Adrian Bridge, the chief executive of Taylor, Fladgate & Yeatman, has the military bearing one would expect from the top cadet in his class at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. He was commissioned to 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards (better known as the Welsh Cavalry) in 1983 and spent the next five years in the military, including 12 months as a UN peacekeeper. Afterward, he joined Merrill Lynch and then NatWest in London where he became head of U.S. equity sales.
“I met my wife, Natasha, in March 1982, before I entered the military and before I became an investment banker. She was my first exposure to Port,” he recalls. In 1994, his father-in-law Alistair Robertson asked him to come run the business. It was a favorable time, with critics giving the ’94 vintage Ports 100 points. Yet it was not an easy choice for Bridge.
“The company then was a much smaller business, Taylor and Fonseca were known then, as they are now, as leaders in quality Port production. The industry was more fragmented.
“And the nature of a business that is at the top of its pedestal like that is there is only one way to go, and that’s down, and someone will try to knock you off the pedestal. But I judged that there were lots of opportunities for the company and I would be able to use the experience I gained, not only in the military in terms of leadership and management and so on, but also my experience in banking.”
Since becoming CEO in 2000, Bridge has used that financial acumen to help the Taylor, Fladgate company, which turns 325 years old this year, to grow.
Fresh Ideas and Steady Growth
First, he arranged the €30 million ($30 million) purchase of Croft and Delaforce—two other storied Port names that had come up against hard times. With the Croft purchase, he got the Quinta da Roeda, an estate in need of what a New Yorker would call a gut-rehab. He brought back traditional lagares—containers where just-picked grapes are crushed by feet in a process that translates from Portuguese as foot-treading. There were subsequent purchases of other Port houses and land over the next 10-15 years, “but you don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket,” he said.
“When you’re in a family business, and you come from the outside, you can bring a lot of fresh ideas and challenge a lot of sacred cows,” Bridge said.
While Port will always be central to Taylor, Fladgate, Bridge decided that what would help his company, and the town of Oporto to grow, would be wine tourism. He built The Yeatman, the first luxury hotel in Oporto with a two-star Michelin restaurant.
“It was synergistic because it would feed the core business and would make good use of all the land we had in the city center,” Bridge said.
Quality Above All
Bridge believes “a CEO’s role, a lot of it is about planning, providing vision and the leadership and hire professionals–and then get out of the way so that they can get on with it. Because any business is typically a complex machine which requires specific skills where as a CEO you don’t necessarily have.
“One should be questioning. One should never assume. Details matter… And there’s no such thing as the phrase ‘it’ll do.’”
In other words, quality counts.
“What I end up doing as CEO is there are elements of monitoring the business with the professionals who are in place to run the department and to be available for them to come to ask questions either as sounding boards or to verify the steps they’re planning to take,” Bridge said.
“Another key part is being able to inspire and to lead and to force people to think, but you’ve also got a responsibility to see what can be improved at all levels of the business from the ambiance of the office or whether the staff are happy that they’re working here. If you look after them, they’ll look after you and they’ll look after the business.”
Bridge is so confident in his people that he has gone mountain climbing (a bottle of Taylor Port in his pack) while deals were in their final stages. The climbing, he said, was a good way to clear his head and a “very good way to get away from phones.”
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