Plus ça change
Author: Simon Berry
In 1988, the inimitable Haro Hodson produced this wonderful image for our bi-annual magazine: ‘The Old School and the Modern Successor’. We had been considering the rate of change in the wine trade of the 1980s, and Haro’s two characters summed up, Janus-like, the view to the past and the view to the future. On the left, a slightly balding, bow-tied, be-slippered wine writer closes his eyes in contemplation of a decanter of claret. His monocle hangs around his neck; no doubt he has been using it to read the wise words, from a dusty tome, written more than half a century before that by Maurice Healy or George Saintsbury. To his right is a much more dynamic figure – female, of course, and checking her facts directly with the producer by telephone, before writing her tasting note on a glass of some New World red, directly into the 1980’s ultimate modern device – the Filofax.
A quarter of a century on, we need to add another character to keep things up to date. The Even More Modern Successor wouldn’t know what a Filofax was. They’d be typing notes onto an iPad, tweeting from a smartphone, and preparing themselves for yet another television appearance. And in 25 years’ time? Lord only knows.
The point behind these reflections is that change is the only constant. Some people believe that a 300-year-old wine merchant can only have survived because we got something right in the beginning, and never deviated since. Nothing could be further from the truth. I steadfastly maintain that we have only survived this long because we have never stopped changing. In 1698 we still dealt with the most precious drinks under the sun – the difference being that in those days the real luxuries were tea or coffee. Certainly not wine.
And just because we’ve been around a long time, there’s no rule that says we have to be set in our ways.
The trick to preserving a long-lasting business is to know what should change, and what should remain the same. Sometimes it’s not obvious. I championed the replacement of the old, pocket-sized Price List in 1988 – perhaps that’s why change was on our minds. Twenty years later, when the internet had radically altered the way we could access information, I supported its return. Both decisions, I believe, were correct at the time. In the same way we have recently undertaken a major re-branding exercise, and re-discovered a type face we last used in the 1930s. Our ‘new corporate colour’ is the same shade used on our St James’s Street shopfront since – for all we know – the time of William Pickering.
As long as we understand our culture – the soul of the business, if you will – then change can be positively embraced. I am sure that the technological advances of the last few years – our website, forays into the world of e-publishing, and the wonderful BBX, to name but three – work because they are true to the Berry Bros tradition of education and service, and being a merchant in the 21st century.
Who knows what the next 25, 50 or 100 years will bring? It’s bound to be exciting, and I hope that we continue to embrace new technology without ever forgetting our roots – be the Old School as well as the Modern Successor.