Simon Berry: 'A family business must never become the place for unemployable relatives'

You Live and You Learn: the chairman of Berry Bros & Rudd, Simon Berry, wanted to be an actor; instead he's Queen's wine merchant.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 24 Feb 2015

The firm dates from 1698. Like Veuve Clicquot we were founded by an entrepreneurial widow. It's not until the women are widowed that families work out who the brains are. We started by selling tea for £10 a pound when the average wage was £15 a year.

Succession is always a weak point in family businesses. They must never become the place for unemployable relatives and we have firm rules about entry. We have 11 youngsters in the family between 21 and five, and we want the right ones.

I'm the seventh generation family member to chair the business but I wanted to be an actor. My father made it clear this was the ultimate goal for me, but it wasn't until my 30s that I realised he was right and I started to enjoy it.

My father's favourite saying was: 'It's only money.' Must have driven the FD round the bend. We're more professional now and have non-execs. We had a website in 1995 - before Amazon.

Management for me is about surrounding yourself with the best people, including non-family. If they are brighter than you – wonderful.

We sold Cutty Sark whisky four years ago. We wanted to concentrate on niche spirit brands such as The King's Ginger, a liqueur invented for Edward VII to drink while out in his Daimler. Pre-tax profit fell from £28.4m to £1.4m but we have a strong war chest. It was good that we encouraged rebellion against what the business had been.

We're pathologically private and very debt averse. I could not run a publicly listed FTSE business – too much PR involved. It’s all comms and strategy. We focus on growth without the pressure of shareholders and think in 20-year timeframes, doing business by handshakes.

The Canadian liquor magnate Sam Bronfman came over here in the 1940s. He wanted to buy Cutty Sark. He arrived in St James’s in a newly acquired bowler hat. The legend is that my ancestor Hugh Rudd opened the lunch conversation by saying: ‘I feel I must tell you I have something you want but you have nothing I want.’ Bronfman departed. 

We turn over £150m. How big do we want to be? As big as possible without losing our soul. We don't want to become a Diageo.

China is very important to us but too many take a patronising view. I was at a dinner party in Hong Kong when there were the usual snooty gags about our Chinese guest maybe wanting to pour Pepsi into his wine. Finally he’d had enough and reminded us that it was the British who decided it was a good idea to add milk to tea.

Importing to mainland China is tricky. High duties are fair enough but they require two bottles per case to customs for scientific testing. This is fine for a container load of six-quid sauvignon blanc, not possible with Lafite.

How many days off drink a week? Normally one. And I'll stop drinking on holiday because it's a holiday.

As a supplier I couldn’t possibly say how many bottles per head they budget for at Buckingham Palace banquets. However, Jancis Robinson tells me they serve into very small glasses.

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