Devil's Advocate: Change the Way You Select New Employees

It wasn't the candlemakers who brought us electric light. Why imagine that it will be the wine professionals who are going to save the wine industry?

Reading time: 3m 45s

Robert Joseph with horns
Robert Joseph with horns

Every week, I write a column dedicated to trying to prompt the wine industry to question the way it sees the world and its place in it.

But I have to admit that I’m handicapped in this task. Because, for well over 40 years, I’ve worked in this industry, talking and listening to other people who fit the same description. That kind of talking to ourselves is why we still have a near-monopoly of 75cl bottles, corks and screwcaps and thousands — probably tens of thousands — of businesses that are financially barely sustainable

Far too few of us have listened to the advice of Bertrand Piccard. Who is or was Piccard? A winemaker somewhere in France?

Listen to the psychiatrist

No, Piccard is a psychiatrist and balloonist who, in 2016, with Swiss engineer and jetfighter pilot André Borschberg, did something extraordinary. The two men successfully circumnavigated the globe in a plane that relied on absolutely no fuel.

This endeavour cost $170m and took 13 years, compared to an initial budget of just over a fifth of that sum and half the time. And, with the exception of one French company, Dassault, none of that money or support came from where one might expect: the aviation industry. As Piccard said, “They thought [the idea] was crazy or wouldn’t work.”. Sponsorship came from a shipping company, insurance, telecommunications, watches, elevators — and Moët & Chandon.

As Piccard continued, “It’s quite logical really — it’s not the people who are selling the best candles who invented the lightbulb; it’s other people.”

Henry Ford’s background was not in building horse-drawn carriages; Tesla was not launched by an automobile manufacturer and Nicolas Hayek, the Lebanese businessman credited with saving the Swiss watch industry 40 years ago with his launch of Swatch, had no background in horology. It wasn’t Canon or Nikon that put a camera in all of our pockets. It was Apple.

The switch away from natural corks to TCA-free alternatives was driven by the success in the 1990s of the colourful, Bill Gates-backed, Supreme Corq synthetic closures. The man behind that business, Dennis Burns, had a background making hockey helmets and sunglasses and hit on the idea of injection moulding wine closures after seeing the synthetic bungs that were being used for barrels in California instead of traditional wooden ones. His brand may now be forgotten but, arguably, without the way it shook up the industry, we might not have Diam today.

Who invented the corkscrew?

Looking back into vinous history, while producers and merchants began to use corks to seal bottles once they became widely available, it was a British clergyman called Samuel Henshall who patented the first corkscrew in 1795. Similarly, it was an entrepreneurial, wine-loving German inventor called Carl Wienke to whom we owe the Waiter’s Friend, while the American behind the Screwpull, Herbert Allen (whom I was lucky enough to meet) made his money by devising valves for the oil industry. And then of course there’s Coravin, the brainchild of Greg Lambrecht, whose previous experience was in medical devices.

All of which brings me back to Bertrand Piccard’s simple advice: “Work with people who are completely different to you… If you work with similar people, you will have no added value. You might have a great friendship but no creativity… you will not gain any new knowledge or experience. You will never be able to succeed.”

The people in one’s own circle or industry will reliably offer reasons why any kind of different approach has either been tried before, would be too difficult, or expensive, or in contravention of some kind of immutable regulation.

In my time, I’ve been confidently told (by a very senior Australian industry leader) that there was no export market for premium Australian wine and, (by a similarly senior Frenchman) that ‘vins de cepage’, or varietal wines, were a passing fancy.

I’m pretty sure that Frenchman would also have seen no future in bag-in-box — especially if he’d been told an Australian had stolen the idea from the motor industry where the concept had been devised as a way to package battery acid.

Learn from the luxury companies

One of the strengths of luxury goods companies like LVMH and Richemont — apart from their ambitions, margins and distribution — lies in the diversity of their offering. Clever people responsible for marketing Champagne get to talk and listen to similarly bright colleagues who have to come up with fresh ideas for handbags and watches. And this kind of lateral thinking explains why, unlike the narrow-minded aviation companies, a LVMH brand saw the benefit of being associated with Piccard's and Borschberg's remarkable human achievement. Should the next senior employee you take on come from the wine industry? Why? How successful - in broad terms -  has the company where they worked really been?

While thinking about what I am going to write every week, I read as widely as I can, in search of ideas from outside this industry. But I’m just one voice. What are you doing? How far beyond your professional comfort zone have you strayed? How ready are you to follow Piccard’s advice by working with people with different experience and a different worldview? How eager are you to ‘gain new knowledge and experience’? How much do you really want to succeed?

Note: In the eight years since Piccard’s and Borschberg’s historic flight, small aviation companies in the US  and in China have developed commercial battery-powered light aircraft while this remarkable Chinese vertical-take-off five-seater is due to go into service in 2026. Bertrand Piccard is working on another project.


It wasn't the candlemakers who brought us electric light. Why imagine that it will be the wine professionals who are going to save the wine industry?

Reading time: 3m 45s



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