Farewell Jim Murphy — Canberra’s tenacious retailer

How did Jim Murphy thrive in Canberra’s competitive liquor retail environment over all those decades? He set up shop in the late seventies, just as the Trade Practices Act (aided in Canberra by liberalised licensing laws) precipitated a complete restructuring of wine production, distribution and retailing Australia wide.

Yet Jim successfully stepped from the genteel world of wine selling at the Australian National University into the then brutal world of Canberra liquor retailing. Retail competitors at the time gave him little hope of survival.

I met Jim just before the transition. I was already a retail competitor and remained one for the next 28 years. Today’s article therefore presents the subjective view of a former commercial adversary.

Towards the end of 1976 Jim agreed to cater for my wedding at the ANU staff centre early the next year. A poor student, taking a vacation job at Farmer Bros Wine and Spirit Merchants, I suggested bringing my own wine. The brothers were cheaper than him, I explained.

After that diplomatic start, we haggled, and Jim agreed (very generously, in retrospect) on BYO bubbly, provided the staff centre supplied the rest. The wedding proceeded smoothly, the vacation job became a career and our paths crossed every now and then until Jim’s death on 26 May.

Richard and David Farmer had opened Farmer Bros at Manuka in June 1975. The store became a sensation, offering discounted wine of all types, from casks to Grange.

David Farmer recalls how the new store attracted Jim’s clients from the university, eventually prompting Jim to check out the usurper. Farmer recalls, “Jim was Canberra’s wine authority then and I don’t think Manuka went down too well”.

In the ensuing years Canberra drinkers raked in the wine bargains as the competition heated up. Farmer Bros led the charge, quickly developing a national following through a press-ad-driven mail order business. Liquor licences spread into grocery stores, putting wine in every suburban shopping centre. And two vigorous independents – Peter and Mary Tyson’s The Grog Shop and John and Roby Brown’s Candamber – took on Farmer Bros in the discount wine stakes.

But Jim Murphy avoided the discount scrum, quietly opening at what we competitors regarded as a second-tier, weekend-only site opposite, Fyshwick fruit and vegetable markets. How wrong we were.

Throughout the eighties and until 1994 Farmer Bros retained its dominance in the Canberra wine market – and became a major force nationally, with an Australia-wide mail order business and stores in Sydney and Melbourne. The Grog Shop survived only a few years but Candamber and Jim Murphy prospered.

Like Farmer Bros, Candamber relied heavily on a mailing list to drive traffic to its stores. But Jim Murphy stuck to one outlet at this time, steadily building a personal following – never letting competitors set his agenda.

Long-time customer Jac Cousin runs off a list of attributes behind Murphy’s success and customer loyalty: being at the shop front to meet and greet, his knowledge, carrying a good selection, having stuff (especially old wines) others didn’t have, giving reasonable advice on buying for particular situations, making sure things ran as he wanted and “being a great bloke to deal with”.

Cousin particularly liked Jim’s lunches where “people could relax and get in a mood to buy more than they should” – and learn about wine from guest winemakers.

By the late eighties the independent trade controlled the bottled wine market across Australia. The major retail chains had moved into liquor, but their move into fine was half a decade off.

During this time Canberra experienced a particularly sharp burst of competition after the brothers Farmer split up. After a short, sharp bidding war, David and Josephine Farmer – with the support of partners including Shane and Nada Sinclair, myself, Jill Shanahan and David Harding – took complete control of Farmer Bros. Richard Farmer promptly set up his own liquor retailing business in competition and all hell broke loose – to the great joy (and confusion) of Canberra wine drinkers.

I was there in the thick of it, watching Farmer Bros sales grow, even as Richard Farmer’s sales took off. This had to be at the expense of competitors, including Murphy. But Murphy quietly sidestepped hostilities and ultimately outlasted both brothers.

Farmer Bros survived Richard Farmer by several years. But the collapse of Farmer Bros, towards the end of 1994, probably benefited Murphy and Canberra’s other independent retailers. The collapse also coincided with a decision by Coles’ liquor head office in Sydney to move into the fine wine market.

Canberra and Murphy didn’t feel any impact at first. But the scene was now set for a massive liquor market grab by Coles and, later, Woolworths. The competition Murphy faced between the late seventies and mid nineties would turn out to be nothing compared to what followed.

It started slowly, then built. As independents filled the gap left by Farmer Bros’ demise, Liquorland Australia Pty Ltd (the liquor arm of Coles) acquired Farmer Bros’ stores – only to find that only one of the five in Canberra, Manuka, worked without the mailing list and wine club newsletters. Cellarmaster Wines, one of the world’s great direct marketers, had already acquired these.

The Liquorland acquisition of Farmer Bros, then, didn’t initially put any pressure on Canberra’s independents. But in October 1994 Liquorland opened its first Vintage Cellars outlet at Mosman Junction, Sydney. “That’s when we got serious about wine”, recalls former Managing Director, Craig Watkins.

A national rollout of the Vintage Cellars brand proceeded rapidly, and included re-badging the original Farmer Bros store at Manuka and opening a second outlet at Woden Plaza. Shane Sinclair and I had joined Coles liquor following the demise of Farmer Bros and played key roles in the Vintage Cellars roll out. By the end of the nineties, Coles, through these outlets, had taken a significant slice of the Canberra fine wine market – giving Jim Murphy and other retailers a dose of competition – and glimpse of where the supermarkets were headed.

By the turn of the century Coles dominated the liquor and fine wine market in Australia. But in the opening years of the new century Coles liquor lost the plot, allowing Woolworths to gain the upper hand. A liquor juggernaut called Dan Murphy was about to sweep the country, Canberra included.

Belatedly, Coles launched its own “big box” brand, First Choice, to counter Dan Murphy’s growing might. Today, tiny Canberra has three Dan Murphy and three First Choice outlets – a massive presence for such a small population. Yet Jim Murphy not only survived their rollout, but opened a second store, at the airport, run by his son Adrien (AJ).

Tony Leon, former partner of the late Dan Murphy, managed the brand’s Australia wide rollout for Woolworths. He later left Woolworths and now drives the expansion of Coles-owned First Choice.

Leon says, “I’ve always believed a successful independent can survive against the likes of First Choice and Dan Murphy”. He says he never met Jim Murphy, but knew his business and regarded him as very good retailer.

Leon adds, “I’ve tried to buy him from both sides – but he said no. He must’ve been confident about his business to do that”.

Former Coles Liquor boss, Craig Watkins, knew Jim and often visited Market Cellars, impressed by Murphy’s success at an out of the way site. “He was always successful – a fantastic negotiator, a great relationship builder, respected by suppliers and a street fighter. He was always going to succeed, even when Dan Murphy and First Choice came to town. He saw very early not to put too much emphasis on beer and spirits and that wine is sexy. The politically powerful and big business were Jim’s customers”.

Long-term friend, winemaker and supplier, David O’Leary, says, “Jim knew a hell of a lot about the consumer and what the consumer wanted”. He recalls weekend visits to Market Cellars every year since the mid eighties, working the floor, talking to tasters, talking at the Sunday lunch – “and going home Monday totally shagged”.

O’Leary’s friendship with Murphy began around 1985 or 1986. As a 25 year old O’Leary been sent to Hardy’s Tintara Winery, to sort out the red wines – bringing fruit and body back to wines that’d gone off track in recent years.

He says, “Jim was a great friend of the Hardy family, especially Bill and Tom and often came across to Hardys”. O’Leary promoted Hardy’s wines during his first trips to Market Cellars. But when O’Leary moved to Annie’s Lane and later set up O’Leary Walker with Nick Walker, Jim offered support. “Jim became a terrific sling shot for us”, says O’Leary.

Former competitor David Farmer believes Jim Murphy was probably one of the last of the old-time wine merchants, in the traditional English sense – the sort that “you need one in your life to guide and teach, and it has to be about good times and friends”, says Farmer.

With Coles and Woolworths now holding around 79 per cent of the bottled wine market, winemakers and consumers alike need strong independents like Jim Murphy. Fortunately for Canberra, the Murphy family remains committed to the business. Family spokesman, Michael says Jim’s younger son, AJ, will oversee both stores. “He’s a chip off the old block”, says Phelps.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2011