Established in 2008, Vanguard Luxury Brands is Australia’s leading importer, marketer, and distributor of premium spirits, catering to the best bars, liquor stores, restaurants, and hotels across Australia.
Founder James France is a 30 year veteran of the spirits industry, founding Vanguard with the mission of providing the best spirits brands to the best bars in Australia. This vision is underpinned by a natural progression into supporting the best retailers in Australia with unmatched brands and excellent customer service. Having recently been sold to beer giant Lion, the company operates in all markets of Australia with an award-winning team of spirits professionals. Mr France spoke with us recently about his path into the liquor industry, the issues experienced by spirits distributors in the Australian market, and the recent acquisition by Lion that promises to propel the company to new heights.
“I was working at Unilever originally, and then Philips Electronics,” Mr France explains. “There was an ad in the paper for a Senior Lifestyle Marketer, and I didn’t know what it was. I applied and it turned out to be Senior Brand Manager on Kahlua, with a company called Swift and Moore, which was a very big spirits company in those days.”
Coming into the industry with no liquor experience at all was fairly unusual, as most people in the marketing and especially sales side have come from other parts of the industry and carried their experience and contacts over.
“One way or another, most brands tend to come your way if you stay long enough in the industry, and this job took me to New York, where I worked on J&B scotch over there, and then I moved over to Remy Cointreau.”
An early highlight of Mr France’s career was launching premium brand Don Julio tequila in the United States. During this period, he visited Mexico several times to meet with Don Julio and his family, subsequently falling in love with tequila and agave spirits.
“I came back to Australia in 2000 when my visa ran out, and I realised that there was a real shortage of premium spirits. Australian spirits were very mainstream back then, and I’d been exposed to all these wonderful brands over in the US. Back then there was no such thing as Craft Spirits, but in fact a lot of these brands were what we would today call Craft Spirits.”
After assessing this gap in the Australian market, Mr France began contacting some of the brands he had seen in the US, and saw immediate interest in the idea of a new market, with many brands wanting to know more about his company.
“I thought – I’m really just a guy with a laptop. I really don’t have a company as such. But I quickly set up a company. A lot of it of course is just built on trust and reputation, and I set up this company based on some of the contacts I’d made when I was living in the US.”
One of the contacts he pitched to was a large tequila brand that loved the pitch, but were reluctant to go with a start-up. Other brands, however, took the leap of faith to join Mr France’s growing portfolio.
“We import products on an exclusive basis and do all the sales and marketing for them around Australia. We really do build the brands based on those sorts of relationships. The more successful you get, the more companies knock on your door, wanting to be distributed by you.”
One area of the business that Mr France believes remains uneven is the level of taxation for spirits in comparison to other alcoholic beverages. In 2010, the Henry tax review said that alcohol should be taxed on standard drinks, however there are discrepancies depending on the alcohol involved.
“For example, wine is taxed on value. You can buy a $3 bottle of wine, and the tax that you’re spending per standard drink is 7-10 cents per drink, whereas if you buy a bottle of spirits, you’re spending $1 per standard drink on tax. We’re spending up to ten times what a cheap wine company would be spending on the same amount of alcohol.”
Mr France is adamant that the government must step in and equalise this discrepancy, which will even the playing field and help the burgeoning spirits industry currently being held back by the scale of these taxes.
“If the spirits industry becomes more affordable for people, then that helps the farmers, it helps everybody across the board in the industry. So it will actually create jobs, and will make it a much fairer and more responsible playing field. The Australian Distillers Association is lobbying the government very seriously on this, and I hope they’re successful in the long run.”
The best brands for the best bars
In late 2021, Vanguard was acquired by Australasian alcohol beverage giant Lion, which has for many years been one of the two companies in a duopoly of the Australian beer industry, the other company being iconic Aussie brand Carlton & United.
“It’s really those two powerhouses, and they are enormous companies with thousands and thousands of employees. The market is changing now, with larger independent breweries entering the business and diluting that duopoly somewhat, but ultimately it’s still up to two very large companies.”
In early 2018, Mr France was contacted by Lion about getting into the spirits industry, which had identified craft and premium spirits as a big opportunity. They enquired about whether he was interested in selling the company.
“The company was doing very well, and with our flagship brand Four Pillars Gin the expectations kept increasing the more successful we got. I got to a point where I really needed some serious muscle to back the company and take us to that next level.”
After looking closer into the business, Lion recognised the potential in Four Pillars also, and subsequently made similar overtures into purchasing the brand. After successful meetings, Lion is closing in on purchasing both companies, taking a commitment to Australian spirits very seriously.
“Four Pillars is obviously our biggest brand, Australian gin. It’s got about 50% of the Australian gin market share now. We have a really big focus on other Australian brands, like Strangelove Sodas, Gospel Whiskey, Morris Whiskey, Crawley’s Syrups, Marionette Liqueurs. We’ve got a few absolutely gorgeous import brands – we love Michter’s American Whiskeys and Fortaleza Tequila and all associated brands there.”
With seven whiskeys from across the world, including two from Australia, six agave spirits – four tequilas and two mezcals – as well as several liqueurs, Vanguard has an extremely well-rounded portfolio to address all customer needs.
“I based the portfolio on a very simple strategy that I stuck to like glue over the years, and that is ‘the best brands for the best bars’. That has really helped us stay on focus and carve out a niche for ourselves in the market.”
The key difference between Vanguard and its competitors comes down to two factors – the portfolio and the people. Mr France is well aware that these two issues are usually the most defining in the market.
“To be very immodest, we have the best portfolio in Australia,” he says. “People in the trade are gobsmacked by what a wonderful portfolio it is, and we back that up with fantastic people. People that you really want to work with. We take the business seriously, but we don’t always take ourselves so seriously, and that works very well for us.”
This success has resulted in industry recognition, with the company receiving the Australian Liquor Industry Award (ALIA) for ‘on-premise supplier of the year’ – on-premise being bars and restaurants rather than retail – in three of the last six years.
“On-premise is the one where brands are built, so to be regarded by the industry as being the best in Australia is something we’re very proud of. We really want to hang onto that positioning in the top-end of the on-premise market as being the company to go to when putting together a premium on-premise portfolio.”
The introduction of Lion has forwarded this desire even more, with the company beginning to move beyond its core pillar of ‘the best brands for the best bars’ and positioning itself as ‘Australia’s number one house of craft and premium spirits’.
“It’s a wonderful industry,” Mr France concludes, “and I’m so glad to be seeing such wonderful Australian brands that are being locally and globally recognised across the board. It’s a very exciting time.”
With its impressive portfolio of Australian and imported spirits, and the backing of beer giant Lion helping take the company to the next level, Mr France’s business has proven itself to be quite a gem. Find out more about Vanguard Luxury Brands by visiting www.vanguardluxurybrands.com.au.