Hot shot chief vodka bloke
Saturday September 30, 2006
By Michele Hewitson
For two days this week the 42 Below website read: “We are totally f***ing loaded.” This was a statement of the obvious - it was also an obvious thing for the company to do.
Gloating, showing off, or, as Geoff Ross, the bloke who founded the company and who is now totally loaded would prefer, taking the piss is what 42 Below is very good at. “We’ve won more awards than you’ve had hot women,” is one of 42 Below’s previous boasts.
So when Bacardi buys your little vodka company, the one you started in a shed in a Wellington garden, for $138 million, you’re going to shout about it. And the first question I have to ask Ross is: “How totally f***ing loaded are you?”
If I’d been asked to guess what Ross would be like, particularly the day after he announced the sale, I would have guessed hyperactive, fast-talking, extroverted. I would also have guessed badly hungover: the press conference was in a bar, with cocktails and, presumably, lashings of hype.
In the lobby of the company’s HQ in Penrose - Penrose, for heaven’s sake! - is a large poster announcing that “We have to kill all our staff every six weeks”. A blond chick wanders through in little shorts and jandals. There is a bar in what passes for the reception area. How … wacky.
We are given a cocktail, made by Jacob. I am slightly confused about what Jacob’s job is. I thought it might be making cocktails on demand.
“No,” says Ross, “he has a proper job.” This job has a proper title. It is “the vodka professor” and it involves going around the world running sessions called “vodka university”.
This, says Ross, is “one of our genius marketing approaches. We don’t sell our brand. We don’t go ‘taste this, it’s crap. Taste this, it’s ours, it’s brilliant.’ We rave about every vodka and its distinct character.”
And this genius approach makes money … how exactly?
“Well, because at the end of it, it has the reverse kind of effect. Bartenders love our honesty and they love the tone of Jacob and in return they give us loyalty. They love us for not trying to be the corporate salespeople.”
Which is exactly what they are being. “Yeah.” How sneaky. “Not at all.”
No, of course not. It is genius and Ross’ brand of genius has made him, "well, according to the Herald this morning … Aah, well, I guess early 30s is the personal gain but I’m trying not to dwell on that … "
He means that what he will get once the deal is accepted by the shareholders is about $30 million. If most other people said that you would think, “what a modest fellow”, and rather like him for it.
But all I can think is that this guy’s just made $30 million, he’s got a skite-line running across his website about how he’s loaded, and it’s like interviewing Eeyore. In response to the “more awards than you’ve had hot women” line he says, “I haven’t had that many hot women, other than my wife, of course.” He doesn’t - another disappointment - have a hangover. He didn’t even have a late night.
“Did you have a good time last night?” I ask, and he responds, “Aah, well, yeah. We went out with Bacardi … and we gave them a piece of pounamu and welcomed them to New Zealand … We did a formal little Maori welcome and made them feel special.”
This is very culturally proper but not quite what you might expect from a company that once ran a competition to win a Russian bride. As for that “loaded” line, Ross says, “I’m slightly nervous about that, slightly nervous about what Bacardi will say when they see that.”
Surely Bacardi knows exactly what it’s buying, and a large part of what it’s buying is cheek? “Oh, they do, they do. But I guess that’s just a direct reference to their payment so that’s slightly more sensitive.”
He insists nothing will change, at least in terms of the company’s reputation for irreverent marketing. The next day the line has gone from the website. I call Ross and ask if he chickened out. “No,” he says, “that’s the gag of a couple of days ago.”
Which, for a marketing man who prides himself on doing the unexpected, is exactly what you’d expect him to say.
In every other way he is just what you wouldn’t expect. His public persona is, really, the personality of the company: brash, confrontational, with a liking for controversy. Like any marketing campaign, the public Ross is a creation. When he is being the face of the company he’s the guy who likes a scrap.
“A lot of corporates shy away if there is a bit of controversy that breaks in the media. The general PR rule of thumb is to go to ground, to pull back and make no comment. We do the reverse, we try to lob a grenade back, try to flare it up.”
The real Ross never drinks at home, is hopeless at schmoozing, is, actually, shy and retiring. “I kind of am … I avoid controversy and I avoid confrontation. You can ask my wife. I run from any kind of confrontation, I’ll just back off. I’m a Cancer sign. If you take much notice of star signs, they tend to go into their shell and head home and keep quiet.”
His views on how to market something “are probably different to most marketers. Most marketers are in their role not to f*** up the brand. They’re trying to protect it, whereas I think that you can’t build something in defensive mode. So I think we’re quite different. We want to take risks.”
I don’t know how different he is, really. He talks that marketing talk about “the dream” and “the culture”. His company doesn’t have sales reps, it has “ambassadors”. Nobody has titles, except for “kind of nickname titles”. His is Chief Vodka Bloke. This is all marketing wank. “No, it’s culture and I think culture is the most valuable asset any organisation has.”
This means believing in "what we can create, you know, believe in our mission. Mission’s a shocking corporate word but … "
It’s vodka, I say. “Yeah, but what a fantastic thing to believe in!”
He’s quite right. It’s not vodka, he’s selling. It’s something else, something cool but not because “as soon as you say cool, it’s not cool - we call it schmick”. And schmick is? “A better word than cool.”
Who decides what is schmick? “I think the minute you say it’s schmick, it’s not schmick.”
This is one of the loonier conversations I have had with an interview subject. It all seems to make perfect sense to him and at least he’s cheered up now we’ve stopped talking about the money.
He wasn’t meant to spend his career talking about things schmick. He was meant to be a farmer. He grew up on his parent’s farm in Paparimu and “went to varsity because I got bored milking cows and I couldn’t stand getting up in the morning. I went to Massey and did an agriculture degree thinking I could do something farming-related that wouldn’t require me to get up so early.”
Part of his degree was marketing and his last week at university he went to Saatchi & Saatchi on a field trip. He liked it and what he liked most was “a large salary”. And getting involved in the fun stuff, which was marketing.
He had eight years at Saatchi during which time, despite the fun stuff, he became more frustrated by clients who “would go, ‘oh, it’s too risque, it’s too controversial’. So when I started my own company I thought, ‘I can never be like my clients’.”
He says he has always been ambitious and ambition means “doing something big. I think it might be a childhood thing. I was quite ambitious as a child”. What on earth can he have been ambitious for as a child? “Money. Well, I sold eels at the Otara flea market or skinned possums. I was always trying to make a bit of money.”
He could probably sell skinned possums to vegetarians for their tea. He could talk a load of nonsense and end up making a load of money.
This is exactly what he’s done and is, I guess, a reasonable definition of understanding schmick.