If The Grocer Top 50 retailers were all members of a single family, Berry Bros & Rudd would be the aristocratic great-grandfather.
Sitting comfortably in the top 5% of the fine wine market and at number 21 on our Top 50 list, it sells wines for anything from £4.95 to more than £5,000. Its flagship shop at number three St James's Street has existed as part of a family business for more than 300 years.
Current MD Hugh Sturges is from outside the family. He's a qualified chartered accountant who trained with KPMG before holding financial roles with Bacardi and International Distillers & Vintners. After a stint with paper company Forest Products and a sojourn in an IT-related role, he joined Berry Bros & Rudd as finance director-elect in 2001, assuming his current post in April.
Although he's neither a Berry nor a Rudd, Sturges is as committed as anyone to building the business. "We aim to become the fine wine merchant of choice internationally," he says. "My job is to create a model to achieve that."
He believes that the main opportunities lie at the top and bottom ends of the wine market and says he feels sorry for the high street off-licence chains in the middle.
Berry Bros & Rudd clearly operates at the top end and, for now, Sturges is happy to maintain its current number of UK outlets.
In April, the company opened a factory outlet in Basingstoke, attached to its UK warehouse, selling New and Old World wines, fine wines and Champagne. Business is booming there, he says.
Berry Bros & Rudd is in its closed period for the current year but, while representing only a modest 5-6% of group sales, UK retail sales grew by 21% in 2004-2005, from £38m to £46m. However, Sturges admits that not every UK retail venture has gone smoothly. Berry Bros & Rudd's four The Wine Collection outlets in terminals 1-4 at Heathrow Airport are a case in point. The company is in the process of closing its last outlet there, leaving it with four shops in Basingstoke, London, Dublin and Hong Kong. "We've just taken the decision to cease trading at Heathrow," says Sturges.
He says the space in the shops was too limited and the expense of maintaining them outweighed the financial benefits of keeping them open. But, on the positive side, he adds: "They raised our profile with customers outside the UK."
Its remaining stores are faring better. The St James's Street store was tripled in size three years ago when a more accessible wine offering price-wise and hospitality space were added to its consulting area and extensive cellars.
The store is redolent of the company's long history, but that doesn't mean that Berry Bros & Rudd hasn't moved with the times. One of its most dynamic areas of growth is its online sales department.
Sturges says the web site is a less expensive retail channel than physical shops, which bear the brunt of high rents, staffing costs and low margins. "It has been the fastest-growing area of our business since we went into it nine years ago. Internet sales are now almost 15% of group turnover."
The plan is to restructure the web site to make it more accessible to international customers. This ties in neatly with the company's second major focus: expanding overseas. "We aim to increase our retail hub in Hong Kong and open similar hubs elsewhere," says Sturges. "At the moment we're restricted by international duties on wine. But we believe they will come down, so we're getting the Berry Bros brand in place by establishing wine schools and going from there."
China, Russia and Scandinavia are key targets for development.
Apart from the internet and its stores, Berry Bros & Rudd's activities stretch from catering and corporate hospitality to cellar planning services for highbrow clients. It operates a wine club and a wine school, with international branches.
Its substantial international wholesale division, Fields, Morris & Verdin, represents almost a quarter of its total sales. And it owns and distributes Cutty Sark Scots Whisky internationally. So there's plenty of room for future growth over the next 300 years.a proud history
Some Top 50 retailers may boast a long history, but none as long as Berry Bros, which dates back to 1698. Some of its wines went down with the Titanic and customers have included William Pitt the Younger and Lord Byron.
Yet, throughout its long existence, it has remained a family-owned and run business serving individual, private clients from its outlets. The Berry family has been involved in the company for eight generations, with the Rudd family joining as partners in the 1920s.
Berry Bros quickly made a name for itself and began supplying the royal family in 1760 during King George III's reign. It was granted its first Royal Warrant as Wine Merchant to Edward III in 1903 - and now holds two Royal Warrants, for the Queen and The Prince of Wales.
The company began its retail expansion in the 1990s. It claims to have been the first wine merchant to launch its own online wine shop, in 1994. It opened its second UK outlet, a duty-free wine shop at Heathrow's Terminal 3, the same year, followed by a fine wine and food shop in Basingstoke a year later. It established a base in Hong Kong in 1998, through a wine club and web site, and opened a shop in Dublin. A Japanese version of its web site was set up in 2000.
Berry Bros has also made its mark as a supplier, creating its Cutty Sark Scots Whisky brand in 1923. It has since created a range of single malts under its Berrys' Own Selection label.