Kaan do mentality

Marian Kopp of the Racke Group is a well-known figure on the European circuit of business speakers yet he has decamped to California. Christian Davis catches up with him
27 August, 2008
Page 34 

Those who regularly attend business conferences or seminars such as Wine Evolution , Pro Wein, the London International Wine & Spirits Fair or Vinexpo are likely to have seen Marian Kopp in action.

His enthusiasm is infectious. Almost so much so that you want to be inoculated against it. So fresh-faced, you feel that security personnel at German wine and spirits company Racke probably ask for the executive board member's ID and date of birth every time he comes in.

A nyone wondering what has happened to this Power Pointed preacher may be surprised to know that he has moved lock, stock and - yes - barrels to California. To be precise , Sonoma, the historic home of California and its wine industry. So why has such an ambitious man left the German power base to go to its far-flung US outpost? Two words: Golden Kaan.

About four years ago Kopp established a joint venture with South African drinks giant KWV, out of which came the Golden Kaan branded wines. The likelihood is that both companies had been watching the likes of Constellation, E&J Gallo, Foster's and Pernod Ricard forging ahead with brands such as Hardy's, Sierra Valley, Wolf Blass and Jacob's Creek, and realised they had to do something to keep up with these burgeoning global brands.

Kopp may look like a high school graduate but he has a shrewd business brain, evidenced by a degree in business administration with majors in marketing and retail management.

So, Golden Kaan hit the ground running and has gone from zero to 1 million cases in four years. It now sells in more than 30 countries, including Japan, Vietnam, South Africa, Tanzania, Canada, Russia, Poland, Switzerland and Ireland.

While Kaan has listings in the US with Trader Joe's, Publix, Target, Beverages & More !, Whole Foods and the Fresh Market that represent 10 per cent of total sales, the fact is the South African sector in the States is small.

"It has been a task to get South African wines going," says Kopp. "In the past all efforts were too diluted. About 200-plus estates each trying to sell wine. Despite overall growth of 40 per cent a year for the past three, we are way below 2 million cases.

"Some of this hassle is because there were no major efforts by brands to show up in front of consumers in floor placements. The Americans would love to go for South African wines, but could not find them."

The irony is that American drinks giant Constellation now owns South Africa's historical leading brand, Kumala. While original owner Western Wines did an excellent job in creating and building the brand, it did not have the financial muscle to make it global (Vincor, which bought Western, did not have the brand long enough to make a difference before being acquired itself by Constellation). Nevertheless, there is a suspicion Kumala will not regain the focus it had and if it does not show up in the figures, the corporate bean-counters at Constellation will pull any significant support in what has been an under -performing category.

For Kopp, Racke and KWV this is a huge opportunity. Did he agonise over the move? "Not a second too long of a thought. It is a fantastic opportunity. I studied business administration in the late 1980s and 90s and stayed in New York for a semester - I got the bug and wanted to work at some time in the US: it has different work ethics and California is in such a good mood."

Racke owns the Donum Estate, an ultra premium Pinot Noir-focused producer, and has 81ha of the rolling hills of Carneros, which straddles the southern part of both Napa and Sonoma valleys. An idyllic, indeed inspiring setting for Kopp's attack on the US market.

"We are making real inroads - the best selling SA wine in Virginia and in-store, where promoted, is outselling even well known Australian brands."

E&J Gallo entering the South Africa category with its own Sebeka brand does not faze the perennially-optimistic Kopp. "I clap my hands, applauding Gallo's efforts. They will slam it in with their 1,000-plus sales people and that will draw even more attention to SA from the buyers."

Kopp is concerned about the growth of lesser "critter" brands which, he believes, feed off the major br ands but just clutter the drinks fixture, plus the increasing number of wines with weird and w acky labels that are meant to appeal to the up-and-coming Millennial Generation .

What does he miss from back home? "A bit of the European reliability in business where a deal is a deal. You have occasions in the US where partners tend to forget ..."

And what does he like about the States? "The more spontaneous activity-driven pace: 'Let's get things done.' The positive mood overall and the co-operation: win-win deals. In Europe there is more of: 'How can I cut my opposition's fingers off and get a better deal?' In the US, it is: ' How can we both get some bucks out of the business?'"

Kopp is a boy racer and a ski nut. The States must be heaven for him. "You've got me trapped. I love cars and driving. I enjoy sport driving and I also want the ability to drive and cruise California's back roads and ski areas. And I need to load up the family [wife, three children - six, 16 and 22 - plus a Belgian shepherd dog]. I ended up with what they call a 'crossover' - a mix of sports car and SUV - the Nissan Infiniti. A great car and a homage to my love of Japan.

"A nd I am a ski maniac. It is all about getting ready on a Friday night, cruise to Lake Tahoe and ski the stress out of my body at Squaw Valley."

So Kopp seems to have it made. A country just about big enough for him to pursue his quest of making Golden Kaan a truly global brand, while on his doorstep he has a playground to satisfy his personal interests. Sounds like he has got his life perfectly in balance. A bit like the wines.----=== Marian Kopp CV === l 2006 to date: Deputy chief executive , Racke Group (2006 turnover e140 million ; sales, 4.2 million cases)

l March 2004 to date: President Golden Kaan , the holding company of the Racke and KWV joint venture

l 2002 to date: Member of the executive board of directors, responsible for the international business and PR/ communications

l 1999: Managing director Racke International

l Previously assistant to the executive board of directors; head of customer service organisation and trade marketing; director, sales and key account management

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