I am really proud to be a part of. But that passion for the product extends right through the supply chain. We get to work with the full spectrum of suppliers, from major Champagne houses in France, to small family producers around the world who have spent generations of time, money and hard work creating brilliant wines. Seeing that work first-hand, and having the opportunity to represent their brands and tell their stories to our customers in the UK, is a real privilege.

And the worst?

Probably the amount of time that we have to spend thinking about regulations and legal changes around imports, exports and duty, particularly post-Brexit. There’s more red tape around the wine industry than there’s ever been, and dealing with that means we spend less time adding value for our customers.

What’s the most common misconception about your job?

That I spend all of my time flying around the world tasting wine – that’s what everyone thinks I do! In reality, that probably takes up about a tenth of my time. I’d love to travel the world and meet our suppliers more often, because when it comes to wine, you never stop learning. There’s no substitute for the inspiration, ideas and creativity that comes from being with people in the place where their wines are produced.

What’s your greatest moment, professionally?

I’m hoping that’s still yet to come!

And your greatest mistake?

Not investing in a crystal ball that tells me what the weather will be like in three months’ time!

In all seriousness, I try not to characterise decisions as mistakes or successes. After all, everyone has a PhD in hindsight don’t they? What I try to do is look back at the decisions I make and ask myself: ‘Was that the best decision I could have made with the information I had available?’ If yes, great; if not, I try to understand why the decision wasn’t the best one and look to learn from it. Making mistakes is fine, making the same ones over and over is a problem. That’s the mindset I try to encourage among my teams because it’s super important that people aren’t afraid of mistakes or failure. It is critical, however, that we continually evaluate and improve.

What skills and/or qualities do you need to be successful in your profession?

Passion for the product, first and foremost. An ability to build and maintain relationships – both within the business and the supply base – through good and bad. Commercial understanding. A forensic understanding of our customers. Resilience. Flexibility. Not being afraid to take a few risks. Keeping an even keel – making sure the highs aren’t too high and the lows aren’t too low. Those are the key things I’d highlight.

The thing about my job is that everyone expects you to know the answer to everything, but a lot of the time you don’t. What you can do, though, is provide people with reassurance and confidence and have their back. Even if you can’t give them an answer, you can give them the autonomy and breathing space to go and formulate an answer; you can give them the encouragement to be curious, to be brave. Empowering your teams in that way and giving them the freedom to come up with solutions and grow as colleagues is a big part of the job.

How have customers’ buying habits changed with the cost-of-living crisis?

We’ve seen a bit of a shift [from customers] towards buying smaller baskets more often. Frequency has definitely ticked up a little bit, and people are buying slightly fewer bottles, but better quality.

I think people are considering their spend really carefully at the moment and probably cutting back a little bit, as you’d expect given the cost-of-living pressures people are feeling right now. But that’s where our proposition comes into its own. Our customers know that they can come into a Majestic and try wines before they buy on our tasting counters, they can get expert advice from our highly qualified colleagues. Customers don’t want to make costly purchasing mistakes, especially at Christmas, so our proposition provides that reassurance that they are getting the very best wine possible for their money, no matter what their budget is.

Some people’s budgets have shrunk slightly given the increases in utility bills, mortgage rates and inflation that we’re all dealing with. We’ve seen that play out in an increased willingness from our customers to step outside of the traditional norms in search of value. Majestic’s mission is all about discovery – helping our customers find new wines they love, some of which might be from regions they hadn’t considered before. Our breadth of range and colleague expertise has allowed customers to easily trade into off-the-beaten-track regions, where there is some really incredible value for money to be found.

What are the biggest challenges when it comes to gearing up for Christmas?

It’s all the things we can’t control: economic uncertainty and not knowing how customers will spend. The weather usually throws a few curveballs in at this time of year as well. Last year, there were mass public transport strikes which meant some people couldn’t get home for Christmas when they’d planned. We also don’t know what our competitors will do in terms of offers and discounts.

So, from a Majestic perspective, it’s about having the confidence in our plan and our ability to execute it, but having that flexibility and agility to react to what’s going on around you if and when those uncontrollable things crop up. We are well set up this year – we have the strongest plan for peak that we have had in my time at Majestic – and we’re confident we can deliver a cracking Christmas for our customers.

What will you be drinking this Christmas?

I’m going to break with tradition a bit this Christmas and go for some English Sparkling – a Nyetimber 1086 – with breakfast. We’ll have white Burgundy – I haven’t decided exactly what yet, maybe something from Albert Bichot or more likely Edouard Delaunay – with lunch, followed by our Parcel Series Sauternes – pound-for-pound, that’s one of the best wines we sell at Majestic, in my opinion. I’ll probably open a Quinta do Noval Port with the cheeseboard, and at some point no doubt there will be some 18-year old Dalmore when the work is done.

What emerging region/style are you personally most excited by at the moment?

I’m going to cheat a bit and pick a couple, if that’s okay?

Greece, in general, is producing some really fantastic wine at the moment. The quality is constantly increasing, and there’s some incredible value for money to be found.

And my second, slightly left-field answer, is premium Portuguese. It’s a region that’s been known for Port, but a lot of the UK market has been dominated by low-end options. When you progress to the mid-to-premium products, you’ll discover some of the best pound-for-pound wines you can buy.

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