Fruit of the mature vine

Simon Berry comes from a long line of wine merchants but an essential ingredient to that success is a willingness to change with the times

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 April, 2013, 6:32am

Wealth, goes an old Chinese adage, doesn't survive three generations. But Simon Berry, chairman of Britain's oldest wine and spirits merchant, Berry Brothers & Rudd, and his family is a notable exception, with a family business that has survived seven generations and more than three centuries.

The key to this extraordinary longevity, according to Berry, is the family's ability to adapt to customers' needs.

"It is important for every generation to embrace change and generate new ideas," Berry said on a recent trip to Hong Kong.

"It's the only constant. Also, I believe you should not leave it too late to retire. You increasingly believe yourself to be indispensable, whereas it's critical to allow the next generation the chance to make their mark."

His father, however, retired as chairman at 90, before passing the baton on to him 2005. But as he ran the show, he allowed his son try his ideas for the business.

Berry has always been keen on using new technology to promote the centuries-old brand. Even during the hour-long interview at his Wan Chai office, he constantly tinkers with his iPad mini to point out something on his company website and look online for information on wine.

In addition to the long-standing family shop on St James's Street in London, the company uses the internet to sell wine.

Customers of Berry Brothers & Rudd include movie stars, politicians and the British royal family. The company had the rare honour of providing the wine for Prince William's wedding dinner.

Beyond his home base, Berry attaches a lot of importance to the mass market in Asia. The rapid growth of the wine trade in Asia, particularly Hong Kong, led him to open an office in Wan Chai where potential clients can sample the range on offer.

The company is also looking for a retail site and has hired a Putonghua-speaking sales team.

"We have seen a growing number of customers from Hong Kong and mainland China in our shops in London. We know this is the time to open our own shop here," Berry said, adding that abolishing the wine duty in Hong Kong has made the city a regional hub for the trade.

Besides Hong Kong, the company has operations in Japan and Singapore. Berry said he believed Asia would be the focus of growth in the future, not just because of its growth but also because of the strong interest in wine in the region. "I can see many Chinese and Asian customers have a strong passion for wine."

Berry, naturally, is an oenophile himself. "Of course I like wine. I find it odd if anyone says they don't like wine. It's like saying you don't like music, or food, or sunlight," he said with a laugh.

"My tips for wine drinkers are: never assume that you know everything about wine. The real joy of wine is that there is always something new to learn, with every bottle you open.

"Burgundy is my tip at the moment as I feel we are about to experience a surge in its popularity. However, it is best to look at wine as a long-term investment - a minimum of five years. Secondly, there is the personal journey that customers go through as they learn about wine and try different wines throughout their lives."

Berry had a hard learning curve. Although born to a wine-selling family, he did not become chairman in one go. He worked in different wineries in France to learn the basic "vine roots" before joining the company in 1977. He rose through the ranks to become the marketing director in 1987 and a board member in 1994. He was appointed deputy chairman in 2002 and became chairman in 2005.

The company was established in 1698. Back then it used to sell coffee - the drink at the time. It wasn't until much later that it moved into wine and spirits, now its core business. The firm has survived two world wars and many an economic crisis in the past three centuries.

The key to Berry Bros' success, he says, is to have a wide range of wines for customers to choose from. "So during tough times, we still have the cheaper wine to sell, while during boom times there are deluxe wines for customers who want them. Not all our wines are for the high end of the market as we have over 5,000 products to choose from," he said.

But for survival, he says, family control is more important than product diversity because the family will do anything to ensure its future, even in the toughest of economic times.

"No business is immune from rough economies, but our business has proven to be resilient in the long term. Part of this strength lies in the fact that it is a family business. I have great belief in family businesses and their ability to balance investment and return for the long-term health of the business."