The power of a story

As the largest listed wine company in the world, Treasury Wine Estates boasts over 80 wine brands within its ranks. Andrew O’Brien, the organisation’s General Manager for Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East and Africa, says the company aims to be a passionate storyteller for each of its distinctive products.

Tell me about yourself. How did you find yourself in the wine industry?

I probably ended up in this industry through my family history. I was born in country New South Wales in Australia but I moved to Adelaide when I was about eight years old and I ended up studying there.

South Australia is the home of the Barossa Valley and McLaren Vale wine growing districts.

My parents have a passionate love of wine and I think it all started from there. One of my great passions after coming out of college was enjoying wine; so I coupled that passion with a job in the industry.

I started off with a company called Rémy Martin which is a very famous French firm that looks after champagnes and cognacs. I started off with them in a sales role and then went into a marketing role in South Australia and continued from there.

What is your leadership style?

I see myself as a very collaborative leader. I am very focused on culture; something that is very important to me and certainly to this business. I like to think that I set a good example for my employees and that I create a fairly positive environment here. That is also very important here in Asia in particular.

It is fair to say that I am also very driven and competitive. If you ask people what they’d say about me, being driven and competitive are certainly two of those things.

How would your employees describe you?

I would like to think that they would also say I am approachable. As you can see in the office, I have an open door and encourage a flat structure.

We are not a huge business here; there are only about 40 people in the office. I think my staff would say I am quite positive and that I am able to have a laugh and an enjoyable time at work.

At the end of the day, we work in the wine industry. We do not get up every morning to save lives. What we do is make, market and sell great products which people enjoy.

How would you describe the culture of the wine industry?

It is a funny business because ultimately, it is agricultural. To make wine, you need to grow grapes; you need to then ferment those grapes; and you need to bottle them.

From there, we then take those products, which are made in many countries, and we really market them and bring them to life through branding. Our job is to really build brands, particularly here in Asia. I suppose at the very core of it, we are storytellers. Our job is to really tell the stories of these great brands, and there are some amazing stories.

Treasury Wine Estates employs more than 3,500 people around the world in four regions. What are some key HR challenges for the organisation?

I came here about four years ago and I think the main challenge for us has been that Treasury Wine Estates itself isn’t necessarily an “employer of choice” in Asia.

People know our brands. So, when you say Penfolds, Wolf Blass or Beringer, people will say they know those brands. But, they don’t know that the owner behind those brands is Treasury Wine Estates.

Our first challenge is better establishing ourselves an employer of choice in Asia. The other challenge is getting great local talent. We have found it increasingly hard, particularly here in Singapore and in the region. I think these are the two big HR challenges.

Why do you think it is tough to get local talent?

To be honest, we often struggle with this. In fact, we recently had a meeting with the Economic Development Board (EDB) to discuss what we need to do to overcome the issue, as well as other opportunities. Trying to find talent, particularly in marketing, sales, finance and HR, is actually proving to be quite difficult.

However, it is something we haven’t given up on and we are working with EDB and recruiters because ultimately, we feel that it is better if we can get local resources into the company. As an organisation, we have grown significantly. With 3,500 employees  worldwide; our market capitalisation is nearly AUD$6.9 billion and we are a top 50-listed company in Australia.

We are also now the largest listed wine company globally. This business here in Singapore was in a much smaller office in Newton four years ago and since then, we have tripled our size in terms of people. Finding the right local talent is something that we are certainly committed to as we continue to grow.

How does your organisation navigate around the different cultural aspects in the regions?

I think this is probably one of our specialities. The region that we work in here (Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa) has a multiplicity of markets. What we’ve been very good at is exactly in this aspect of managing cultural differences.

To start with, we have about 45 people around the region who come from 16 different countries. Hence, we ourselves are very culturally diverse.

From there, it is about making sure we have the right people to advise us and the right people on the ground to work with. It also requires a lot of homework and understanding of legal, cultural, and even religious issues.

It is something I think we have grown a pretty good muscle for.

How would you describe your company culture?

From a corporate point of view, it is about being collaborative, positive and focused.

Certainly here in the region and across the business, we are very respectful but very competitive at the same time.

We are very big on collaboration and we have to be, given the diversity of the organisation. We have very big ambitions to grow in this office, this region and in Asia, and our growth trajectory is significant.

We really create a very positive environment for everyone to excel and grow. Going back to the point of not being too serious, instead of having a reception area like a normal corporate organisation would have, we have a wine bar!

We like to have a little bit of fun too, because it is a great product and it is about being social and having an enjoyable time trying out the different brands.

We try to create a culture where there is an opportunity to have a bit of a laugh and to spend some time together.

How do you interact with your staff?

I interact on many levels. From a base point of view, we have a number of communication vehicles.

That can be as simple as a monthly newsletter that I send out to the team to give everybody an update, since we are quite spread out between Africa, the Middle East or different parts of Southeast Asia. It is something that is penned by me in a very relaxed manner just to keep everyone updated about what is happening in the region. I travel a lot, so I often write about what I’ve seen on my travels.

We also have organised town halls as another communication vehicle to get all of the team together, whether be it in person, on the phone or through video links. That’s also to update all employees on what is going on corporately, globally and what the business is up to. At the same time, we also share some wins, some opportunities, and some celebrations with the team.

On top of that, we also have bar sessions. On Thursdays and Fridays, we like to open up the wine bar and I take it as a personal opportunity to spend some time with everyone in the team. I think it is a great time to be in a relaxed and social environment where we can get a feel about what’s happening with the team.

What kind of career progression programmes do you have in place?

We have a centralised HR function based out of Australia. Within that are some fantastic programmes.

We have an amazing leadership framework and development programme that has been organised and it is now up to us to embed it into each of our regions.

The thing I like about it is that it really gives our employees control over their own development. It is very much based around how we and our employees use that to drive their careers. It really empowers them to take ownership of their careers.

In addition to that, we have recently embarked on a programme using an external firm which we’ve called “Veraison”. That considers our top 40 high-potential talents globally who are seen as the next senior leaders of our organisation. We bring them together three times over the space of nine months and work through individualised programmes over who they are, and what can make them a better person, which will therefore make them better leaders.

What is the most challenging aspect of your role?

I think it is the multiplicity of markets. There are just so many different countries, continents, and consumers with different set of laws, market entry regulations and levels of maturity. That’s probably the piece which is exciting because that means we’ve got to be agile, entrepreneurial and we’ve got to do things quite differently.

As much as it is probably the most challenging thing, it is also the most exciting. I think that’s what attracts great people here too, because there is never a boring moment. You’re always doing something different with a different country and market.

One of the exciting things for us right now is that we’ve taken on the African region and we haven’t really had a very established business there at all. We’re embarking on opening up 15 different countries in Africa.

But just as exciting is working in a mature market such as Singapore, with many more mature wine consumers.

What is your top tip for aspiring leaders?

Be authentic. Be willing to have the difficult conversations and don’t steer away from that. Having difficult and courageous conversations is really important in this day and age.

You should also stay true to your beliefs.

Bio Brief

With over 20 years of experience in the global drinks industry, Andrew O’Brien began his career with TWE when he first joined Southcorp Wines as a Fine Wine Ambassador in 1994.

Since then, he has held various senior leadership roles including General Manager of Southcorp’s Fine Wine Division in Australia, General Manager of the Fosters Group based in New Zealand and General Manager of Sales for TWE Australia.

In 2012, O’Brien was appointed the General Manager of South East Asia, India, Japan and Korea and has been based in Singapore to manage, grow and develop the South Asian, South East Asian, Korean and Japanese markets.

He has earned a solid reputation and outstanding track record in nurturing strategic business partnerships and fostering long-term sustainable growth in emerging market conditions which to date, has seen his team and business almost triple in size.

As a result, O’Brien has also now expanded his geographical focus to also include the markets of Middle East and Africa.

 

Balancing wine with sport

It’s not all about wine at Treasury Wine Estates. The company also engages in internal sports activities independently organised by its employees, says Andrew O’Brien, General Manager of Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East, and Africa at Treasury Wine Estates.

“For example, there  is tennis Tuesdays, badminton Wednesdays, and running Thursdays. These sports activities which are organised by our internal “social club” have become embedded into our culture,” he explains.

So, which sports has O’Brien signed up for?

“I’m a bit of a tennis player so I join in on tennis Tuesdays,” he says.

“I’m not a runner; so I don’t do running with the guys on Thursdays. In fact, I’ve now just started taking up badminton on Wednesdays with the group.”

 

Me  Myself  I

I love: Spending time with people across all aspects of my life - family, professionally, and socially

I dislike: Lost opportunities. I pride myself on my negotiation skills and believe a win/win is almost always possible if you hang in long enough and listen well

My inspiration is: My uncle who sadly passed away too early. He was a dynamic and charismatic man who inspired me to join the hospitality industry at a young age

My biggest weakness is: I’m a man occasionally prone to excess. I’ve had to watch my consumption over the years of all things gastronomic!

In five years’ time, I’d like to be: At the top of my game but at the same time having achieved a better work/life/health balance

Favourite quote: “Wine should be taken frequently and not seriously” – Anonymous. It’s such a great quote, and I wish I knew who the source was!

 

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