Natural born leader

Natural born leader

Managing director of the Taylor Fladgate Partnership since 2000, Adrian Bridge has strong views about the way forward, for the group and the port industry. AMY WISLOCKI reports.

After spending several days in the Douro with Adrian Bridge during the last harvest, and then interviewing him back in London (he originally suggested 7.30am), it is quickly apparent that here is a man who likes a challenge. He became managing director of Taylor Fladgate in January 2000, coped with a landslide above the Fonseca Guimaraens lodge in January 2001 which destroyed half a million litres of port, masterminded the €30 million acquisition of the Croft and Delaforce brands later that year, and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro while the deal was in its final stages, cracking open a bottle of Taylor’s LBV at the top.

‘It was good to get away from the phones and faxes, and empty one’s head,’ says Bridge with typical understatement. Most people would go and sit on a beach. He goes on to add – in a matter-of-fact rather than arrogant manner – that the mountain, at only 20,000 feet, isn’t a particularly difficult one to climb.

Bridge’s achievements since arriving in the Douro are equally impressive. He joined Taylor Fonseca in 1994 with an MBA, a successful career in the city, and a distinguished military background behind him. Married to the daughter of founder Alistair Robertson, Natasha, the idea was that they would be the next generation to take the port company forward.

Almost undaunted by the prospect of joining a successful, 300-year-old family firm with a view to heading it up, Bridge nevertheless admits to a little trepidation. ‘I was a very successful investment banker on a significant income when I left to come to the Douro. It was obviously a big challenge and a steep learning curve.

‘Taylor’s was already top of the pyramid and had been so successful over the previous 30 years that I wondered what I could add. But you soon find there are always things to do because the business is constantly changing – channels of distribution change, new markets open up. It’s tougher sometimes to stay at the top than to get there, and the fact that I came from outside the industry with a fresh perspective was hugely beneficial.’

Bridge is understandably proud of the acquisition of CD Vintners, and comments that the family ownership of Taylor Fonseca was an important factor in making this possible. ‘The previous owners of Croft had shareholders to account to and so had different priorities. They didn’t have the luxury of the long-term view.’ And premium port is undoubtedly a long-term game – there’s no such thing as a quick buck.

Along with the Croft brand came the premium vineyards of Quinta da Roeda, an estate that was run down and not realising its potential. Bridge set about transforming the property. In the refurbished winery, traditional lagares are making their first appearance for 30 years, with a new piston system to take over from human treaders during the day.

In the vineyards, a 10–15 year replanting project is underway, with 3,000–4,000 vines planted each year, on less vigorous rootstock. ‘We weren’t happy with the alignment of one block planted in February 2001, so we bulldozed it and started again the following year,’ says Bridge. These grapes won’t be used for port production until 2006, so willingness to wait for long-term reward is crucial.

The Fladgate Partnership now owns around a million vines in total, and recently opened a new winery in the centre of the region, Quinta da Nogueira. This released the winery at Taylor’s Vargellas estate, which became a research winery.

The €30 million spent on Croft Delaforce, and the undisclosed millions invested since in both viticultural and technological improvements are the clearest statement yet that Bridge is upbeat about the future for port – at the premium end.

Time for change

‘The port market is polarising,’ he says. ‘Companies will have to focus either on the volume, commodity market or on the premium sector, and there has been a heavy reliance in the industry on those volume markets.

‘The product is becoming more aggressively priced, and margins are being squeezed. The Douro is one of the most expensive places to grow vines in the world, grape prices are up 20–25%, and farmers are finding it more difficult to find labour. At some stage prices will have to go up to reflect the rising cost of grapes and harvesting them. Port companies that are reliant on volume but are not low-cost operations will find it difficult – their overheads will catch up with them and they will find it tough going forward.’

As Bridge sees it, the industry is at a crossroads, and a shake-up is needed to ensure that quality remains high going forward. ‘Many of the small farmers that the industry relies on lack the incentive to grow the best quality grapes. As the future of the industry lies in a quality product, structural changes need to be made to encourage best practice in the vineyards.’

The typical smallholder in the Douro gains most compensation from having a licence to make port rather than from selling grapes. ‘This year the licence to make port will have represented about 90% of the income of a farmer; so the incentive for them to spend money on treatments for the vines, or on replanting, just isn’t there. We pay our farmers based on quality criteria and have a programme of technical assistance in the vineyards, but we have a relatively small supply base.

‘This is an industry wide issue. The whole licencing system needs restructuring to reward farmers for quality.’ Changes are being talked about, says Bridge, but it’s a political issue and will take time.

As important as quality raw material is focus, says Bridge. The Fladgate Partnership is famous for being the only one that has not diversified into table wine. ‘The Douro can undoubtedly produce good table wine,’ says Bridge. ‘But our focus is on specialist port and we have enough challenges just keeping pace with the growth we’re witnessing around the world.’

Bridge’s business training is a great asset. ‘The point one has to remember about wine businesses is that they are businesses. Historically many wine companies were the individual passions of someone running their own vineyard. Now it’s far more business oriented. Channels of distribution have consolidated dramatically, and there’s negotiation. It’s a capital-intensive business and making a return on capital is crucial.

‘Our approach to the business is to try to make vintage port out of every grape, and our other products are a downward extension from this.’ Taylor Fonseca has extended that philosophy to Croft and Delaforce and Bridge is focusing each of the four brands on what it does best. ‘To best exploit the brands we have, we must focus on our core strengths.

‘Taylor’s, for example, will keep the full range, but it’s all at the premium end. Whereas we’ll be offering a basic ruby in Crofts, we don’t in Taylors. And LBV is a very strong focus for Taylor’s. [Chairman Alistair Robertson invented the category in 1970 and the company still accounts for four in every 10 bottles sold.] Likewise, Croft is essentially based on Quinta da Roeda and is about heritage. It had a great reputation in the past for its vintage port and we expect to continue and improve this. Delaforce is strong in white port and aged tawnies – this is our focus here.

‘The number of port shippers has risen sharply in recent years. And everyone comes to market with a full range, even though there’s no need for it. Branding in many other businesses tells you that focus is quite often better than simply taking a scattergun approach. To be focused hasn’t been a tendency within this industry.’

There’s certainly no lack of focus at the Fladgate Partnership HQ. Within 24 hours of the landslide in 2001, Bridge and his team were loading a container for the US. Military training and the ability to run a team comes in handy in such situations.

Although he wouldn’t define his management style – ‘you’d have to ask the people who work for me’ – he describes himself as focused and driven. ‘I tend to put a lot of energy into what I do, and I hope that my drive, purpose and energy rubs off on people.’

Written by Amy Wislocki