Camparis CEO Bob Kunze-Concewitz

Campari's CEO Bob Kunze-Concewitz

Since breaking out of its Italian roots in the late-1990s, Gruppo Campari has expanded its horizons through a series of acquisitions. Headed by Bob Kunze-Concewitz, the company now sells its 50-plus brands in 190 countries. Here just-drinks' deputy editor, James Wilmore, travelled to Manchester to talk through the company's latest movements with Kunze-Concewitz.

It turns out that Campari's CEO is making a return to Manchester. Bob Kunze-Concewitz, who has been at the helm for the past six-and-half years, studied for an MBA at the English city's business school in the late 1980s. And he seems glad to be back. 

The occasion for this visit is to mark the Italian group's sponsorship of Manchester United Football Club through its liqueur brand Aperol. After a brief appearance during a press conference at the club's training ground, when five of the first-team squad talk awkwardly about how they like to celebrate a win, Kunze-Concewitz joins me for a quick tete-a-tete.

As well as the Aperol tie-up, the timing of our meeting is apt as Campari has also just announced a group restructure. The company is upping its global focus by creating four regional units. So, why now for the shake-up? “It’s just a normal evolution of our business,” says Kunze-Concewitz.

“We have grown tremendously and we have significantly grown our route-to-market, from being essentially a local Italian player to being a true multi-national.” The company has certainly grown in a major way, helped by significant acquisitions, including Wild Turkey, Lascelles deMercado and Skyy Vodka. In addition, from this Spring it will boast standalone distribution networks in 17 countries, while its products are exported to around 190 markets globally.

But, although Campari has enjoyed healthy sales in its financial year-to-date, the group's profits have so far slipped year-on-year. This hit to the bottom-line raises questions about the costs the business faces: The oft-dreaded word “efficiencies” appeared in the company's restructure announcement. 

However, the 46 year-old CEO dismisses my suggestion that the restructure is a cost-saving exercise. “It’s much more about focussing and having clusters, where we can focus on geographies and synergies and share best practice and give more opportunity for our people to grow.” So there won’t be any cuts, I venture. “No, absolutely none,” he says.

After this crunching, midfield dynamo tackle, I decide to approach the gentler topic of Aperol, the reason that I and the rest of the global press pack have been assembled at Manchester United's training facilities. The 95 year-old brand, which Campari acquired around ten years ago, is set for a significant global push, thanks to the tie-up. At the time that just-drinks broke the story last August, Kunze-Concewitz said that the move would give the brand a “very nice boost in terms of visibility”. Now, he says, Campari is at the second stage of growing the brand internationally and the Manchester United deal is part of this. 

The group is also eyeing growth for the brand – and in its usual form as an aperitif, Aperol Spritz - in the US. Last year, the company brought the brand's distribution in the country back in-house after a deal with Palm Bay ended. “This was a natural conclusion”, says Kunze-Concewitz to the deal and the distributor remains its wine partner in the US. Campari's top man praises Palm Bay's efforts, but says the distribution recall is about “taking the brand to the next level”.

“We see a lot of interest from US consumers," he says. "Aperol from a taste perspective, they love it, with its bitter/sweet taste. And, most importantly, it’s also very refreshing, it’s thirst quenching: It’s the only cocktail I know that is actually thirst-quenching.”

While we're in the cocktail arena, we turn our attention to rum. Campari ramped up its interest in the category in late-2012, after taking control of Appleton Estate and Wray & Nephew owner Lascelles deMercado & Co. Analysts described it at the time as as following the “classic” Campari acquisition model of buying “under-managed, ‘dusty’ brands in niche categories and without overpaying”.

The group also took Appleton's distribution in the US in-house around a year ago. But, since then, little has been heard about the brand. “We were always very clear from the start that we’d take the first year, 2013, as a year where we really study the category, the brand, the key markets and then formulate a marketing plan and the changes that will drive the brand through its international expansion,” he says.

“That study period is coming to an end. We’ll use the first half of this year to start acting on those changes and roll them out in the second half of the year.” I push for clues on what these changes might be, but Campari's chief is playing a straight bat.

Kunze-Concewitz, who was born in Turkey but is an Austrian citizen, seems more comfortable talking about the group's Bourbon brand Wild Turkey. And understandably so. With Bourbon's renaissance continuing,  he has every reason to be upbeat. Campari acquired the brand from Pernod Ricard in 2009 for US$575m, and Kunze-Concewitz is clearly smitten.

“Wild Turkey has been a great, great deal for us,” he says. “Even before we did the deal, we had seen Bourbon coming and we’d been trying to get a brand. So, when the Wild Turkey option came up, we were absolutely thrilled.”

He also proudly flags up that the brand was first into the honey-flavoured Bourbon category, with its Wild Turkey American Honey liqueur, launched in 2007. Does the honey trend still have room for growth? “We see it still going,” he says. “Our focus on American honey was not to have an overnight success and crash and burn, but to really build solid foundations for the brand. We’re still seeing very nice growth behind it.”

While we're on the subject of whisk(e)y, I'm keen to ask him about Scotch. As Campari's CEO reminds me, the company already has a couple of brands in its drinks cabinet, in the form of the blend Old Smuggler and single malt Glen Grant (another asset it snaffled off Pernod). However, with several companies rumoured to be circling around Whyte & Mackay, in the wake of Diageo taking control of the Glasgow group's parent company, United Spirits, surely Campari must be having a look? After all, the company has been linked in the past to a possible move.

Kunze-Concewitz, unflustered by my cheeky question, says: “We are linked to all sorts of things. We've done more than 20 deals, so it's part of our DNA, but that doesn't mean we have to do everything that comes up on the market.” 

Does 20 deals sound like a good figure? “I've been on record thousands of times saying we expect half of our growth to come via organic growth and half of our growth to come by acquisitions,” he says. I better leave that one there, then. 

As other reporters await their turn to see Kunze-Concewitz, I squeeze in one more question: What does Campari see as its biggest challenges? “I don’t see it as challenges. I see it as opportunities,” he says. “Our top six franchises - Campari, Aperol, Skyy, Wild Turkey, Appleton, Cinzano - have tremendous global growth opportunities and it’s really about making sure that we remain focussed on those priorities in those top markets and do the brand building.” 

In many ways, then, Campari's prospects appear better than the football team it has just teamed up with.