Business · interviews · Sunday Times

How I Made It: Simon Farr, founder of Bibendum Wines

SIMON FARR has never really had a job, but he’s had plenty of ideas. When Majestic Wines went into receivership in 1980, Farr called up Chris Collins, a prospective buyer for the ailing business as well as a friend.

“I’ve got a better idea,” said Farr, and pitched what was to become Bibendum Wines, now one of Britain’s leading wine merchants.

With an investment from Collins, Farr bought a building in Primrose Hill, northwest London, and his first stock of fine wines. In July 1982, Bibendum Wines made its debut.

Farr’s idea was to cut out the middleman by buying and selling wine directly from producers, acting as a warehouse. “At first, importers complained we were doing their jobs,” said Farr, 59. “In America it’s illegal, but not here.

“Bibendum was different to ancient wine establishments; we were a new, upmarket warehouse with smart fine wine,” said Farr, who is non-executive director of Bibendum and the company’s largest shareholder.

Farr, whose father edited Design Magazine in the mid-1950s, was educated at St Christopher’s School in Letchworth, Hertfordshire.

In 1971, he moved to France to study Chinese at Aix-Marseille University but never completed the course. He was “hijacked” in 1972 by a friend who had bought a vineyard in Bordeaux.

“I was invited to a party but it turned out to be the harvest,” said Farr. “I ended up staying for three or four years planting vines and cultivating from the ground up.

“It was very raw: the guy next door still ploughed with an ox.”

On his return to London in 1976, Farr lasted three weeks as a management trainee at St Olaf’s Bonding Company, in Tooley Street, near Tower Bridge. “I mistakenly wrote a report on what was wrong with business before setting up the London Champagne Company: a 24/7 delivery service with profits of £5 a case.

“I got incredible deals out of Moet because I did the work they didn’t want to do,” said Farr, who sold the business in 1980 to help fund Bibendum.

With the aid of dogsbody-turned managing director Michael Saunders, Farr built Bibendum into an international enterprise turning £185m in 2011/2012 and averaging a 10% increase over the past three years.

Saunders, who now heads Bibendum’s 280 employees, left Eton in 1981 to work for Sherry-Lehmann, the fine wine store in Manhattan. “My original career collapsed,” said Saunders, 49. Stranded in New York, he went on to sell vintage port over the phone. “I was under age, but they liked my accent,” he said.

In 1982, Saunders travelled to Argentina but was thrown out during the Falklands War. On his return home in 1983, he met Farr, and joined Bibendum three months after its launch. He opened its first trade account in 1985 — Odette’s, a restaurant in Primrose Hill, which is still a client.

“When we started we’d run into the streets clutching a wine list, begging people to come into the shops,” said Saunders. “To have got it to where it is now is exciting.”

Chelsea Football Club, Kensington Roof Gardens, Sushi Samba restaurants and the Malmaison Hotels are among Bibendum’s 3,000 “on trade” customers — those who buy for consumption on site — who order more than 1.5m cases a year. But success has not come smoothly. “After 1979, Margaret Thatcher basically tore apart the trade. Wine merchants had been smug but very badly structured — many didn’t survive,” said Farr. “So our spending was a very big statement. Bibendum was a brave new concept in a depressed trade.”

The 2008 recession also hit the company hard. “We had a cocktail of death in our industry,” said Saunders. “We had large foreign currency exposure and many stopped dining out, so we had a lot of stock that the cash flow wasn’t covering.

“Everyone was cutting rapidly; in our business that means people. I decided not to fire people and, looking back, I’m very proud of that decision.”

In April last year, Bibendum launched the Wondering Wine Company. Its mobile wine bars (vintage Citroën H vans) sell fine wine at festivals and sports events across the country. More than 25,000 bottles were sold during the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Saunders commutes to Bibendum’s Primrose Hill office from Shropshire, where he lives with his wife and three teenage children. He believes his success is grounded in confident decisions. “People who agonise never get anywhere,” he said.

Farr lives in London with his wife and two daughters, both alumni of St Andrews University. His advice to entrepreneurs is to avoid theoretical experience: “Work for the best in your field for a real grounding and learn on their money.

“Start small with your own resources, and do it all.”

Link to Sunday Times website

PDF – How I Made It Bibendum Wines

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