Lay & Wheeler is one of the UK’s oldest and most established traditional fine wine merchants but in 2016 it was at a crossroads: losing money, and not growing. So when Harvard Business School graduate and wine enthusiast Katy Keating (29 at the time) was given just six months to turn things around, there was no time to lose.
Katy comments: “I realised that Lay & Wheeler had all the right components – a willing team, the best wine producers, loyal customers – but they all needed attention. So I immediately set out to get to know each, embracing the fact that in our business, people are the most important thing.”
Keating knew that it would be a tough act to restore its place as one of the UK’s leading fine wine merchants. Her vision was ambitious: to preserve its heritage and secure future investment to safeguard the business, and at the same time, to reinstate growth.
That vision was founded on engaging those three stakeholder groups: Lay & Wheeler’s team, their wine producers, and their customers.
Katy commments: “The idea was that if we could rejuvenate the team and engage our producers, our customers would benefit – and growth would follow.”
Almost straight away, it started to work: in her first year at the helm, sales grew by 36% and the business reported EBITDA of over £1mil. Over the last four years, Keating has returned Lay &Wheeler to the forefront of its game, now on track for its best year in over a decade, winning awards from Decanter Magazine and the International Wine Challenge along the way.
But it wasn’t all plain sailing. Three years in, Lay & Wheeler’s then-parent company Majestic Wine plc underwent some changes, and Lay & Wheeler came for sale. Fortunately, due to the success of the turnaround, Keating and her team were able to secure new ownership who supported their efforts.
That sale closed in October 2019 to two private families who, as wine lovers themselves, recognised the same potential as the management team, securing not just an independent future for this long-standing merchant, but also investment in its continued growth.
Indeed, Majestic earned a strong profit on the sale of Lay & Wheeler, which was sold for £11.3 million, debt-free (Majestic purchased it for £4.75million in 2009 and took on £1million of debt at that time).
During the sale process, Keating not only managed to save all jobs but has since increased headcount by 25% with nine hires, many made over Zoom during the pandemic, and attracting industry talent.
During the pandemic, Lay & Wheeler, says that like other companies in the online drinks business, it has seen an uplift in sales.