How a 29-year-old Harvard grad turned around a Suffolk wine merchant

Katy Keating, managing director of Lay & Wheeler

Katy Keating, managing director of Lay & Wheeler - Credit: Juan Trujillo Andrades/Truli Photo

In 2016 Lay & Wheeler, a Suffolk-based fine wine merchant, was stagnating. The business had stopped growing and was no longer making a profit.

In the words of its future managing director, Katy Keating, it "needed some love and attention".

Lay & Wheeler was originally acquired by John Lay in 1854. Then in 1862 it moved to larger premises in Colchester High Street where it stayed for over 130 years.

By the time Mrs Keating joined the company in 2016 aged 29, the business had moved to its current head office in Holton St Mary and been taken over by Majestic Wine where, Mrs Keating said, it was always treated as "the little guy".

After joining in January 2016, Mrs Keating was the firm's managing director by summer that year.

In her first year at the helm sales grew by 36% and the business returned to profitability.

Then in 2019, Lay & Wheeler was sold to a anonymous overseas owner. 

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Now 34, Mrs Keating puts this success down to a people focussed approach.

She said: "When I joined, I spent a lot of time getting to know the team and the business and I realised that people are at the heart of everything we do.

"The fundamental change we made was just renewing our focus on people."

This change took three stages.

It started with a focus on the company's staff. Then it moved to focus on their relationship with the winemakers, before finally focussing on developing a more personal relationship with the firm's customers.

"We've got a very dynamic team," she said. "We focus on creating careers at Lay & Wheeler. 

"Our longest serving employee started out as a Christmas temp, it was his very first job and he's now in his 23rd year with us.

"We have a team of advisors who are all experts in their own right in fine wine.

"They work closely with our customers to advise to help find wines for them, to let them know when some of the parts of their cellars are ready to drink, and just to build a relationship and make it really fun and not scary."

The team has also grown since Mrs Keating arrived.

In 2016 the company only employed one buyer who spent 180 days on the road per year. 

"It sounds very glamorous, but it's very gruelling," Mrs Keating said.  

Since then they have employed a second buyer along with one of the youngest masters of wine in the industry.

Mrs Keating herself grew up on an organic farm outside Philadelphia. 

"I was always interested in agriculture and food," she said. "At university I started a farmers' market on our campus and really enjoyed the experience of bringing together farmers and the people who enjoy their produce."

After university she spent studied nine months studying cheese in Italy on a Fulbright Scholarship before returning to the United States to attend Harvard Business School.

Around this time, she was "falling more deeply in love with wine" and, upon graduating, studied for a diploma in wine with the Wine and Spirits Education Trust.

But Mrs Keating's tenure at Lay & Wheeler has not been uneventful. 

First she oversaw the £11.3million sale of the firm to two private families in 2019.

Then, she welcomed her first child and just months later began stewarding Lay & Wheeler through the Covid-19 pandemic.

While the firm's normal methods of business have been disrupted, it has been able to keep in touch with winemakers around the world via Zoom.

"We have had a huge number of one-on-one Zoom conversations between our wine producers and the buyers.

"They can get a very detailed understanding of things like, how the harvest went and how the overall vintage looked?

"Our buyer, Catherine, was also able to travel to Burgundy for a couple weeks this summer.

"And we've been able to get samples sent to us so our buyers have been tasting them at home."

During the pandemic Lay & Wheeler, like other companies in the drinks business, has seen an uptick in sales.

"We have seen though an uplift in people buying wines to drink at home," Mrs Keating said. "And right across the price spectrum.

"Our firmly held belief is that the best wine is the one that you're drinking."