One of the best things in life is if you are able to turn the pursuit of personal interests into a career. However, in doing so, people often have to make sacrifices and compromises, particularly if the route they choose is not part of an established profession and does not always guarantee recognition and a steady income.
Louis Lee, product manager for Concord Wines, is, by training, a qualified financial broker but, after eight years in the business, gave it up and became a wine merchant instead. "My interest in wine first started when I was studying for my finance degree in Canada," he recalls. "I adopted the western habit of having a fine wine to complement a good meal and my passion for the subject developed from there."
After returning to work in Hong Kong, he decided to take his hobby a step further. So, following his elder brother's advice, he took a course in appreciating wine at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and gradually became more expert.
"The wine business is not just a job but a career. You need persistence, patience and confidence to build it up."
Ups and downs
By the mid-1990s, many young people in Hong Kong, especially those who had been educated overseas, had disposable incomes and were prepared to spend a lot on quality wines. Confident about the market, Mr Lee decided, in 1997, to quit his job as a broker and opened a wine shop in Lam Tin. At the same time, after completing another course, he was awarded a professional certificate recognised by the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET).
The choice of location for the shop was determined by the large number of expatriates, including airline staff, then living in the Kwun Tong area. Mr Lee targeted them as potential clients and had one of the few specialist stores outside Central or Tsim Sha Tsui, though competition soon arrived. Each weekend, he arranged tastings in the shop to give customers the chance to learn more about wines from different countries, as part of a process of general education.
"Wine is not a luxury," Mr Lee explains. "A bottle of quality wine costs as little as HK$150. If you drink in moderation, it is good for your health and, nowadays, over 90 percent of western wine drinkers in Hong Kong are locals."
Hit by the Asian financial crisis, Mr Lee was forced to close his shop in 1998 and, for the next three years, he worked as manager for three different wine distribution companies, each of which experienced difficulties. "I did contemplate giving up and going back to the finance industry," he recalls. "However, I also realised that the wine business is not just a job but a career. You need persistence, patience and confidence to build it up." This attitude was appreciated when he joined his current employer.
Mr Lee has been with Concord nearly three years and his duties include product sourcing and training. He also organises wine tasting events and is a WSET recommended tutor for the Concord Institute of Wine which is a WSET approved programme provider.
Business in Hong Kong is now growing again and, with the government hinting at possible cuts in duty on red wine, Mr Lee believes things looks promising. Salespeople should, though, still expect to work hard.
"People buy wine for enjoyment," he says. "Therefore, a salesman wanting to advance his career should have a profound knowledge of what he is selling and be able to engage his clients' interest. He can then help them choose the right wines."
A wine sales representative does not need a degree but must possess excellent communication skills, broad experience and be willing to learn. Knowing how to enjoy life also helps in order to make the most of sharing good food and fine wine with clients!
Although traditional Chinese wines are still most popular on the mainland, Mr Lee thinks that, with affluence increasing, the time is right to promote the sale of imported wines. Moreover, with China's accession to the World Trade Organisation, duties should be reduced which will help to create new opportunities for companies looking to capitalise on this growing market.
Mr Lee's ambition is to educate frontline staff in restaurants, private clubs and lounges on how and why customers should drink western wines. If they can then share their knowledge and expertise, it will create further interest. "To do this, we must first establish good relations with the relevant Chinese authorities and arrange a series of wine talks," he notes.