In order to avoid bumping into Arnaud, either at Gatwick or on the plane, I fly easyJet from Luton the following afternoon. I jump into a taxi at Bordeaux airport, and arrive at my hotel shortly before nine o’clock. Dinner on my own doesn’t appeal and I go straight to bed after succumbing to the charms of the minibar’s overpriced gin and tonic.
I wake up light-headed the following morning, my two restorative nights in a row making the last weekend in Edinburgh feel like it happened a month ago.
Marguerite Villa’s assistant told Mary the board meeting would start at nine. I turn up at the last minute to maximise the surprise effect of my arrival on Arnaud and creep in through the half open door.
The boardroom looks completely different from when I was last here, only a week ago. A mobile partition divides the room in two and a long table of dark shiny wood with a small but elaborate flower arrangement in the middle replaces the foldable modern white desks used for the export meeting. Every surface has been dusted and polished and the room smells of wax and fresh flowers.
Instead of the export department’s ill-assorted crew, the five men sitting around Marguerite Villa are dressed in dark, almost identical suits. Seb, whose looks have improved since his return to Burgundy, looks like he’s swallowed a walking stick and Marcel could be on his way to his first communion, his shiny black hair gelled back. Only the two financial directors, The Wine Shop’s and Villa’s, have brought laptops.
Arnaud is holding court. ‘It’s actually an advantage not to speak too good English in that job. It saves me from having to listen to endless objections to anything I decide. You wouldn’t believe how argumentative those guys are,’ he says.
Villa’s finance director guffaws as does Marcel. Neither speaks a word of English.
Arnaud spots me. His jaw drops and he stares at me open-mouthed as if I’d popped fully formed out of one of his nightmares.
Marguerite follows his gaze and beams at me. ‘Christine, come in.’ She looks back at her companions. ‘I expect you all know Christine Legerot? Arnaud?’
He frowns. ‘Christine? Yes, we’ve met,’ he says.
‘Is that all?’ she asks.
He turns to me. ‘Good morning, Mademoiselle.’
‘Less formality, Arnaud,’ Marguerite says. ‘The two of you must work together.’
Sébastien pipes up, ‘Good morning Chris.’
‘That’s the spirit,’ says Marguerite.
She pats the chair next to her. ‘Come and sit here, Christine.’
Villa’s finance director leans towards me and points at Arnaud. ‘He doesn’t seem too happy to see you.’
I smile back in a non-committal way and fish a notepad out of my bag.
Marguerite knocks on the table. ‘Now we’re all here, let’s listen to Monsieur Vidal’s plans for The Wine Shop.’
Arnaud walks to the top of the table, followed by his finance director carrying his open laptop. Everybody turns towards them with a discipline that would make Ed weep.
‘I’ll start with some figures to give you a picture of the current situation,’ Arnaud says. ‘I’ve revised downwards Sébastien’s original forecast for this calendar year.’
Sébastien interrupts him, ‘The team at The Wine Shop is very weak. If it wasn’t for them, we’d be on track.’
Marguerite ignores him. ‘How many million pounds do we stand to lose now?’ she asks.
‘We’re looking at seven million pounds for this year but I plan to break even next year,’ Arnaud says.
Sébastien shivers. ‘Sales were terrible this summer. Like the weather.’
‘Six months ago, you were planning to break even this year, Monsieur Melot,’ Marguerite says. ‘Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to concentrate on Arnaud’s presentation.’
She turns to me. ‘Listen carefully and feel free to ask questions.’
Arnaud looks as though he’s bitten into an unripe lemon.
Marguerite interrupts him, ‘Forget about this year. I’m interested in how you’re proposing to reverse the trend next year.’
Arnaud signals to his finance director to skip a few slides. ‘My plan rests on three key elements: disposal of loss-making branches, cost cutting and sales growth.’
‘We have already cut-’ Sébastien says.
Marguerite turns towards him. ‘Monsieur Melot!’
Arnaud continues, ‘Thirty stores are haemorrhaging cash. Some of them have been refurbished but it hasn’t helped. They suffer from a combination of poor locations, high rents, and high business rates. We need to get rid of them.’
‘How long are the leases on these stores?’ I ask.
Marguerite gives me an approving look.
Arnaud clenches his jaw. ‘Some of them are on long-term leases. We’ll have to find new tenants.’
‘How will you achieve that if they’re in poor locations?’ Marguerite asks.
‘What’s true for wine isn’t necessarily true for other goods. I’ve planned to task one of the sales managers with this project,’ Arnaud says.
‘Very weak, the sales team at The Wine Shop, very weak,’ Sébastien says.
Arnaud’s cauliflower ears turn bright red. He runs his hands through his sparse blond hair. ‘Madame Villa, may I continue?’
‘You may, Arnaud,’ Marguerite says, a half-smile on her face.
‘Disposals should save us two million pounds a year. Cost-cutting will take care of another two.’
‘Could we talk about how you plan to grow sales?’ Marguerite asks. ‘You can save as much as you want, but unless sales pick up, the business is doomed and I may as well cut my losses.’
‘Villa supplies a bit less than two million bottles of wine to The Wine Shop per year,’ Arnaud says. He pauses and looks at each of us in turn. ‘I plan to improve on this significantly.’
‘Very commendable,’ Marguerite says, with a hint of irony.
Arnaud leans forward, propping himself up on his knuckles, gorilla-like. ‘Within the next year, I intend to source an additional seven million bottles from Villa,’ he says, slowing his delivery for emphasis.
I blurt out. ‘That’s impossible.’
‘I don’t do impossible.’
Arnaud looks like he’s about to headbutt me.
‘Why impossible?’ Marguerite asks, without looking at me.
‘The Wine Shop already stocks far too many wines from Villa. The range is unbalanced at it is,’ I say, feeling like I am suggesting vegetarianism to a convention of butchers.
‘What do you mean, unbalanced?’ Marguerite asks, still staring straight ahead.
‘The Wine Shop’s reputation rests on its eclectic selection. If we turn it into an outlet for Villa’s wines, we’ll be slaughtered by the press and we’ll lose even more customers. Jen and I review the range every month to avoid such a situation.’
‘Very weak, Jen, very weak. She knows nothing about French wines,’ Sébastien says.
‘Are you telling me British wine writers don’t like our wines?’ Marguerite asks.
I take a deep breath. ‘Not if they are the only French wines on offer from The Wine Shop.’
I warm up to my theme. ‘You also have the managers to think of. Most of them are passionate about wine, and knowledgeable too. We must feed their enthusiasm with diversity and quality if we want them to perform.’
‘Very weak, the managers, very weak.’
Sébastien is slouching now. I worry he’s going to slip under the table.
Villa’s finance director joins in the fray. ‘They’re dirty too. Do you remember the fat guy in Birmingham, Sébastien?’
‘The one with huge sweat stains under his arms?’
I’m getting angry. ‘Have you tried moving cases of wine around without getting dirty and sweaty?’
‘They’re not projecting the right image for the business,’ Villa’s finance director says. ‘What about making them wear branded aprons to give them some sort of corporate look?’
‘You can’t do that,’ I say. ‘The Wine Shop and aprons don’t go together.’
‘Can we go back to Arnaud’s seven million bottles, please?’ Marguerite asks. ‘This additional volume would make a huge difference to our bottom line.’
She turns to Arnaud, ‘Which wines are you thinking about?’
Arnaud looks at me with intense dislike. ‘My project isn’t as advanced as I hoped it would be by now. These volumes are currently unspecified.’
Marguerite slaps both hands on the table. ‘Unspecified wines generating an unspecified turnover yet, I suppose, unspecified large margins?’
Arnaud looks down at the floor. A vein is pulsing on his forehead.
Marguerite shakes her head. ‘Monsieur Vidal, I am afraid this isn’t good enough. How do you expect me to give my blessing to such a vague concept?’
Sébastien mutters under his breath, ‘Very weak, very weak…’
Arnaud raises his chin. ‘I’ll get back to you on the new range.’
Marguerite sighs. ‘Please do and call on André Lange if you need any help. He should have been with us today but he had a last minute emergency in Narbonne.
She turns to me and pats my hand. ‘You know what it’s like when you run a bottling site.’
‘Now, I hope the third part of your programme is more impressive than what we’ve heard so far ,’ Marguerite says, turning back to Arnaud.
‘I’ve finished interviewing everybody at head office, including the HR Director,’ Arnaud says.
‘Very weak the HR Director, very weak.’
Marguerite snaps, ‘Monsieur Melot, will you please keep quiet or I’ll have to ask you to leave.’
Marcel, whom I suspect of being able to sleep with his eyes open, almost topples out of his chair, arms flailing. His mother glares at him. ‘Marcel, please.’
He straightens up, recomposing himself in the picture of the dutiful executive. ‘Yes, mother.’
‘We’re going to shift stock management from head office to stores,’ Arnaud says. ‘This will empower shop managers and give them the chance to show us what they can do. It will also enable us to reduce the headcount in Kingston.’
Marguerite nods. ‘Sounds reasonable. How will you ensure stores don’t order too much?’
‘We’ll put quotas in place.’
She turns to me. ‘Christine?’
‘This is difficult for me. I probably know the people Arnaud means to let go.’
Taking my lead from Marguerite, I bark at Sébastien, ‘Please, not now!’ and continue in more measured tones ‘I feel for them but I can see the sense in what Arnaud is planning to do.’
‘I’m running a business,’ Marguerite says, her brown eyes softening for a brief moment. ‘Unfortunately, this often means taking difficult decisions when it comes to people. What else, Arnaud?’
‘I’ll lengthen promotional periods from monthly to quarterly. It will save on posters and displays in stores and it will also allow us to slim down the marketing team. We have six people in there, listening to the radio all day long.’
I butt in again, ‘Listening to music doesn’t stop them from working hard.’
‘Christine, please.’ There’s a note of warning in Marguerite’s voice. ‘The Wine Shop’s staff report to Arnaud, not to you.’
‘You can’t let him destroy the marketing department,’ I say. ‘They’re the nerve centre of the business.’
Marguerite looks at me, her head on one side and I feel myself flushing bright red. ‘And Arnaud’s suggestion seems to have touched a nerve with you.’
I try to regain my composure, ‘The Wine Shop needs a clear, strong strategy to pull out. That’s the marketing team’s job.’
‘No, it’s mine,’ says Arnaud, his arms crossed in defiance. ‘That’s why I’m getting rid of them.’
‘Very weak, the marketing department, very weak.’
Everybody ignores Sébastien.
‘But surely, you can’t sack them all?’ I ask Arnaud.
‘How will you manage the launch of the new range? What about promotions?’
‘I’ll outsource. We need new blood. The current team is too stuck in their ways, as demonstrated on Monday.’
Tim was right. I shouldn’t have antagonised Arnaud. He’ll sack Tim in retaliation and it will be my fault. I can’t let it happen.
I turn to The Wine Shop’s finance director. He shrugs and shakes his head slowly. Another one whose feathers Tim has ruffled.
I try to appeal to Arnaud’s common sense. ‘You’re taking a huge risk. You need people who know The Wine Shop inside out to relay your ideas, people who have the trust of the managers. Otherwise even your best initiatives will fail.’
‘Why?’ he asks, a victorious smile on his thin lips.
I’m trying to gain time, searching for a solution. My head is spinning.
‘Isn’t it obvious?’
‘Not to me,’ he says.
He comes to stand in front of me, hands on hips. I can smell his acrid sweat. ‘I’m the boss,’ he says, jabbing his chest hard.
Marguerite isn’t impressed. ‘Why don’t you keep one or two people from the current team, at least to start with?’
I hold my breath.
‘I could keep the brunette,’ he says. ‘She’s quite amenable. And maybe the quiet guy who sits in the corner.’
‘What about Tim Foster?’ I ask.
‘That arrogant know-it-all? He’s the one I’m most looking forward to get rid of,’ Arnaud says.
‘I don’t think you should get rid of him,’ I say.
The Wine Shop’s finance director is trying to hide his smile. News travel fast. I don’t care as long as he remains silent. His opinion hasn’t been sought once anyway, even though he speaks French.
‘Why?’ Marguerite asks.
I’ll save Tim’s job if it’s the only thing I achieve today.
‘He’s close to influential wine writers,’ I say, making it up as I go along. ‘There’ll be a huge backlash if he goes.’
‘How could some obscure pen pushers damage Villa?’ Arnaud asks.
‘Decanter ran a survey recently about the most influential people in the wine world. With all due respect, Jancis Robinson came in ahead of Marguerite Villa.’
‘Jancis who?’ Arnaud asks. ‘I’ve never heard of her.’
Fortunately for me, Marguerite has. ‘Christine is right. British wine writers command a lot of respect worldwide. We can’t risk upsetting them.’
She turns to me. ‘Apart from having friends in high places, is this Tim Foster any good?’
‘Brilliant,’ I say, trying not to look at The Wine Shop’s finance director. ‘Very original thinker, hard-working and committed to The Wine Shop.’
Marguerite pulls a face. ‘I am not sure we need original but never mind. Christine, you’ve played your joker. I’ll be interested to find out if you’ve chosen wisely.’
Sébastien has the last word, ‘Very weak, Tim Foster, very weak.’