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So farewell ‘Mr Danzka’ as we bid you a long, happy and deserved retirement after an amazing 48-plus year journey in the drinks and travel retail industry.
Mr Danzka is Torben Vedel Andersen, the ebullient, irrepressible Dane who has just stepped down as Global Sales Director at German drinks company Waldemar Behn and at its subsidiary Danzka Vodka Copenhagen.
Waldemar Behn, a proudly held fourth-generation family company based in Eckernförde, Schleswig-Holstein, bought Danzka vodka in 2013, the largest acquisition in the German company’s then 121-year history. Danzka wasn’t all that Behn acquired at the time. The company also took on the man that co-owner Rüdiger Behn affectionately dubbed Mr Danzka, a walking, talking ambassador for the brand.
As I wrote in this Blog in August 2013, having just visited Eckernförde (devilishly difficult to pronounce after too many Danzkas), “Torben lives, breathes and sleeps Danzka; he’s an old-fashioned brand purist who believes not only in his product but in the importance of quality relationships in business.” Or as he likes to put it, “First you sell yourself, then you sell your brand.”
Torben was practically born to the liquor business. Certainly he was raised within it, his mother and father having bought a liquor and tobacconist shop when he was 12. Five years later he became a trainee at Carlsberg/Tuborg and on turning 20 he was promoted to a role within the brewer’s international department covering Scandinavia and duty free.
At 22, he started to travel to Western Europe, focusing mainly on the ferry business – the likes of Viking, Silja, Birka, Finnlines, DFDS, and DSB Tax Free Shops – plus leading global duty free retailers of the time and the Greenland, Iceland, and US military markets.
In the mid-80s, Torben heard that Hiram Walker (a drinks giant of the time – hands up who still remembers them… ah, not many, thought so, I am showing my age again) was looking for a Nordic Area Manager. Torben fitted the bill and started reporting to a charismatic Swedish/American named Lars G. Johansson (a great character who put Inniskillin on the global duty free map and who tragically passed away at the Cannes show in 2009).
After several “fabulous” years, all began to change for Torben amid the drinks industry’s merger mania of the late 80s and early to mid-90s, a trend that he believed ruined multiple great company cultures. When intra-EU duty free disappeared in 1999 (perversely its fate decided by the vote of the Danish government), he was asked to leave what had now become Allied-Domecq.
Torben was “a tenth of an inch away” from joining Lars and Beverly Johansson at the newly formed Imagination Unlimited International, right at the beginning of the Inniskillin story. Instead he was drawn to the less risky waters of an offer from another respected Danish veteran of the industry, Erik-Juul Mortensen at Danish Distillers, whom he had known since those early days at Carlsberg.
But the consolidation trend within the industry was far from over. Shortly after Torben joined the Danish drinks company, it was acquired by Absolut vodka brand owner V&S Group, leading to the creation of an entity called V&S International Brands. The division handled global duty free for all group brands, including Absolut and Danzka, and domestic exports for the entire portfolio, excluding Absolut.
Juul-Mortensen became President and Torben enjoyed several more “dream years”, running Americas duty free. “My co-operation with Erik was nothing short of phenomenal and we created great results for all brands, not least Absolut and Danzka vodka but also new brands like Cruzan and Plymouth,” he recalled in an interview with me in October 2015.
Alas, Danzka was ultimately viewed as expendable, forever in the shadow of its powerhouse sister vodka Absolut, and was divested to French drinks group before being snapped up by its present-day (and avowedly long-term) owner, Waldemar Behn. What Torben memorably dubbed “the third period of sheer happiness” had begun.
His favourite quote is from Brazilian lyricist and novelist Paulo Coelho – ‘If you only walk on sunny days you’ll never reach your destination.’
Over a near 50-year career, Torben has walked on plenty of both and cruelly, his final year in travel retail, which would have culminated in one heck of a party in Cannes last October, coincided with the stormiest of them all due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye,” as the late master Leonard Cohen put it.
But Torben has never been one to bemoan his lot and is looking forward to a new chapter, spending more time with Helle, his beloved wife of 42 years, and also keeping himself professionally busy with what he calls a ‘micro company’.
It’s called TV Advice and offer mentorships to new and small enterprises which wish to explore international opportunities. His initial client, Oddbird International, a Swedish company founded by Moa Gürbüzer*, produces what Torben calls “the best non-alcoholic wines in the world – their sparkling products are especially fantastic”.
“Moa is really something and a person with attitude and a mission,” Torben, a non-drinker himself for many years, continues. “She worked for years in Sweden as a social worker with children from alcohol-abused households and decided to do something about it, creating Oddbird where most profits go to children in need.”
With a mentor like Torben alongside, Oddbird seems sure to fly high internationally. But apart from helping Moa Gürbüzer and perhaps one or two more entrepreneurs, it’s time to kick back. His initials, TVA, might conjure up a certain consumer tax on goods and services, but like the products he sold so well for so long, Torben Vedel Andersen is now free of duty.
*Footnote: Moa Gürbüzer is a celebrated Swedish businesswoman and pioneer, a former social worker, who repeatedly witnessed the destructive power of substance abuse and alcoholism first-hand.
This experience prompted her to launch MRG Wines (the predecessor of Oddbird) in 2013 and go to the root of the problem – the alcohol itself – by producing top-quality wines with exceptional taste, entirely liberated from alcohol. Her goal was to open eyes, change mindsets and make alcohol-free the new normal.
In August 2020, amid the ravages of COVID-19, Oddbird opened a pop-up summer restaurant called Nowhere (pictured above) in Häringe-Hammersta Nature Reserve.
The restaurant had six unique tables in different settings in almost complete isolation. The food was served by Linn Söderström and Marion Ringborg, the chefs behind Restaurant Garba in Stockholm.
“Nowhere is our tribute to what we found when society was forced to a halt – when we no longer could escape to destinations on the other side of the planet. Instead of the weekend abroad we rediscovered nature – the forest nearby or the forgotten corner in the back of the yard. And in those simple places that we used to call nowhere, without even searching we found ourselves.” – Mehmet Gürbüzer