Bradley Mitton is a professionally trained chef turned international businessman. He’s lived in seven different countries, speaks three languages, and manages two successful companies operating in a handful of European markets, all while maintaining the poise and composure of a perfect English gentleman. We sat down one afternoon to chat about style, travel, and what it really takes to be an entrepreneur. Read on…
Bradley is pictured wearing his R. Culturi pocket squares.
Hi Bradley. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, and your business?
I left the U.K. twenty five years ago to travel and experience Australia and Asia. Through various work opportunities, I developed my career in the food and beverage industry and worked for eleven years amongst a number of reputable fine dining restaurants in Australia’s Gold Coast, Cairns, Hong Kong, Manila, Subic Bay and Seoul. The affinity of food and wine played a large role during my last eight years working in Asia and when I moved to Seoul in 2000, I managed an international business that focused on gastronomy and Australian wines and cigars. Thus, I acquired the ability to successfully market and promote wines, menus, and events. It was when I moved to Berlin in 2002 that I started focusing primarily on wines and decided to set my own company up. So on a shoe-string budget, I established Mitton International Wines. The company is based in Berlin and we import boutique Argentinean, Australian, New Zealand, and South African wines to Central Europe. We sell exclusively to leading hotels, private clubs, villas, yachts and international restaurants across the Continent. I then pioneered Club Vivanova, which runs events in parallel with my wine business in locations that list our products, as a service to build relationships with our gastronomy partners. Both Club Vivanova and Mitton International Wines work hand-in-hand to develop relationships between our wines and our clients and they are growing dynamically in the seven European countries that we operate in. I currently travel throughout Europe training and educating hotel and restaurant employees in the diversity and regionality of New World wines and hosting mostly sold-out wine events in Barcelona, Berlin, Cannes, Milan, Monte-Carlo, Prague, Saint-Tropez, and Warsaw. We host around 80 events per year which build great business and social connections for me and my partners.
Why did you decide to switch gears from being a chef to wine importing/distribution and event management?
It wasn’t something that I planned on as I loved running and working in restaurants but, as my career progressed, I started moving more towards sales, marketing, and events. When, in 2002, I was flown to Berlin from Seoul and employed by a German wine importing company to channel their portfolio towards the New World, I went from running restaurants to selling into them and the move was seamless. Having a good understanding of your clientele is important and I understand the gastronomy business well, so I was naturally able to build good rapport with my sommelier and restaurant management clients. Looking back, I’m happy I made the move. The restaurant industry is a killer – long hours, heavy pressure, and it’s tough to make money in the sector. There are just so many flaws in the industry that can cause financial loss. The social life was great but the financial benefits just didn’t weigh up for me so I think simplifying to a trading operation made business life somewhat less stressful and more manageable from an operational point of view.
You’ve been running your company now for 13 years. How long did it take for it to become successful?
I’m still working on that. The first five years were just building, setting up clientele, establishing a database, changing portfolios, learning from mistakes, losing money left, right, and center, and basically trying to get a start-up business off the ground. It was very tough with long hours and lots of stress but also inspirational with a great learning curve. I see my business as a train with an engine and carriages – you have to continuously fine tune the engine to keep it moving ahead but also make sure the carriages (employees, administration, and back-office) are keeping up. In our business it’s the weakest link that is the threat. The wolf is only as strong as the pack and the pack is only as strong as the wolf so the whole package has to run like clockwork, from purchasing to pricing and stocking, communication, delivery, and of course, the after-sales. We operate a slick and specialized operation. I refuse to accept mediocrity and I’m always challenging myself and my employees to do better, be better, and to grow, albeit carefully and in a planned and selective manner.
You mentioned that the first few years were tough. How did you keep yourself motivated?
I used to take each day as it came. There are always fires to put out and issues to deal with. You’re always going to have battles. You win some and lose some but you’ve just got the make sure that you win the big war. That’s the main objective and you’ve got to always be trying to streamline the way the company runs. The motivation comes from within. You need to be hungry – you have to want to survive and succeed and if you are not driven then you just won’t make it. If you’re not strong then it’s no use even starting out. There are employees and there are entrepreneurs and we all have our place in life. I think I was just born ready. I motivate myself and focus on my targets, taking very little notice of distractions and negative people or influences. I take most of my business decisions myself and I am driven to be the best. I think even though this can be somewhat dangerous, it’s the key to success as long as it is controlled rather than erratic. Never take no for an answer and if you fall down, just get up and start again. Winston Churchill once said that when you’re going through hell, keep going!
You’re originally from England but have lived in Australia, Hong Kong, the Philippines, South Korea, Germany, and now France. Which place has been your favorite so far and why?
I’ve enjoyed everywhere that I’ve lived for different reasons and at different times. Each place showed me many different facets of life but my favorite part of the world is the South of France. I studied French at school for eight years and I fell in love with the language, the literature, the culture, the food, the art, the women, the fashion, just everything. It was all so romantic to me so when I moved back to Europe after Asia, I decided to develop my wine business in Monaco. I travelled there frequently and just fell back in love with the lifestyle. Eventually I had enough business there to be able to move and I now live in the hills close to Saint Paul de Vence, looking down over the Mediterranean. It’s serene; the food is wonderful, as are the wines. You can get to many of Europe’s business cities quickly and the pace of life is slow so I can balance that with my frantic, high-pressure business life. One thing I have always respected, though, is work ethic. The Riviera is a relaxing and ambient place to live but you still have to make money. If you start to get too comfortable here you can end up on the slippery slope of just having fun and then wake up one day with nothing. So I still work as hard here as I ever have but I just enjoy life in this region so much more than anywhere else I have lived. I think that if you’re willing to give and commit in business in this part of the world, there are amazing rewards.
Have you ever experienced any major culture shocks?
Yes, plenty, and especially in Asia. It’s an amazing place and just has so much to offer. The diversity of cultures is quite astonishing. I’ve lived in mud-huts and tree-houses and travelled extensively through East Timor, Komodo, Lombok, Bali, and other parts of Indonesia in the 1990s. I spent a few months in the North of the Philippines living amongst the rice paddies in villages without power and I set-up a restaurant in Boracay before it had any electricity and when it was just a sleepy island. It’s now an international resort. The restaurant and kitchens were run off of generators in those days! I have many wonderful, humorous, humbling, and inspirational stories from my experiences and they all built me to be the person I am today. I’m going to write a book.
Where would you say people are most conscious of how they dress and how they present themselves?
I can’t say France as I think, in general, the fashion in this part of the world can be superficial and scruffy so I would say, from my travels, probably Milan. Locals always look sharp and Italians have a wonderful and diverse fashion sense. It’s not a style, it’s a statement, and in Milan everything is fashion – the people, the buildings, the restaurants, the designs, the hotels. They just like to make things look good and they like to look good themselves. It’s a great pleasure walking around Milan seeing how people really take pride in what they wear and how they look. I like that; it shows self-respect, pride, and a drive to look and feel well.
The traditional English and French styles are quite different. Would you say living in France has had an influence on your style?
The styles are at different ends of the fashion spectrum. Living in France has made me dress less formally but with an open-mind to believing that most clothes fit together – jeans with a jacket and formal shirt, colors that would normally look out of place in the U.K. For example, brown shoes with blue trousers is forbidden in the British scene. I’ve become more Continental and I like it, it’s relaxed. I buy most of my suits from Ermenegildo Zegna, shirts from Gucci and Dolce Gabbana, ties from Hermes, and shoes from Tod’s. You can mix and match here as long as you’re looking elegant.
How would you describe your style? How has it evolved over time?
We evolve as we get older. I would say I’m a classic dresser. I like clean-cut, blues and whites. I try to dress sharp but casual – open-necked shirts, dark colors, and not always formal clothing. But I also have to look professional and elegant as I’m meeting and doing business with the leaders of the greatest hotels on the Continent and they want to deal with like-minded, executive, quick-thinking, and clean-cut partners. In my business, you have to be able to walk into a room and make an impression. Wearing something sharp but acceptable to the eye is important.
What items will you never leave home without?
I never leave home without my sunglasses (unless it’s evening) or a jacket. I always wear a jacket. I think it’s a great accessory to turn any outfit into something that makes a statement. I also always wear one ring – a gold one my mother gave to me, and of course a good watch.
Why is it important to present yourself well?
As I’ve mentioned, the people I deal with in business and the people that I like to surround myself with are international business leaders. They run exceptional and highly professional operations in which success, efficiency, and leadership is key. I have to have an effect on these people when I meet them and, in turn, they too want to do business with sharp, sincere, executive, and elegant people. So I have to look the part and to fit the sector that I work in. That means dressing well – not over-dressing but just being clean and crisp. I have to wear that character well to present myself in the right manner. It’s not only what you wear, it’s also how you carry that idea. The first impression has to be right, though, and of course the style of clothes you wear is important.
Turning back to Club Vivanova – what are the most important elements of a good event?
Again, I think it all comes back to relationships and efficiency. One of my regular attendees recently sent me a testimonial. It said: “Bradley is the soul of Club Vivanova, the brains and the heart behind it, and that is a guarantee in itself for us that he will continue to attract new and interesting people.” My club members and my clients trust my judgment and they expect excellence. They expect the best and I cannot give them anything else. No wavering, no excuses. We have to perform at the absolute top level. Reputations are always at stake and so we have to put on a good show. If we have partners involved, they have to fit the profile. They have to be leaders in their sector. The most important elements for a successful event are good communication, promotion, advertising, an excellent and tested menu with specialist wines that match, and a unique venue that is managed well so there are no disappointments. I run each event like my own open pop-up restaurant. We manage the door, the aperitif, the service, the menu, the wines, the presentations, and the finale of the event including appreciations, after-service, images posted online, and so on. We have to have a well-run, professionally executed package so when people arrive they know I’m taking care of business until the end of the night. It’s tough work as we’re dealing with temperamental human beings and alcohol and food. It can get complicated but it’s inspirational and challenging and I love it because we always do it right and so we always succeed.
What are your future plans for your businesses and your “brand”?
I just keep my head down and keep pushing for better and more exclusive events, inspirational event partners, and out-of-the-box thinking in regards to concepts while always remembering that it’s the clients who have to enjoy themselves, so we have to feature projects that will impress and interest them. Our plans include two galas in Monaco in 2016 – one at the Fairmont Hotel on March 12 and one at the Café de Paris on April 23. I’m also releasing a wine and food cookbook and we’re just going to keep pushing to be better, fine-tuning all the time, listening to our clients, re-focusing, and using all of the feedback we get to positively drive the brand forward. The brand has grown extensively in Monaco, though it is always important to be grounded in this part of the world and stick to the basic guidelines of running a successful business. Success gets to people’s heads. Not mine; we’re still the same caring, small company we were ten years ago, straight and true, and I’ll never lose that special sincere touch that we give to everything that we do.
Are there any rules or principles that you live by? What keeps you grounded?
Principally, I try to be a gentleman. I believe in truth and sincerity. There is no other way. I also believe that you only get out of life what you put in. I am a non-believer in luck or fate. Business and success is 0% luck and 100% determination and grit. My father always taught me that there are two ways of doing things in life – the right way and the wrong way, and the right way is always the hard way so getting to the top is painful and sometimes lonely but when we strive for that and drive ourselves to do things correctly, without short-cuts or excuses, then we normally get to where we want to be. Then once we get there, we aim for the next plateau and so on. Driven people are never satisfied, they just want to keep becoming better and better so I stick to my principles and strive for greatness in work and in life. I’m grounded because I’m a father. My son is 16 and he lives with me in France so I have a wonderful home life, full of love and happiness. I cook a lot at home, I entertain, and I run my home like an extension of my old restaurants. That is what gives me the grounding that I need. I love nature and spend lots of time in my garden and I run most mornings between 5 and 10 kilometers. It clears my mind and focuses and channels my thoughts so once I arrive at my desk, I’m ready to challenge anything that comes my way.
What’s one piece of advice you would give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
In my field of sales and marketing, I would advise entrepreneurs not to take on anything that they are too passionate about. You have to work with a business almost remotely as if you’re tuning a racing car. Feelings and personalities have to be left behind. If you’re too close to your business personally, you’ll make emotional decisions, which is not good. Decisions have to be made clinically and with a view of total survival. I’m not saying that you have to be impersonal but business is business and business is cut-throat these days. If you want to succeed and build something substantial in a lifetime you have to be ready to challenge, sacrifice, accept physical and mental pain and sleepless nights, and drive yourself to perfection. Nothing in this life is easy. There is no free lunch, so be prepared to do it the right way, the hard way, and always surround yourself with amazing, smart, sharp, and successful people. And always be true! “If you can keep your wits about you while all others are losing theirs and blaming you, the world will be yours and everything in it, and what’s more, you’ll be a man, my son.”