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The Finnish Monopoly

The job of an Export Director takes you to all corners of the world. Many are exciting cities where you are guaranteed to have a blast. Hong Kong, Singapore, London, Paris, New York, well, you try and get your work done in-between the riotous good times. Unfortunately, Helsinki was not on the list of my favorite destinations.

Cold, grey, depressed, and in serious need of modernization. It didn’t seem like much progress had been made since World War 2. Perhaps it was because I always seemed to go in the depths of winter when the place resembled scenes out of a Jason Bourne movie shot in neighboring Russia.

The best part of Finland was the Finns themselves. They seemed very keen on washing down Crus Classes with a few shots of vodka and some raucous laughter in a dimly lit tavern with a blizzard blanketing the city outside.

To penetrate the market we held a tasting of some very fine wines at the smartest hotel in Helsinki, which was anything but fancy. We invited the media, as usual, and some of the key restaurant buyers. But frankly the whole event was put on to attract the one person that counted; the Buyer for the state-run Monopoly called the Alko.

Just like in Sweden and Norway, and almost all of Canada, the government runs the alcohol business in Finland. It is the opposite of a free market. And just to be clear, I’m totally against it, despite having many friends who work for various Monopolies. Friendship has nothing to do with it.

To explain why in a paragraph is like trying to explain why I believe capitalism is better than communism in a few words. Good thing there’s space to elaborate when we get to those other countries. But here’s one key reason strictly from the perspective of a winery: If the Monopoly Buyer does not purchase your product then you basically have no other options, and so you’re out of the market. And hat’s just wrong because one person should not decide your fate. There is too much power in the hands of one single Buyer for your country or region’s wines.

In other markets a winery can go and speak to alternative importers if his products are rejected by the most desirable company. You can shop around different companies, and potentially you can have multiple importers selling different lines of your portfolio. Some may focus on retail, others on restaurants, maybe you have a mail order company in there, maybe a bulk wine buyer too, or you can break a country up by region and give exclusivity in geographical areas. In the UK we had at least 20 different importers.

But in Finland, if the Alko Buyer didn’t like your wines, or you, then ciao baby. Try your luck in Sweden. Fortunately for me a young, wine knowledgeable MBA chap strode in and introduced himself with an Alko business card. Kate Moss had arrived. Everybody else instantly became a second class citizen. We discussed, tasted, and when he took a liking to one of our wines I went for the jugular and pointed to the chateau on the label, and told him that the top left window was my bedroom. How could he say no?

The bonus of the Monopoly is that once you manage to get listed the volumes can be very large, and you tend to stay listed for a long time, provided you make the sales quota. So effectively it can be a very short 1 day trip to the market. See your agent, go together and see the Alko Buyer, have dinner, a few shots of vodka and then warm up in the sauna before getting outta there first thing in the morning.