19 June 2013

An Interview with Simon Berry of Berry Bros and Rudd

Simon Berry, Chairman of Berry Bros & Rudd

Simon Berry of Berry Bros
Simon Berry, Chairman of Berry Brothers & Rudd

Simon, you are the head of the oldest and arguably the most prestigious Wine & Spirits Merchant in the country, Berry Bros & Rudd. When we met, what most surprised me was that if you had had the choice, you would have rather gone into acting /directing than the wine business. Tell our readers a little bit about this…

I was 19, and acting was fun: the family firm, even such an amazing family firm as Berry Brothers & Rudd, was work. It also represented, in my mind, my parents’ choice of how I should spend my life rather than my choice. So it was a form of rebellion, I suppose. If I had a less pathetic pain threshold I might have gone for a tattoo or piercings, so let’s be grateful for small mercies. And by the time I reached 23, and realised the plusses of the wine business and the minuses of the acting profession (including a lack of talent…) I came back into the fold readily enough. In the meantime I still keep up my interest in the stage and the cinema: I’ve produced the odd play, written the odd script, and am now lucky enough to be on the Council of RADA, which is a great privilege.

You and your father were very close. What were the most important lessons he taught you when it came to trading wine. And explain to us a little bit about the uphill journey your father had to go through to join the family business?

 

Berry Brothers London
Berry Bros London

My father was the younger son in the family, and there were strict rules that only the eldest son could come into the business. When he was in his late 20s his brother was killed in the war, and through this tragedy he was suddenly allowed to do the job he had always wanted to perform. So it was, to his dying day, the only job on earth that anyone with any sense could possibly want. He taught me a lot: principally that wine and spirits are part of the fabric of a civilised life, and that anyone who forgets that and who abuses alcohol in any way has missed the point entirely.

Berry Bros

You’ve made it much harder for existing family members to join the business. What rules have you introduced to ensure that a ‘Berry’ doesn’t get an easier ride and why did you introduce them to begin with?

Families grow faster than businesses, and it’s important that BBR gets the best family members working for it. If you set tough barriers for entry the next generation won’t feel that joining the business is a soft option, there as a safety net if all else fails. We’ve survived for over 300 years, and I want us to survive as a family business for another 300.

So family members have to have a degree, and have to have worked outside the wine & spirits industry for at least 3 years before they can apply here. Firstly they will come to the firm with a much broader perspective, but secondly they may decide that the business is not for them – which is also fine!

Berry Bros London

You are the first person within the company to allow passers by to see into the shop from the street. Was this masterful planning or a mere accident?

the inside of berry brothers london
The old inside of Berry Brothers and Rudd, London

Mere accident! We used to have metal shutters on the inside of the windows on St James’s Street up to eye level, with “Berry Bros & Rudd, Wine & Spirit Merchants” painted onto them. A throwback from the 19th century, I suppose. A window cleaner overslept one day, and the shutters were still down when I arrived for work, on a sunny day which made the shop look amazing with the light streaming into this unique space. The guys in the shop were in a state of trauma, as if we’d just made them take all their clothes off! It was also the day of a board meeting, and while the board were standing in the shop wondering whether this was genius or sacrilege an American walked into the shop. He’d walked up St James’s Street every time he’d come on business to London, but for the first time had realised we were there because he’d recognised the shop from the street! So the decision was made, and the shutters never went back up.

Simon, we played a prank on you and reported you missing. We did this because we were struggling to get anyone’s attention at Berry Brothers, and you were a very good sport about the whole thing. What did you think of our prank?

It was very funny, and it worked!

In your opinion, who benefits from Robert Parker’s retirement? And do you believe the investment market will change dramatically after his exit?

I’m not sure that he ever will retire. But he’s not immortal of course, and the only constant is change. Clearly there will one day be a shift: he’s the most powerful critic in the world, and has done a great deal of good making wine accessible to millions of people all over the world. He has also changed the way many wines taste, and (ironically for the ‘people’s champion’) fuelled the ever-increasing rise in top-end wine prices. It could be argued that it is a dangerous situation if one man has the power to have that much influence. I hope that we’re beginning to see a more democratic situation, where wine drinkers listen to many more people before making their minds up. It’s already happening: Cellartracker, for example, is creating a real revolution.

Berry Bros & Rudd were positioned out in HK before the dropping of duty on alcohol. How have the demographic of your clients changed since when you were first there till today?

When we arrived in Hong Kong in 1999 most of our sales were to ex pats. Now 90% of our sales are to Chinese customers. Which is the way it should be.

Hong Kong has also become centre of the wine world in many ways: certainly the centre of its attention. I’m determined that it’s a market that should be carefully tended for the long term, not just looked upon as a gold-rush town where a fast buck can be made. The amount of fakes coming into China and being sold in the auction market is a scandal, for example – many of them originating in America, it is now becoming clear, which is diametrically opposed to the situation that exists in popular Western imagination. The people responsible for this deserve to end up in jail for a long time. How dare they treat such an exciting opportunity as China with such greed and such contempt? China requires long term investment, especially into education and making wine-drinking part of an international civilised way of life – not con-artists trading on perceived ignorance.

For the last 6 months of last year the fine wine market took a free fall. Do you think the money from Asia has made the market more volatile?

That statement is not entirely accurate. The very top wines – Lafite, for example – had grown in price far too quickly, and there was a quite proper correction. But the fine wine market in general, especially if you include lesser Bordeaux, and Burgundy in general, was remarkably stable given the global economic situation. Asia – or more accurately China – is driving the world economy at the moment, and the wine market is no exception.

You were schooled at Eton. Do you think that people who go to public school are automatically called Toffs

Who calls Etonians Toffs?

Maybe you should find somebody and ask them that question. Let me know what they say! And tell them not to be so chippy!

You’ve been fortunate to work in many factions of the wine industry from warehouses to the cellars at Mouton Rothschild. Looking back, Which was your favorite of those jobs?

Mouton was a great education, of course, as I had two amazing tutors in Philip de Rothschild and the legendary cellar master M Blondin (I never plucked up the courage to ask him if he was a relation of the tightrope walker). Working as a stagiere at Moët & Chandon was the most fun, but I also have very fond memories of driving fork lift trucks under the arches of Waterloo for Deinhards.

Other than 12×75.com, which are your other favourite wine publications?

We need to include websites under the general heading of “publications”. Jancis’s “Purple Pages” is a must, and I also find out a great deal of what’s going on by logging onto the forums on wine sites, especially the UK Wine Pages, and Wine Berserkers for a more international perspective.

 How would you like to see BBR develop over the next few generations, and do you already have a succession plan in place?

I don’t want to lay down a rigid plan for Berrys’ – that will be up to the next generation. Their vision, not mine. The succession plan is being formed, but in some ways is tricky as there are so many talented people. They all complement each other though, and will make a great team. Most importantly they won’t have short horizons, and will allow the company to reach its own potential – probably in ways I haven’t even dreamed of.

Over lunch, I was amazed at how many individuals you referred to within the wine world that you admired. Which 3 people in the wine world do you admire the most and why?

There are a huge number of people in the trade to admire! Wine makers, lots of other wine merchants, innovators (Eric Levine at Cellartracker and Martin Brown at Wine Searcher, for example). But I don’t do lists, and especially not lists of three. I could give you a long list of those I don’t admire: right now, anybody who is not taking seriously, or even worse exploiting, the pernicious spread of counterfeit wine. Bit I’ve already raged about that above!

BBX – Berrys’Broking Exchange

In 2010 you launched Berry’s Broking Exchange (BBX) – how has BBX done to date, and was it formed to cater for the ever growing interest in investment grade wines?

BBX has outperformed all our expectations: in fact we have kept relatively quiet about it so that the rush doesn’t become a stampede before we can control it. It was formed to answer the question of the provenance of investment grade wine (horrible term!) which I referred to in my last answer. All the wines on BBX come from our cellars, albeit from the stocks of our customers looked after by us, and have our normal guarantees attached to them. If you know where a wine has been stored since it was made, or have the guarantee of a merchant with a reputation to preserve, then you can be sure that you’re not being sold a fake.

I know you are not a fan of titles, but if I had a gun to your head and made you answer the following question which answer would you go for. The question is which title would you rather hear in front of your name?

i) The number 1 most powerful personality in the drinks business is Simon Berry

or ii) And the academy award for best actor / director goes to Simon Berry

Not a contest: the Oscar. But can I have it for best screenplay please? I know my limitations…….!

12×75.com would like to thank Simon Berry for treating me to a wonderful lunch and making the time for this interview. I found Simon to be funny, intelligent, witty and disarmingly charming. I tried soooo hard to dislike him, but it just didn’t happen. Simon Berry is the Chairman of Berry Bros. & Rudd, need I say more ?! – The Editor

3 October 2011

A Chat with Mark Schuringa: Owner & M.D. of Ditton Wine Traders (DWT)

Mark, cheers for taking the time out to talk with us here at 12×75.com

 

12×75 : Tell us a little bit about how you got into the wine business, and moreover how your past role translates to what you do now?

I needed a change from having a very corporate and successful career as a Supply Chain Director for the leading supermarket and off-licence operator in Holland. About to turn 40, I wanted to do something I was passionate about. Which is trading, fine wine and running a proper business. Lots of people think my background was instrumental in setting up DWT because of the network, but the real value lies in understanding how you run a business that customers appreciate.

12×75 : Your slogan is “Making Fine Wine Accessible”. In addition to this, what makes Dittons a strong brand in the market?

 

Ditton Wine TradersThe slogan really captures it very well. I do want to give customers the real thing i.e the right wines, no nonsense and at the most competitive prices possible. That’s the back-bone of everything we do. I’m not interested in making as much money as possible. Instead, I believe that if you do what’s right for your customer, it will be right for DWT. The company I used to work for had a statue in front of the main entrance to HQ, of an elderly lady with a shopping bag, titled “lest we forget who we work for”. I will always remember that and I passionately believe in that message. Some people have called me naive for that. I just think it’s the only way I want to work as well as the best sustainable route for DWT. And that, to answer your question, is what I believe makes DWT a brand.

12×75 : I must confess, I’m a fiend for Wine Searcher, and like many other investors, I go to the cheapest, most reliable / recommended sources. This is how I became a client of Dittons two years ago. How is it that you are consistently able to be cheaper than a lot of your competitors?

 Primarily the desire to be the cheapest. Yes, our margins are lower than some of the competition but so are our costs. We run a small and effective operation, focussing on being very good at buying and only spending money if it adds real value to our customers. The result is that our bottom line is very healthy and that we have customers that know they had a good deal.

12×75 : Since October 2008, you have run your own blog. A large number of your posts have been based around the investment side of the market. Given that the last few years have been remarkable in the wine market, how would you describe the current downturn, and in your opinion what are the reasons?

 

 

Ditton Wine Traders First of all, I think the price drops are both healthy and long coming. No market can keep going up like fine wine did in the last 2-3 years. This correction allows for a period of consolidation, reflection and normalization. Which ultimately avoids boom/bust scenario’s. The reasons for the current downturn are 1) profit taking, 2) there’s a lot of stock in China, unsold, bought while prices were going up, whilst 3) there’s a general nervousness or even fear in the financial markets, which has subdued demand for the moment. It’s all about supply and demand, I think the fundamentals for wine investment are unchanged and very sound. Do read our BLOG if you want to know more!

12×75 : Do you think the day will ever come where Merchants will struggle to source First Growths in Europe, and will have to start sourcing them from HK?

No. There’s still an enormous amount of stock in Europe. Moreover – contrary to popular belief – the majority of current sales are still to European customers. We will likely see Asia become even more important than it already is, but both because of the history and existing, often long standing relations between suppliers and customers, I don’t think it will get to the point where the vast majority of 1stGrowths will be sold directly to Asia. Regarding sourcing from HK, this will not happen unless providence can be absolutely guaranteed, something I don’t see happening in the near future because of climatic conditions and risk of counterfeit. At the moment, we don’t touch any stock ex HK, none. And as far as I’m aware, no other reputable merchant does either.

12×75 : I’ve noticed that as time progressed, your wine list has grown outside the realms of Bordeaux. You now have a section for Burgundy and Italian Wines. Do you believe these are good investments, and if so why?

Burgundies yes, they are the hot item at the moment. Although for investment purposes, it will never even come close to Bordeaux, which will always be the backbone of any wine investment portfolio. For us, the Italian wines, although some have already proven to be a lucrative buy, are not about investment. I have had my eye on top Piedmont’s and Tuscans for a while now, because they are stunning wines and although not cheap, they do provide wine lovers with an exceptional value for money. They have an interesting story to tell and it’s a very powerful alternative to Bordeaux. We recently sold quite a bit to Asia so who knows, maybe the smart money will include Italians in their portfolio.

12×75 : Dittons has of course not been around as long as some of the older houses, yet has carved a place in the market with good prices and clever marketing. DWT use social media very well and also sponsored the En Primeur campaign this year on Decanter. Do you believe that the ‘buying crowd’ are responding more and more to online campaigns?

Definitely. Online is immensely powerful, primarily for brand building. Think about it. What do you do when you want to know something? Chances are you’ll Google it. The wine business has been quite slow to embrace online, but they have now. Everybody makes an effort on their website. A lot are on FB and Twitter, although the majority of the efforts lack strategy and conviction. There’s still massive potential there to distinguish your brand, but just tweeting or FB-ing won’t do – you need to add value and the way to do that will transform and will become more difficult. But get it right and you might go viral!

12×75 : On your website, you have a photo of yourself. Who took the photo? Mark Schuringa

Lol. That’s what I like about 12×75, these funny, random questions! My dad. You should have seen the original photo though, I had to crop out my kids. It’s interesting you should comment on it, as loads of people know the picture and indeed associate my name with DWT to the extend where it’s almost synonymous. Should have had a haircut first though..

12×75 : 12×75.com have heard many stories of Chinese Drinkers mixing their wines with coca cola? Is this true, and if so does it have to be coca cola, or would Tango or Red Bull do ?

 I think you should phone up some high profile Chinese wine lovers, ask them and publish the answer here on the blog. They’d probably love to share their story!

12×75 : If I had £5,000 today to spend with Dittons, what advice would I be given?

Today, I’d say phone back in 2 weeks as you’ll probably get a better deal. But do phone back because if you wait too long, you might have missed the elusive bottom-of-the-market.

 

12×75 : Where do you think the Fine Wine Market will be in the next ten years?

Blimey, nice closer. Ten years is a long time but here goes: Robert Parker has finally retired, just. The market will be far more transparent, regulated and professional and fine wine is a widely accepted alternative investment. The current supply chain will look different, with more direct contact between growers and drinkers. A surprisingly large amount of fine wine suppliers will have been victim of a shake-out, unable to get away with sub-par value to their customers. Prices for the icon wines will defy current belief, but only if of proven provenance. The role of the internet in selling fine wine will be crucial, although the Bordelais will probably just have started tweeting. They might be on Wine Searcher though.

 

12×75.com would like to thank Mark for this ‘interview’. Mark has been a good friend to us here at 12×75.com. As a personal client of Dittons, I can only tell you that I’ve enjoyed buying stock for myself and friends at some of the best prices available. To speak to Mark directly, please call him at Ditton Wine Traders on 0208 339 9112. – The Editor

26 September 2011

Interview with ADON KUMAR: The last few days as the President of Wine Searcher

Adon Kumar, President of Wine Searcher

12×75.com would like to thank you for taking the time out to be interviewed. Before I ask you anything, I think it’s worth noting that you are stepping down as President of Wine Searcher on the 30th September 2011, and you are currently serving your last week.

 12×75: I think it may be best to start at the end here. Why are you leaving your current role and where are you off to next ?

Adon Kumar of Wine Searcher
Adon Kumar of Wine Searcher

I have enjoyed leading Wine Searcher as its President for the last 4.5 years. It is my personal goal to move on to new opportunities and challenges every 5 years and that time has now come. I want to slow down and spend more time with my family and get involved in a number of new projects. These include eLearning, new startups and other ventures in the internet world. I have an academic and teaching qualifications in Applied Linguistics and will also do some teaching.

 

 

 12×75: Describe to us what Wine-Searcher was like when you joined in 2007 ?

 Wine-Searcher was a smaller company with less than 10 staff in 2007. I am proud to have been part of growing the company to a staff of 31 now and seeing its revenue and wine database grow considerably. In 2007, there were less wine search engines and social media was just beginning to make an impact. Bricks and mortar wine merchants were beginning to embrace online selling with more confidence.

 12×75: Given that you have an IT background, how would you say this has helped evolve Wine Searcher into the company it is today?

 I spent over 20 years in the corporate IT world before I joined Wine Searcher. That IT background gave me the confidence to help Wine-Searcher exploit aggressively and innovatively the potential of information technology for competitive advantage, especially in the world of wine and the Internet.

 12×75: Wine Searcher has been referred to quite often as the “google of the wine world” — how would you describe wine searcher ?

 Independent provider of wine prices and information.

 12×75: As a result of Wine Searcher’s popularity, more and more competitor websites seem to be popping up. What are your thoughts on this, and why is it you think that Wine Searcher is a cut above the rest?

 Wine Searcher does NOT clip the ticket. Listing is free, merchants are not charged any commission on sales. Users have free access to our wine database of nearly 5 million wine offers and 29,000 wine stores. We provide wine prices and wine content for the user to make informed choices, be they a wine novice, a connoisseur or a collector. Our model and independence is hard to beat. With the largest online database of wines why would anyone want to go anywhere else?

 12×75: What will be your fondest memories of Wine Searcher?

Meeting great wine people all around the world via online and at the wine and technology conferences I spoke at over the last 4 years. Not to forget some great wines I was privileged to taste with wine gurus such as Jeannie Cho Lee, Bob Campbell and meeting wine stalwarts such as Jancis Robinson MW, Eric Levine (CellarTracker), Paul Mabray (Vintank) and many others including my competitors. My visit to Bordeaux, Vienna, Hong Kong and Napa are fabulous memories I will cherish. I was instrumental in introducing social media to Wine-Searcher and started their Facebook page over 2 years ago. I was its administrator and moderator until recently and enjoyed interacting with thousands of fans all around the world. This page now has over 90,000 fans!

 12×75: In your opinion, other than 12×75.com, who couldn’t the world of wine live without?

 Wine Searcher.

 12×75: You own and operate other websites as well as do a little bit of farming, tell our readers a little more about your interests outside of the wine world.

 As a migrant, I have a passion for helping my fellow migrants who are struggling to settle or find the right jobs. So I teach English on a part time basis, speak at various migrant and employment seminars. As a Justice of the Peace I serve the community at large by witnessing and signing legal documents. My wife and I live on a 10 acre farm where we have 240 chestnut trees, 4 beef cattle and a dog. I enjoy doing all the farming work without any servants. I use the chainsaw, build fences, look after the cattle and have the calluses to prove it. I enjoy writing and dabbling with technology. So I am about to launch an innovative eLearning website that would automatically connect teachers and learners anywhere in the world and enable them to meet face to face via video conferencing technologies for one-on- one or group classes. I also have a passion for social media and eModerate other people’s websites especially their Facebook and Twitter channels. This is a service I can offer for other clients.

 12×75: As someone who trades regularly in both Bordeaux and Burgundy stock, I found the new information that Wine Searcher provides very helpful. Its graphs, scores and even maturity dates have stopped me reaching for my Parker book every 30 seconds. What other new surprises does Wine Searcher intend to offer?

Wine Searcher has more than prices on our site. You will see more useful content pages now and in the future. The wine buyer no longer needs to go to multiple sites for information. You only need to  stop at Wine Searcher.

 12×75:  Given that the Rugby World Cup is in New Zealand at the moment, what’s the atmosphere like there and who do you think is going to win?

 The atmosphere is electric and the stadia are packed with local and international fans. Spring is in the air in New Zealand and the wine is also flowing. So far the All Blacks have won every match and will claim the Rugby World Cup.

 

12×75.com are very humbled by the fact that Adon agreed to do this interview in his final week at work. Neither Adon nor Wine-Searcher need any introduction. As a client, and a user of the site I truly think it has become an invaluable tool in the industry. Adon, we wish you the very best in your ventures. Thank you !!! – The Editor