Leaving behind a safe career, founder of drinks distribution venture prospers on taking a flexible approach to business Few young executives would have the audacity to leave a promising career running a thriving division of a large corporation to go it alone - taking the sales team with them. Patricio de la Fuente Saez was just 27 and had spent two years setting up the successful wine and spirits division of Dah Chong Hong, part of Citic Pacific Group. This had been his first job after training with Hyatt and deciding hotel management was not for him. 'I enjoyed the hotel business, but didn't want to spend my life moving around,' he says. Mr de la Fuente Saez, who came to Hong Kong in 1989 with his Dutch mother and Chilean father, was 25 when Dah Chong Hong approached him to set up its wine and spirits division. Although his time with Hyatt had included a stint as assistant manager of JJ's nightclub at the Grand Hyatt and some experience of the buying side, he thought it was too good to pass up. 'It was a perfect opportunity to stay here. I did it, fell in love with the business and built it from there.' But working for a large corporation cramped his style. 'After two years I started to feel stuck, as one does in big companies. You can't be very creative in a big firm; you have to work in the system.' In January 2000, Mr de la Fuente Saez and his colleagues concocted a business plan for a wine and spirits import and distribution business. 'In May we showed it to Herman Ho, a wealthy individual we know. He liked it and decided to invest in our company.' This confirmed his belief that Hong Kong was the place for an entrepreneur. 'Where else could a 27-year-old raise $8 million to start a business?' In June 2000, he and his team of seven made their big move. 'We all resigned from Dah Chong Hong,' he says. How did that go down with his bosses? 'Not very well. Basically I resigned, but was fired on my last day anyway because they figured out what we were doing.' It was a bold step, he admits, but adds he was sure he would succeed because of his loyal suppliers and customers. 'They came with us. The wine and spirits business is all about relationships and people in it like to deal with those they know.' First, the new company, Links Concept, focused on the Hong Kong market, supplying hotels, bars, nightclubs, supermarkets and duty-free outlets. Then came business with Star Cruises and airlines. After a year with sights set on distribution in China, Links started dealing with China Duty Free Group, the state-run monopoly which controls the mainland's duty-free business. Now with offices in the main cities, China equals the company's Hong Kong business in volume. Then the mavericks had a stroke of luck. Importers and distributors Jardine Caldbecks closed down last year and Links gained a lot of their brands, including Concha y Toro, Brown Brothers, La Joya from Chile, Cuervo tequila, Drambuie and Ketel One vodka. Links operates by buying direct from the producer and getting signed up as the exclusive importer and distributor to their 2,000-strong Hong Kong customer base. For the New Territories and China, it assigns distributors. 'In China you handle the main cities yourself and in secondary cities assign.' The company makes its money on a margin of between 15 per cent and 40 per cent depending on the number of cases. 'We have to remain competitive and it's a city of traders so everyone knows where to find the best price. That's why we have succeeded in spite of older, longer established companies being around,' he adds. If you're haggling over a discount to a bar of 5 per cent or 8 per cent to a restaurant, you don't lose a deal over one dollar, he says. 'But in a big company like a hotel, it has to go through three layers of management to be approved. But I can just say 'do it'. Otherwise if it's a big company you come back five days later and you've lost the deal. We can be flexible with a pro-business attitude.' Surprisingly, the bleak 2003 summer of Sars had a silver lining. 'There were a lot of opportunities. We could be flexible on pricing; we didn't see our business drop that much,' he says, noting that many restaurants and bars switched from famous brands to less-known brands of the same quality. 'That was because the big brands wouldn't offer discounts, but restaurants needed to offer better prices to get customers in. We helped them during Sars and they don't forget that. We were flexible during those days and it has definitely paid off.' At 32, Mr de la Fuente Saez attributes his rapid success to being very hands-on. He's still out there selling and wouldn't have it any other way. Every account is precious. 'The customer who orders one case of wine is as important as the one who orders 100, and one day he will order 100, too. You must remind yourself not to lose touch with your customers.' He is equally focused on personnel and is proud of his staff retention rate. 'Not one of our people has left. We have had the same staff for seven years,' he says. The original team of nine has grown to 26 here and 25 in China. Turnover of sales staff in China is faster, he has found, with employees switching jobs for more money and opportunities. Five years on, their investor Mr Ho is still with them. Although he won't divulge annual turnover, he says that in terms of size, Links could now go public. 'Let's say we are in the top five in Hong Kong now. We wouldn't like to go public. Being a limited company you can make your decisions fast; we can decide to invest here or there immediately.' Now, he aims to capitalise on Macau's new casino scene. 'Sands are introducing a whole new lifestyle there and drinking wine is all part of it and people are beginning to get that.' This business is boosted by Macau having only 15 per cent import duty, compared with Hong Kong's 80 per cent. 'This is quite silly - to the rich it doesn't matter but for the average consumer, it makes the price too high in Hong Kong.' Even so, although China is expanding, Hong Kong has great potential. 'Last year, the second half was amazing. We were organising wine dinners each month; they were sold out, for 120 people each time. It made no difference if they were $400 or $1,100 dinners. Hong Kong people are enjoying wine.' As for the future, he is set on building the sales team, getting a more extensive portfolio and looking abroad to the often-forgotten Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia markets. But he is staying here. 'I love Hong Kong. I never want to leave. It's a perfect market.'