TEA plays a central role in the life of Ewan Venters, writes Peter Ranscombe. As chief executive of Fortnum & Mason, selling the drink has been a cornerstone of the business since it was founded in London’s Piccadilly in 1707.
As he pours the hot liquid from a teapot in the Caledonian Hotel in Edinburgh, Venters reflects on the blend being served by the Waldorf Astoria.
“It’s Twinnings – I checked,” Venters says. “I brought some Fortnum & Mason’s tea with me, just in case they were serving a different brand.
“But Twinnings is fine – at least we’re keeping it in the family,” he smiles, referring to the Weston clan, who own Fortnum & Mason, Selfridges and a 54.5 per cent stake in Associated British Foods, the London-listed group that runs Twinnings and discount clothing chain Primark.
Staying at the Caledonian hotel brings back memories from earlier in his career for the Fife-born chief executive. While he was still a fresh-faced graduate of Sainsbury’s management training scheme, Venters was put up in style at the Caley when the supermarket’s senior managers rolled into town.
“I came to Edinburgh in 1993 as personal assistant to deputy chairman Tom Vyner,” explains Venters. “All the big names were in town for the opening of our store at Blackhall, which was only our second in Scotland.”
Returning to Edinburgh for the store opening marked a key milestone in Venter’s career. Born at Dunfermline in Fife in 1972, he was educated at St Serf’s, a private school in Edinburgh, before joining Sainsbury’s management training scheme.
“I had considered studying business at Heriot-Watt but I was always interested in food and drink and so I decided that a training scheme would be the right way for me to enter business,” he says. “Sainsbury’s took the most-promising managers from the stores and put us in roles at head office, so I learned a lot from Tom Vyner.
“My parents had taken me to London regularly since I had been five or six years old, so the move to the city seemed quite natural at 17. I’m not sure I’d feel the same way now though with my own children.”
Venters spent nine-and-a-half years at Sainsbury’s before joining Brake Brothers, the catering supplies business that was sold first to New York-based private equity firm CD&R and then later to Bain Capital. As the Bain Capital deal was sealed, Venters was approached by a head hunter to join Selfridges.
Seven years later, a head hunter came calling again, this time to ask Venters to move within “the family” and take over as the boss at Fortnum & Mason, which he did in August 2012.
“I was pleased the approach came from a head hunter, because it meant I was being measured against the best of the outside competition,” Venters says. “That’s the way the Weston family does business, it doesn’t automatically go for an internal appointment.”
Since Venters took over the reins, Fortnum & Mason has opened only its second shop in the UK in the past 307 years. The satellite branch launched last month at St Pancras international station in London, home to the Eurostar services to continental Europe.
Some 35 million people visit the station each year, with about a quarter of them arriving to shop rather than to travel. The department store’s only other branch opened in New York in 1929, but closed in the 1930s amid the Great Depression.
“We approached HS1, which owns St Pancras, in April – so we may not have opened a shop in Britain for 307 years but, when we decided too, we were able to move quickly,” Venters smiles. “The site is a former ticket office, which was proving to be too big for Eurostar now that so many people are booking their tickets over the internet.”
Online retailing is an area on which the venerable department is already capitalising. The store launched its website in 1998 and Venters expects to spend “a couple of million pounds” in the coming year to expand the company’s digital presence.
Interestingly, about 5 per cent of deliveries from the site are made to addresses in Scotland.
“I’m very proud that we’re still serving people in Scotland,” Venters says. “When Fortnum & Mason was founded, some of its first customers were fishing and hunting parties north of the Border – our famous hamper was created to allow groceries to be delivered to them. Having the new store at Kings Cross St Pancras – which serves Scotland – gives us another connection.”
While there are no firm plans on the table at present, Venters says Fortnum & Mason will learn lessons from the opening of the St Pancras store when it comes to opening other satellite shops overseas. He points out that the firm already has 300 distribution points globally thanks to its wholesale division.
The department store has five key areas of business – tea, chocolates, preserves, biscuits and hampers – and Scottish suppliers are involved in many of its most-successful lines.
“We have just over 20 suppliers from Scotland,” Venters says. “When the biscuits made for us by Shortbread House of Edinburgh were repackaged it was one of our most-successful product launches.”
Now that the new store is finding its feet, Venters is keen to bring more seasonal fare into his two shops.
“I’m very interested in the idea of selling fresh strawberry jam when British soft fruits are in season,” he enthuses. “Damsons could be another line. We already sell a lot of seasonal produce – like asparagus and game and gulls’ eggs – but I think there’s more we could do.”
Born: Dunfermline, 1972
Education: St Margaret’s Primary School, Dunfermline; St Serf’s School, Edinburgh
First job: Management trainee, Sainsbury’s
Ambition while at school: “To become the chief executive of a company before I was 40 – I did it with 18 days to spare.”
Car you drive: Volkswagen Golf
Kindle or book: Book
Music: “I’ve been listening to a lot of Proclaimers recently.”
Favourite Fortnum & Mason produce: “Shortbread House of Edinburgh makes the most indulgent and richest and most buttery product. That’s very moreish and very exciting.”
Claim to fame: Shared a hot air balloon ride with actor and comedian Stephen Fry to promote Fortnum & Mason.