Lizzy Rudd has just taken over as chairman at Berry Bros & Rudd. She is the third female chair of Berry’s. The first was the founder, the Widow Bourne, in the 17th century, and nobody knows much about her. The second was Lizzy’s grandmother, Ethel Rudd, who was chairlady just after the Second World War. ‘That’s only one for every hundred years, so it’s not that much,’ says Lizzy, matter-of-factly.
Still, it is somewhat surprising given that Berry’s is such a seemingly old-fashioned wine business on St James’s Street — a 300-year-plus company with not one but two royal warrants. But then Berry’s specialises in mixing vintage charm and an innovative spirit. It was the first merchant to sell wine on the internet in 1994, for instance, four years before Google existed, and it now operates an extremely successful online wine trading platform called BBX.
We’re sitting in Lizzy’s new office, once her father’s office. It is a handsome room above the old shop at Number 3 St James’s. I’m drinking a gin and tonic, kindly fixed up by Gemma Duncan, the head of PR. Lizzy is having tea. She loves wine, she says, and gin and tonic is her favourite drink, but she has work to do and wants a clear head.
Lizzy is taking over from Simon Berry, a gregarious and much-loved figure in the wine world. She speaks of him with genuine fondness. The Berrys and the Rudds have taken turns to run their shared family business for decades — ever since Lizzy’s grandfather, a German wine specialist, got involved in the business a 100 years ago. Lizzy says that the two families have always got on – ‘We work really well together, we really do,’ she insists. The Berrys are very creative; the Rudds more ‘process-driven’. ‘We’re organised and pragmatic,’ she says. ‘The Berrys are brilliant at storytelling.’ Does that mean the Berrys are heavier drinkers? ‘I wouldn’t say that!’ she scoffs, ‘We have all got to be responsible drinkers. We have to drink responsibly.’ She couldn’t very well say anything else.
The Berrys, she adds, were traditionally more focused on the wine side of things, ‘whereas the Rudds on my side of the family were more into growing the spirits side of the business. That’s not the case anymore, we are very much both involved in wines and spirits.’ But is she, as a Rudd, going to try to grow the spirits? ‘Yes!’ she exclaims, ‘there are some real opportunities there.’
Berry’s is run according to a family charter, which was formalised and written down in 2005. Lizzy says that the business has never been in any danger of being swallowed by a multi-national conglomerate — unlike their rival down the street Justerini & Brooks, which is now owned by Diageo – and she would like to keep it that way. Berry’s must remain in the families to survive, she says. But don’t family businesses bring with them their own problems? ‘Well, we have certain rules for family members,’ she says. ‘If they are interested in the business, they have to go off and work somewhere else for three to five years before they can apply. It has to be on merit. Then they’ll get mentored and treated just like everyone else. If they do anything dodgy, they’ll be sacked just the same as anyone else might.’
Lizzy has put in a fair shift herself. She started at Berry’s in her early 20s as a member of the marketing team behind Cutty Sark, Berry’s extraordinarily successful blended whisky. She left to start a family but stayed on as a non-executive director. In 2005, she returned as deputy chairman.
Because Berry’s is a charming place with such an old-world atmosphere, it’s easy to forget what a global business it is. They have offices in San Francisco, Hong Kong, Singapore and Tokyo. They are looking to expand into all these areas, says Lizzy, but they want to focus on wine for drinking – ‘we want people to come here just to buy a bottle of wine for dinner that evening.’
Earlier this year, Berry’s opened a lovely new shop on Pall Mall, with precisely that in mind. It has a more modern feel than the flagship store at No 3, and clever Enomatic sampling machines for tasting. And it’s for a younger customer. Young people, says Gemma, are ‘drinking less but they are drinking better – they won’t go out and buy three bottles for a tenner; they’ll spend more on one good bottle. That’s an opportunity for us.’
Lizzy officially starts as chairwoman today, on December 1, but she’s not interested in ushering in any radical transformation. ‘It’s all about continuity,’ she says, ‘we’ve got lots of changes, very positive changes happening, but the main thing for me is continuity.’ On that note, she packs me off, and, having seen how much I enjoyed my drinks, asks Gemma to give me a bottle of Berry’s Number 3 gin. I can’t help feeling Berry’s is in very safe hands.