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At The Helm Of Britain’s Oldest Wine Merchants

Paul Andrews spoke to Chairman Lizzy Rudd and CEO Dan Jago about their roles and what it is like to be running such a prestigious family firm as Berry Bros. & Rudd. Berry Bros. & Rudd is Britain’s oldest wine and spirit merchant, having traded from the same shop since 1698. Today the company also has offices in Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong, a Wine School and an exclusive fine wine and dining venue in London St. James’s. With over 320 years of history, Berry Bros. & Rudd is justly proud of its past.

Over three centuries later, the family business continues to flourish, with its heart still very much at No. 3 St. James’s where some of the established traditions of those early years are still maintained today.

In 1698, the company that we know today was started by a woman, a widow and a mother of at least two daughters with the surname Bourne. She established a grocer’s in the prestigious neighbourhood opposite St. James’s Palace which in that year became the official principal residence of the monarch. Her daughter Elizabeth married William Pickering and the Pickerings continued to run the business, supplying the newly fashionable coffee houses of St James’s under the sign of the coffee mill, which continues to hang above the door of No.3 to this day.

Elizabeth continued to run the business after the death of her husband, succeeded by her two sons and upon the death of John Pickering, William Jr brought in a relation, John Clarke as his partner. In 1787, John Clarke’s daughter Mary, who had married a wine merchant from Exeter, gave birth to the first George Berry, who was destined to take over his grandfather’s business in due course.

With 320 years of history and heritage behind them, stepping up to the helm is not an easy challenge, but it is something that Lizzy Rudd, Chairman of the family firm, is relishing, having taken over the role from Simon Berry in 2017. She is joined at the helm by CEO Dan Jago and together they are forging ahead. As previous generations of the family have testified, it is their attention to detail, willingness to change and constant innovation that has enabled them to succeed where others have not.

Lizzy has fond early memories of the family business. As she explains, “my earliest memories are of visiting the shop at St James’s and being weighed on the famous scales. The scales were originally installed for weighing coffee, tea and spices back in the 1700’s when we were more of a grocery business, before it became fashionable in the 1800’s to weigh people!”

“Back then, our side of the business was heavily involved with Cutty Sark whisky, so my parents were away a lot, especially to America. However, once a year, I would come to London and visit the shop at St. James’s to have lunch with my father. It is quite a childhood memory as it was always wonderful to come in and see the business. Whilst it was only a couple of times a year, it was enough to get a feel for how the business was part of our lives.”

“Other than that, I was always aware of the appreciation my parents had for wine in our house and how lucky I was to be allowed to have very small quantities of lovely wines, often diluted with water, from about the age of 12. For my parents, as it is still for the business, it was always about quality rather than quantity, although on occasion my mother was known for admonishing my father for not producing quite the quantity needed for a good lunch!”

At a young age Lizzy did not feel destined to enter the family firm; as a child she not uncommonly either wanted to be a vet or an astronaut, although ended up doing neither. As Lizzy adds, “I didn’t ever think about going into the family business and it certainly wasn’t encouraged – it wasn’t even on my radar; it was what my parents did. In many respects this was nice because there was never any pressure on my part, or for either of my brothers, to join the business, which isn’t always the case with historical family businesses. Perhaps there was some reverse psychology though because now we are all involved; albeit by our own design as opposed to being forced into it.”

“As we look at how we might bring aboard the next generation, I think a lot about that fine line between encouraging and preparing them for it, whilst also giving them the freedom to make their own decisions. It is important to us that the business is on their radar so that if they are interested we will be there to give them encouragement and the training required to help them succeed,” Lizzy continues.

Before joining Berry Bros. & Rudd Lizzy worked in some other businesses including a year in the City at a stockbroker’s, as well as completing a number of short internships. However, she soon joined the family business when somebody was needed to cover a period of maternity leave in the marketing department and from that moment on she began specialising in building the whisky brands. Roles followed that involved working in Spain for one of their distributors, plus a role at the spirits company, then named Hiram Walker, which subsequently became Allied Domecq and Pernod Ricard.

Working in such an old and prestigious business can often be taken for granted when one has grown up with it but for Lizzy there are still new experiences. “Every time that we have someone new come into the shop or attend one of our events, I feel proud because I can see how ‘wowed’ they are by the experience. Our people – our customers, producers and employees – are a constant reminder of how special it is and that we have been going for such a long time. That is a wonderful feeling and keeps me grounded.” she adds.

Lizzy chairs both the Board of Directors and the Owners’ Board. The Owners’ Board’s role is to set the vision and direction for the business from the perspective of the two families involved, Berry and Rudd, and also to set the decision-making parameters between the Board of Directors, the Owners’ Board and the family. Lizzy is also a member of the Family Council.

As Lizzy explains, “My main role is making sure that we have a professional and effective Board of Directors and, working with our CEO Dan Jago, to help steer the business towards achieving its five year plan. It’s also about making sure that the family values and culture are retained and ensuring that as a business we find a balance between being professional and commercial, whilst also ensuring that our people feel valued, which is perhaps what makes a family business different.”

“Within all of these roles, I am charged with ensuring effective and clear communication across all family members, shareholders and the wider leadership team.”

Dan is the CEO of Berry Bros. & Rudd and interestingly has a family business background too. His father Tom created the well known drinks brands of Baileys, Malibu and Piat d’Or but it was not a simple entry into the family business world for Dan, who initially sailed in a different direction with a ten year career in the Royal Navy. Returning to London he was drawn to the wine sector and has stayed there ever since. Prior to taking the role at Berry Bros. & Rudd, Dan worked for a number of private wine merchants as well as Group Director for Beers, Wines and Spirits at Tesco.

As Dan explains, “It was whilst I was at Tesco that I was approached about joining Berry Bros. & Rudd to help shape its future direction and I saw an opportunity to become part of an extraordinary family business which was impossible to turn down.”

Running a family firm is not always easy and can present unique challenges but Dan relishes the opportunity. “For me, running a family firm is appealing for two reasons. Firstly, you have the freedom and the autonomy to make changes, both short and long term, with a high level of consideration and interaction from the owners, in a way one would not expect in a public company. Secondly, there is the benefit of having active ownership participation in the day to day workings of the business.”

“We work with an extraordinary breadth of suppliers and customers worldwide and I am charged with being the go-between person whilst also helping my colleagues in the business. It is an incredible opportunity,” adds Dan.

“As CEO, I run every aspect of the planning and operation of the business. We employ just under 400 people worldwide. My role is to coordinate the leadership team in delivering the overall objectives set to us by the owners, the two families of Berry and Rudd.”

The relationship between Chairman and CEO is key, something that both Lizzy and Dan are in full agreement about. Lizzy appreciates that “for the success of the business it is imperative to have a good relationship between the two roles, especially when the Chairman is also representing the family members and shareholders. Dan and my relationship is crucial to the business and how we communicate is key.”

As Dan adds, “Lizzy has taken over having a phenomenal knowledge of the history of the business. She therefore puts an enormous amount of trust in me to keep her informed about the day-to-day goings on in the business and the challenges and opportunities that we face.”

“Our relationship is critical and like all good CEO/Chairman relationships, we maintain dialogue around all matters affecting the operation of the business. Fundamentally, Lizzy is always available to interact and support both the leadership team and the wider employee base, which is integral to the role of the family in the business.”

Berry Bros. & Rudd is steeped in history and heritage but certainly has an eye on the future. For Lizzy, there is also the need to be cognisant of the generations that have been involved before her. “I wouldn’t want to be the one to mess it up,” she adds and “there is definitely a pressure, although it has to be balanced against the sense of continuity that comes with the role too. As ambitious as I am for the business, I understand that this has to be balanced with taking intelligent risks because we want the business to be here for another eight generations.”

“As for me, I’m very keen to play my part in becoming a thriving, commercial and growing enterprise while keeping the ‘eccentricities’ associated with being a 300-year-old family business. I also believe it is important to step down as and when there is someone in the next generation ready to take over, as opposed to staying in until I’m ancient, which is a common feature in family business, and indeed my own family previously,” she adds.

For Dan, balancing the requirements of the family with those of the business is certainly one of the more challenging parts of the role. “At Berry Bros. & Rudd we are lucky to have the needs of the family made very clear as a result of the management structures in place. With the main Board and the Owners’ Board, we understand the long-term family objectives and desires very clearly and make sure we deliver against these.,” he adds.

Over the next five years, they are looking to grow the business in the UK and internationally, and to be open to exploring new areas of the business. For Lizzy, there is awareness too. “We are in a world that is changing rapidly and we need to be very aware of that and think what might impact us, such as changing drinking habits of the millennial generation. We need to make sure our brand is strong and that we can provide excellent customer experiences and service. In addition, I would really like to see us driving the business to think about ‘profit with purpose’ and our role in the communities and sectors we engage in,” she concludes.

For Dan the future is equally clear, “I have probably got one of the best jobs in the entire wine and spirits industry and therefore see myself staying put for as long as I’m delivering the objectives of the family. In five years time I would like to see the business being an even better version of what it is today.”

“My job is to make the business fit for the next 300 years by combining history and heritage that the business has with the spirit of innovation and excitement that surrounds it. The scale of the future has no boundaries, but we need to make sure everything we do is a true reflection of the brand and the expectations of the customers. We will continue to grow, steadily rather than urgently, delivering a sustainable secure future for the next generations to come.”

“I think the uniqueness of the family business model compared to the public or corporate model is becoming more apparent too, with the pressures on short term results increasingly viewed as leading to undesired long term consequences and the ability for a family to make the right decisions for the long term security of the business is a significant advantage. The advantage of Berry Bros. & Rudd is that despite being eight generations old we still celebrate the uniqueness of being a family business and presenting the business as such remains a key point of difference and a great differentiator,” he concludes.

With the final words, Lizzy sums up by adding “I believe that family businesses have a shared mentality which is based on taking a long term view. Everything I do today is about investing in the future. I’m here as a steward to do as much as I can to grow the business, to make it even better than it is already, in order to pass on a stronger business to the next generation. This is the real driver that I see in being a family business.”

Berry Bros. & Rudd is one of the oldest family businesses in the UK today. The company’s willingness to embrace change, innovate, look for new opportunities and focus on clear governance and communication is something that has evolved over time and should stand it in good stead for the future, enabling it to continue to act as a great ambassador for the family business sector, not just in the UK but globally too for generations to come.

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