Investing in local people and resources has brought Lawrence A. Duprey into the world of Caribbean rum and Angostura bitters. Now he’s buying up distribution to spread his brands globally, says Charlotte Hey
LAWRENCE A. Duprey, executive chairman of CL Financial Limited, the holding company for CL World Brands, winces visibly at the mention of a latemorning pink gin as the apogee for one of his best known brands, Angostura bitters.
"Frankly that whole image is a little bit dated," he politely insists. "We realise that Angostura is one of those brands that tends to be stuck in the corner of the bar gathering dust. I think of it as an old lady sitting in a long skirt.
"Our job," he says, perking up visibly, "is to dust her off, put her in a miniskirt and get her dancing again. It is one of our challenges." So, essentially, Duprey, who heads a company worth some US$1 billion, wants to stick my granny in a miniskirt? "Not quite.
But we want to give Angostura a new image and we want to make it an international brand. It’s what we want to do with rum too. We want to internationalise the brands we have."
With that in mind, Duprey and his company have had something of an acquisition splurge over the last few years, much of it concentrating on the distribution side of the business, culminating in the purchase of Paragon Vintners last year.
"When you are manufacturers, the only way to leverage and promote your products and brands is by owning the distribution facility so that you can reach and understand the consumer better. Distribution enables you to come into direct contact with the consumer, giving you, the brand owner, invaluable feedback into the progress and development of the brand.
Distribution capability in my opinion affects every aspect of brand management from design and packaging to on-shelf availability. It enables you to be truly market-driven. We own our distribution in France, the Caribbean and in Switzerland.
When we found out that Paragon was available it seemed the perfect opportunity to get involved in distribution in the UK and be more effective in achieving our objectives." How crucial is the UK to CL though? Surely the US is the key market, particularly when it comes to the spirits brands.
"The UK market is nearer to home than the US market in cultural, legal and heritage terms," ays Duprey, "But we have a good presence in the US market through a shareholding we have with the company Tod Hunter that markets the Cruzan rum brands."
Certainly the UK seems to have warranted a large amount of the company’s attention over the last couple of years. The Paragon purchase came on the back of its acquisition of Burn Stewart – an acquisition that, combined with the company’s pick-up of Hine the year before, confirmed its desire to be a player in the spirits market.
"We turned our attention to other spirits in order to build a portfolio that could be properly represented in the market place," explains Duprey in very matter-of-fact terms. "We felt that the Burns Stewart proposition made sense because there was so much in their grouping of brands.
By concentrating on the marketing techniques employed and taking a fresh look at their positioning we see a great opportunity – a platform from which we can grow and develop within the global spirits sector."
Duprey’s desire for his company to be seen as a global player in the drinks market is obvious. But given the competition out there, especially in the established form of Diageo and Allied, is it possible for CL to achieve his clearly ambitious target? "I think so," says Duprey.
"As a company, we think globally but grow regionally. When you analyse the market, no one single spirit brand, with the possible exception of Johnnie Walker, is truly global. So you have to work on a regional level.
What we bring to the table is the ability to think globally but act locally and, dependent upon the brand proposition, we can apply our global capability or our local expertise, whichever suits best. It is a blend of skills that I believe gives us a competitive advantage in the market place.
"The spirits category as a whole is not growing exponentially at the moment. I think if we are going to grow, we have to try to grow the category as a whole. For us as a company we combine organic growth with product development, and our acquisitions simply strengthen that."
Given the diverse business interests that CL has – from petrochemicals through drinks brands to insurance – has it been something of a challenge to move into a relatively closed and insular market like the drinks sector?
"Actually, if you look at our other interests from a purely marketing perspective, I think there’s a lot of advantages and significant benefits that we bring to the party. My own particular skill, for instance, is in building sales forces.
The sales force in the Caribbean, per capita, is one of the most productive sales forces in the world – in terms of insurance that is. I feel if we organised our drinks sales force in the same way as we organise our insurance sales force we could be very effective.
After all, insurance is a people business – which is exactly the same as the drinks industry. "Some of the management techniques we use in our other companies and the way we measure results can also be easily applied to our drinks portfolio.
Whatever it is you are selling you depend on human beings to go and deliver your message, and how that message is delivered depends on how you train them. We tend to use one-on-one contact – a lot of confidence building and a lot of word of mouth.
We feel that the same techniques could be used in the drinks side of our business and would enable us to develop an effective marketing strategy. It’s an expensive way of teaching consumers, but then you don’t get anything that’s good cheaply.
People are core to our business plans. We are a very multicultural company that has been very successful in cross-fertilizing within the company. "We are trying to build a different business culture than others that are practised within the drinks sector, and despite the diversity of our business it is working.
We do leave the management of each of the individual companies very much in the hands of the people we trust. They have the guidelines for where the company should be going, but essentially after that we rely on them to simply get on with the job."
Talking to Duprey, you get the feeling that people are very important to him, even if it’s simply because he regards them as his best business asset. In the Caribbean, CL Financial Limited is one of the major job providers and it’s a responsibility he takes very seriously.
"Our underlying philosophy is to invest back into the natural resources of the countries we work in. By investing back into the business we own, we create jobs that are better than average and bring, we hope, an improvement to the lives of the people who have been good enough to dedicate themselves to the companies and brands we own.
"We got into rum, because it is one of the natural resources of Trinidad and Tobago, and we were attracted to the drinks industry because it is a major resource in the Caribbean region. So it seemed logical to invest."
The same logic, however, probably doesn’t apply to wine. Can he see the company investing heavily in this sector as well as in spirits? "We have an open mind about wine. It is a difficult category to make money out of, but you can out of some products such as Champagne, which are heavily brand-oriented.
So certain categories are on the radar screen for us, but again it really depends very much on the opportunities that arise. "Turnover for us is building through both organic growth and acquisitions.
For the foreseeable future we see ourselves continuing down the acquisition route, but it’s going to be a dual effort as our plans include a lot of product innovation with significant investment being set aside for the development of our brands.
And with that in mind we have brought in people to the business who are very familiar with brand building. The team will create organic growth within each brand portfolio and essentially as acquisition opportunities present themselves we will be making the most of those."
With a billion dollar business under his belt, you could never accuse Duprey of being a man of the people – but he does seem quite attached to them. And for a serial acquisition junkie, hat’s quite a rarity.
Lawrence A. Duprey, executive chairman of C L Financial Limited, spent his early life in Canada and the United States. He worked with a global engineering company where he gained experience in project management as well as in mergers and acquisitions.
He returned to Trinidad to assist in the turnaround of Colonial Life Insurance Company (Trinidad) Limited. In 1998, on the death of the then founder and chairman, Cyril Duprey, Lawrence Duprey was appointed chairman.
Since he has been with the company, it has grown to have more than eight billion Trinidad dollars in assets (over US$1 billion).