Subscriber login Close [x]
remember me
You are not logged in.

The Interview - Simon Berry, Chairman, Berry Bros & Rudd, London

Published:  23 July, 2008

How old is Berry Bros & Rudd?
It was founded 307 years ago on the current site on St James's Street. The problem with being this old is that people think we are dinosaurs and assume that the company has never changed. But in fact the only reason any long-established company manages to survive is that it never stops changing. Change is something that family businesses actually do very well, although they are not very conscious of it. As new generations come into the business they tend to rebel, but because they have grown up with the culture of the company they also have a natural understanding of what makes it special. But you need a balance between family and non-family management, who will counteract the family tendency to say, 'We are going to do it like this because we have done it this way for 150 years.'

Why did you decide to launch your website in 1994?

I just felt it fitted with BBR. I have never seen the Internet as a very modern way of doing business, because in some ways it is a fantastically old-fashioned way of doing business. People were so excited because they thought it would be very quick and very technological, that it would reinvent the way the world worked. At the height of the dot-com boom people would stand up and say: 'We are going to reinvent the wine trade and sweep away all the fuddy-duddy old-fashioned ways of doing things.' But they didn't. That was never going to happen, and people should have known better. They were part of the old-fashioned wine trade and relying on the old-fashioned wine trade to supply them with stock. That was what was extraordinarily stupid - they were basically telling the people who could turn off the tap and make their businesses fail that they were going to destroy them.

It is now the second most-visited commercial wine website in the world. What was the key to your success?

We didn't rush it or spend a fortune. The first site cost us only 17,000, so we didn't have a business plan or a budget and so no one asked any questions. For three years we could just play with it and figure out how it might fit our brand. We had just opened the outlet at Heathrow and that was really the first time we thought about what it is that we do, what our brand is and what we are best at. The Heathrow shop made us realise we weren't just a shop in St James's Street and that there was something about our brand that had integrity and authority, that people trusted us. Even if we were in somewhere as weird as an airport, or cyberspace, we could still sell people expensive wines to take with them across the world. And they weren't prepared to do that from any old duty-free shop. It was a big change for us because until then we had been trying to compete with the high street retailers and supermarkets and we began to focus far more on fine wine.

Do you have any plans to develop the website further?

We are looking at making more use of 'streaming video' so people can get a better idea of who makes the wines we sell. We are also looking at ways of selling wine more proactively on the website. One of the things we do, which no supermarket will ever be able to do, is look after wine for people. A significant part of our broking business is wine that we hold for our customers. We are looking at making it easier for them to know what those wines are worth at any one time and put them on our website as good for sale. But that's not new. If you look at our price list from the 1920s, you will see a little note at the bottom of the page that says that parcels of fine wine are continually passing through our hands, so please contact us for details. In the 1920s, customers would probably have sent their butler round; now they can get online 24 hours a day. A new way of doing an old-fashioned thing.

Why have you kept Fields, Morris & Verdin as a separate company?

We were determined to keep the names of Fields, Morris & Verdin going, so they were merged but they haven't been sucked into Berry Bros & Rudd. They do something different from us, and we wanted to make it absolutely clear to the trade that it wasn't us just buying out rivals and crushing them, which was the reaction we got to start with. We believe that the synergies lie with allowing people like Jasper Morris MW, John Hutton, Robert Wheatcroft and Mark Pardoe MW to do what they do best, whether that's selling wine or buying wine, and to bring to them some capital and business acumen, to take the actual running of the business off their shoulders.

What's the main difference between BBR and Fields, Morris & Verdin?

Fields, Morris & Verdin is a wholesaler and it can do that side of the business far better than we can. BBR is the retail side of the business. FMV will import wines direct for retailers such as Asda and Oddbins. It doesn't really fit for Asda to be buying wine from BBR, royal warrant-holding wine merchants of St James's Street. There's a sort of disconnect from both sides. But Asda knows that BBR is only a customer of FMV and FMV will not sell us even if we came on bended knee a particular wine that it is buying for Asda. That independence, that ability to work as a separate squadron, is important for everybody.

Berry Bros & Rudd, 3 St James's Street, London SW1A 1EG, Tel: 020 7396 9600,

Berry Bros & Rudd was founded 307 years ago on the site it still occupies in St James's Street by 'the widow Bourne'. The business originally traded in tea and coffee, but George Berry started to develop the wine side of the business when he took it over in the early 19th century. In 1920, Hugh Rudd became a partner and the company took on its present name.

Simon Berry joined the family business in 1977 and took over from Christopher Berry Green as chairman in January 2005