Forging ahead in the wine trade


By AGATHA MATAYUN

ANYONE who loves wine will have noticed the vast improvement in the availability of this tipple in Malaysia over the past few years. In fact, such is the growth of the local business in wine that supermarkets from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu and Kuching are now allocating special areas just for it, and dedicated outlets are also mushrooming in major population centres. 

Just why this is happening is anyone's guess, but one of the reasons could be the good press that red wine has been getting from the scientific community of late. It is touted to be good for health, the claim being that moderate intake protects against heart attacks and strokes. 

But it could also be due to the concerted efforts of those in the industry, like David Lim, who are making wine not only ubiquitous but also affordable as they source stocks from all over the world to put on their shelves. In short, they are striving to build up wine as a lifestyle beverage in this country.  

And if Lim, 33, has his way, the word “Denise” will be synonymous with wine in Malaysia, just as Proton is with cars, or Petronas with oil. “I want it to be that when people here think of wine, they will think 'Denise',” he explains. 

Named after his firstborn daughter, Denise is Lim's company in the wine retailing business and was started in May 2001. When it opened at its SS2, Petaling Jaya outlet, it certainly wasn't the first dedicated wine shop to be set up in Malaysia. One in particular had been established about three years earlier, and it was where Lim seemed to have cut his teeth in the wine retailing business. 

Not caring to talk too much about that part of his business life, Lim says with a shrug that it came to a point when he just felt he could make it on his own. 

WHAT'S IN A NAME: Lim is aiming to make Denise synonymous with wine in Malaysia.

Considering that he wasn't even a wine drinker until later in life, beer being his preference during his college days in the United States, Muar-born Lim has built up a considerable knowledge of wine and the industry since he became involved in it.  

“Four and a half years ago, my knowledge was zero,” he admits. “My wife actually forced me to drink wine when I met her six years ago. When we went to restaurants, she would have wine.” 

His life story so far paints a person who is gung-ho about taking on any challenge that life throws his way. Among the things he has done is work in a pub in Johor Baru and in a casino in the former Soviet Union. 

After finishing secondary school in Johor, Lim was sent by his father to the US to study medicine. He says it wasn't really his chosen field but he signed up for a Pre-Med course just to please his father, a businessman who ran a pharmacy in Muar. The senior Lim had expected all his eight children to take up either pharmacy or medicine, and would not have allowed his son to go to the US if he had not agreed to pursue a medical degree. 

At the same time, Lim also took up a course in Management, and was to complete this later, having given up on Pre-Med. On hindsight, that was probably a good decision as his career thereafter came to depend on his management skills. People who know the family will associate it with the health supplement brand name Thompson, and this was where Lim honed his management and marketing skills while helping his brother build up that company.  

During the financial crisis of the late 1990s, Lim says, he felt he had to go out on his own and that was when the wine retail business beckoned.  

A press release on Denise declares that he has a burning passion for wine. The fact is he is business-minded about it. Since he set up the company, he has been on his toes almost 24 hours a day, seven days a week organising promotional events, seminars and workshops, travelling abroad to source for new stock or attend wine exhibitions, planning advertising campaigns, and generally thinking of new concepts that would further develop Denise's potential.  

He says he has been talking so much about wine that he had to undergo an operation for a throat problem recently. “Too much talking,” he quips.  

Among the names he stocks are Maxwell, Woodstock, Andrew Garett, Robert Estate, Condrieu, Saute Helene, and Moss Brothers. About 60% of his stock is sourced from Australia, and he has good reasons for this.  

“A lot of Malaysians are now being educated in Australia, and they would have been familiar with the wine there,” he says. “Furthermore, with the knowledge that we have gained, we are very confident in endorsing wines from Australia, which are so much more predictable. You pay a medium price range but you know what to expect. With French wine, it's quite unpredictable. Some might surprise, others may disappoint.”  

Recently, Lim received authority to sell wine bottles under the label Denise and Dionne, and this is now the thrust of his marketing. The Denise label involves three types of wine from South Australia, two of which are red (Denise) and the other is white (Dionne).  

The measure of Denise's success can be seen in the number of outlets that has opened since May 2001. As of this month, 15 Denise outlets are now in place, with one being in Kuching, Sarawak. The expansion has been achieved with the creative strategy of either offering dealerships or buying over other wine shops that were not doing well, admits Lim. “Like the outlet in Desa Sri Hartamas, we took over because it hadn't been doing very well. It's a lot of merging. If not, we would not have expanded to what we are now.” 

Lim will be the first to admit that the wine retail business has its occupational hazards, the main one being that it is very seasonal. Chinese New Year and end of the year are the busiest periods, he says. “The rest of the year, we have to work very hard to maintain a decent volume in sales.” 

This is when he falls back on his marketing prowess, holding wine tasting promotions and conducting talks on the benefits of wine drinking. 

There's also a hangout for customers at Denise in SS2. Called David's Bar, it hosts a gathering every Wednesday evening for customers who have signed up as members of the Denise wine club. “They are also my guinea pigs,” Lim says. “I bring in a new wine and I let them try. If they like it, then I will make an order.” 

Lim seems to be keeping count of the number of days since Denise was first set up. “Two years, three months. That's 732 days,” he says at the time of this interview. Maybe it's because he is so hands-on in the business that he can do this, working from early morning till late evening on such things as deciding the next advertising campaign. 

“I worked hard last year, and promised myself I'd take it easy this year. But now I am busier this year. The business is quite personalised. It's really, really up to you to make it succeed.” 

But he still has time for his two daughters, whom he jokingly refers to as his chairman and managing director. He regards playing with them as his way to relax, and takes the family shopping or for a drive to Johor Baru. 

Wine drinking is not yet part of Malaysian culture like it is in France. But with retailers like Lim pushing to make it a lifestyle beverage, it could in the not too distant future become integral to the dining culture of non-Muslim Malaysians.  

No wonder then that Malaysia, along with Singapore and Hong Kong, are now considered as the most discerning wine markets in Asia, with Japan growing in importance.  

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