Lucinda Baring

New wine in old bottles

Lucinda Baring meets Simon Berry, chairman of a 200-year-old company that’s more modern than it looks 

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Lucinda Baring meets Simon Berry, chairman of a 200-year-old company that’s more modern than it looks 

Berry Bros & Rudd in St James’s Street epitomises the idea of an old-fashioned wine merchant. Outside, the façade has remained largely unchanged for centuries. Inside, the panelling, desks and uneven wooden floor transport you to an era long gone. And yet this venerable appearance belies the efficient mechanisms of a much more modern business. Other family-run wine merchants have been less successful in updating their brand. Lay & Wheeler, a 150-year-old family business very similar to Berry Bros and perhaps their closest competitor, was bought by Majestic in March, and Avery’s of Bristol, established in 1793, is now owned by Laithwaites. Earlier this month, Berry Bros itself announced it was closing its Dublin shop after ten years due to high costs.

Can Berry Bros in London survive and keep its independence? Despite the perception that a traditional family firm is incapable of competing with more progressive models, chairman Simon Berry assures me Berry Bros is going from strength to strength. ‘It is always assumed that a family-run business must be archaic,’ he tells me. That’s an easy assumption to make, especially when the chairman himself is an affable gent dressed in a pinstripe suit and we’re sitting in his panelled study behind the shop. ‘The truth is that the company regenerates with every generation. We may give the impression of an “old boys’ club” but the new boys bring new ideas.’

There has been a Berry or a Rudd at the helm here since 1810. No. 3 St James’s Street started as a grocery shop, opened by the Widow Bourne in 1668. In 1754, her grandson, William Junior Pickering, took on John Clarke as his partner, and Clarke’s daughter married John Berry, a wine merchant from Exeter; when her father died in 1788, he left the shop to his infant grandson, George Berry. George’s name was emblazoned on the shop in 1810, and when he died in 1854, his sons, George and Henry, became the first Berry brothers to run the company, which remained unchanged for another 90 years.

Even then, the different approaches between generations became obvious. ‘When you are part of a family business, you are brought up with it but there is also an instinct to rebel against it,’ Simon says. ‘You can see which parts of it need to stay, but also what needs to change.’ The young guns are always keen to put their stamp on the brand — but this usually proves to be an asset. One example was Henry Berry’s creation of a ginger liqueur in 1903 for King Edward VII, who wanted something to ward off the chill when travelling in his new motor carriage. The King loved it — but it was the younger generation who decided to brand it the King’s Ginger Liqueur and add it to the list, where it remains a favourite today.

Simon Berry is certainly leaving his own mark on the company. One of his first acts as chairman was to come up with a ‘family constitution’ — rules to decide which family members are allowed into the business. ‘Family businesses sink when the unemployable members who get the jobs. It is crucial that you pick the talent, so we’ve created a mechanism that allows us to do that in a way that is fair and visible.’ The first rule is that any family member hoping to join the firm has a university education — meaning that if the constitution had been in place 30 years ago, Simon himself would have been barred. The second is they have to have worked outside the wine trade for at least two years. ‘The less related the work, the better. We want new skills and new ideas.’

In earlier days, the Berrys and Rudds were quite small families: war claimed many of the men, they didn’t have huge numbers of children, and women weren’t allowed in the business. Now, family members are flooding in to stake their claim and there has to be a selection process. ‘It’s not always easy — we have to deal with death, inheritance and the simple factor of whether someone is good enough — but the constitution allows us to plan ahead.’ Simon also says it’s crucial to employ some key team members from outside the family. ‘Christopher Berry Green, my predecessor, certainly appreciated that family is not always best. You have to balance the business.’ But the fact that the majority of the shareholders are still family members is part of the firm’s enduring success. ‘They look at the long-term prospects of the company rather than the short-term gains.’

The next chairman could eventually be Geordie Willis, Simon’s nephew. Now 28, Willis first worked in the cellars during university holidays. When he graduated, he came to see Uncle Simon to discuss his prospects — and was sent packing. ‘My sister, who is the vice-chairman, rang me in an uproar, demanding to know why I’d fired my nephew. But I had to follow the rules.’ Willis went to work in marketing, which he turned out to be very good at, and Simon began to worry if they could afford to bring him back.

He did and Willis is now working in the Berry Bros’ Hong Kong office — a key part of Simon’s expansion plan, along with an office in Tokyo. ‘The key to our success in Asia is in building relationships with our clients,’ says Simon. ‘We put a lot of work into understanding how the market works over there and how we might fit into it.’

Another key part of any modern business is its website, and Berry Bros was ahead of the game in selling online: the first website was launched in 1994, when Simon was the only board member who had a computer. He was frustrated by the way people bought wine in the early Nineties. Supermarkets were dominating the market: people who felt embarrassed by their lack of knowledge about wine could pick anything off the shelf, grateful for the anonymity. Those who knew their wine, on the other hand, still went to the likes of Berry Bros. ‘It was all the wrong way round,’ Simon tells me, ‘but the internet provided the solution. You didn’t have to be embarrassed that you didn’t know how to pronounce Lynch Bages. My father, Anthony Berry, was horrified by it all and said it wouldn’t last — but it’s been brilliant.’ And that’s not all: BBR has a blog on which experts review new vintages, and is even on Twitter, where buyers visiting vineyards can report on what they’ve found.

I ask if Berry Bros has been affected by the recession. ‘I think everyone is affected,’ Simon says. ‘Everyone reads the press and becomes a bit more careful, whether they’re actually affected or not. There is certainly less conspicuous consumption, and thank God for that. It’s much more fun to help customers hunting for a bargain. There is an assumption that if you come here, you have to buy a case or would leave having spent more than you wanted to. But the fun lies in finding something cheaper — and better — than they expected.’

Though many assume Berry Bros is a posh wine merchant for the upper classes, Simon is keen to persuade me otherwise. It specialises in finding rarer, smaller vineyards that offer the same quality as better known vineyards, but at keener prices. ‘Customers who really know and love their wine shop around, so we have to offer them a very bespoke service. In Asia, clients are concerned by the “face” of a wine; here, if you produce something at dinner that is good but unknown, it shows you know your stuff.’

The company has expanded hugely in recent years, and Simon hopes its presence in Asia will continue to grow; he also has his eye on the US market. At home, his idea of turning the St James’s Street cellars into a catering space has been a huge success. It n ow hosts 350 events a year, from private dinner parties to six-week wine courses. ‘I know we may seem like a fusty and traditional old company, but I think I’ve proved we’re not.’ He has. But sitting in his study, surrounded by old bottles, books and portraits of Berrys and Rudds, it’s easy to see where the misapprehension comes from.