The Alchemy Of Vietnam’s Drinks Business With Kristian Harmston | Vietcetera
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Aug 31, 2020

The Alchemy Of Vietnam’s Drinks Business With Kristian Harmston

Kristian Harmston, Founder of Alchemy Wines & Spirits Asia, on how he manages a company that distills the best from global trends.

The Alchemy Of Vietnam’s Drinks Business With Kristian Harmston

Kristian Harmston. | Source: Co Nguyen for Vietcetera.

The Vietnamese drinks landscape is unrecognizable today compared with a decade ago. From shifting consumer preferences leading to the emergence of premium local brands to boutique breweries booming on a wave of craft beer popularity, there’s been a groundswell of innovation.  

One of Southeast Asia’s leading alcoholic beverage distributors, Alchemy Asia has been shaping Vietnam’s drinks landscape since the company’s founding in 2013. 

In his interview for Vietcetera’s “How I Manage” series, Kristian Harmston, Group Managing Partner and Founder of Alchemy Wines & Spirits Asia, tells us about building a company that distills the best from the global trends while forging a unique path in Vietnam’s drinks industry.

What inspired you to found Alchemy Wines & Spirits Asia?

Around ten years ago, the drinks distribution industry in Vietnam was an open opportunity. At the time, I was working as a regional head for a leading beverage multinational across Southeast Asia, but constantly found barriers in finding strong professional distributors. 

In my previous dealings with Vietnam and our business here I was always intrigued by Vietnam and the way people celebrated and enjoyed life with a positive and confident mindset. I fed off that and it suited my style personally, and I also believed it made Vietnam a very attractive market to enter for drinks! I began thinking about how to put Vietnam’s wine and spirits distribution industry on a stronger footing for mid-sized premium and independent brand companies with a new distribution company. I reached out to some of my existing colleagues and industry partners, and many were interested and ready to participate. 

Source Co Nguyen for Vietcetera
Source: Co Nguyen for Vietcetera.

My business partner and I took six months to get licensed and then we went about re-establishing ourselves in the market. By the end of 2013 Alchemy was up and running in Vietnam and shortly after in Thailand in 2014. The experience of setting up a drinks business in Vietnam was an intense and steep learning curve but it fueled my passion and hunger. Despite all the challenges, I never for a second doubted our success. If anything, it made my resolution stronger. 

At Alchemy we learned and grew simultaneously –to be nimble, to execute fast, to be open to new opportunities. We listened to the market and explored international trends. Those lessons learned in the foundation years still stand true today. We are, in essence, entrepreneurial and we are not inhibited by a rigid management structure that slows down decision-making. This is what makes Alchemy different to our competitors. 

Source Co Nguyen for Vietcetera
Source: Co Nguyen for Vietcetera.

What does your role as Group Managing Partner entail?

Within the Alchemy group we have six business units across six Southeast Asian countries, so my time is split across each of them. I look at how we measure and improve performance, I collaborate on brand, consumer and trade strategy, and I also have focus on defining the long-term objectives we set ourselves. 

A key element is investing time in our brand partners- the owners and/or manufacturers of the brands we represent- ensuring we are applying our resources and executing where we agree is best for them. We have several global power brands including The Macallan, Bacardi, Jose Cuervo, Jägermeister, Remy Martin for example, as part of our extensive portfolio so they each have different consumer drivers and occasions. 

The other key aspect of my role is trade and consumer focused- how we present ourselves and our brands to the market whether they be wholesalers and retailers or bars and clubs. They also take a keen interest in telling us how we are performing against our peers and don’t allow us to get too ahead of ourselves!

There is also, unfortunately, quite a bit of time looking at spreadsheets and occasionally getting ‘into the mud’ with complex business matters! I think that’s natural with any fast-evolving business and environment. 

Source Co Nguyen for Vietcetera
Source: Co Nguyen for Vietcetera.

How would you describe your management style? Coming to Vietnam, have you had to adapt?

International workplaces have more similarities than differences in the modern day so there is a bit of give and take on adaption. There is surely cultural differences in how we communicate and express ourselves which requires some consideration at least until everyone is comfortable with one another!

As alluded to earlier, Vietnam has very much broadened my thinking and willingness to take a risk on an idea. Thus in management I have both a structured and unstructured element to my time which opens up to two-way communication more. This means I am open to impromptu meetings or catch ups where everyone from colleagues to business partners can share ideas, challenge thinking and question how we do things. I appreciate constructive criticism and open feedback.

Finally, speed, energy and passion are key to being successful in our business. In drinks and hospitality, if you don’t work with speed, if you don’t go the extra mile, you are toast. This industry doesn’t stop, so I tend not to either. That for me isn’t a burden, it’s empowering and energizing.

Source Co Nguyen for Vietcetera
Source: Co Nguyen for Vietcetera.

What is the one thing you want job seekers to know about Alchemy Wines & Spirits Asia and its culture?

At Alchemy due to our flat and open structure you are constantly exposed to senior management, so if you have a great idea and the confidence to pitch it, you will always find an open door and an eager ear.

There are exciting career opportunities with the Alchemy business as it has grown from just two to nearly 150 staff in seven years. These opportunities are not just in Vietnam but also in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar and the path to progression doesn’t need to be traditionally linear. Whether it’s a transition from sales to supply chain or from finance to marketing or to another country, anything is possible if you have the drive. We also relish giving employment to the young generation. As much as I hate to admit it, I am the oldest person in the organization!

Aside from all of that, the drinks business is fun and our brands are intriguing. 

What’s next for Alchemy Asia?

We would love to continue what we are doing with our outstanding portfolio of brands and lead our industry in creating both innovative brand experiences and drinks education. These two elements are critical to our success amongst a Vietnamese consumer landscape which is both open minded, inquisitive and confident.

We also have a desire to build some of our own brands in the beverage space to compliment what we do now. For example, we have access to wonderful grains, fruits and botanicals here and Vietnam can confidently leverage its natural assets and make its mark with more locally crafted products. With gin, for example, I’d estimate at least five leading brands in the world use botanicals harvested in Vietnam. 

These initiatives are a means by which to build a legacy with Alchemy that myself and my partners and colleagues can all take pride in. For me, the most satisfying thing about this business and my role in the company is seeing our brands bring enjoyed by consumers and our people growing within the company.