CEO Rupert Symington on Building a Port Empire

CEO Rupert Symington and his dog, Chili
CEO Rupert Symington and his dog, Chili
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In January, Rupert Symington became the sole chief executive officer of Symington Family Estates when his cousin, Paul, retired. The Estates’ owns famous brands such as Cockburn’s, Dow’s, Graham’s and Quinta do Vesúvio.

“It’s not really all that new,” Rupert laughs when asked how does it feel to be the sole CEO. He has been sharing responsibility of the company for the past 15 years with both Paul and their cousin, Johnny, who was named chairman.

The U.S. Port Market

In addition to overseeing the family’s holdings in Douro and Alentejo table wines, Rupert will manage Prats & Symington. This partnership, with Bordeaux-raised winemaker Bruno Prats, produces Chryseia, a top Douro red.

Rupert is also responsible for the United States market and the family’s importer/wholesaler business, Premium Port Wine, Inc., which is based in San Francisco.

The U.S. is Symington’s third-largest market, behind Portugal and Britain.

Last year, the U.S. market represented just over 400,000 cases of Port, representing about $40 million in sales, which was up from almost $30 million in 2008.

The Business Side

The change of title means Rupert will be even more involved in global strategy and finance at one of the world’s largest Port producers with more than 2,630 acres of vineyards.

But the business side comes easily to him. After getting an MBA from INSEAD Fontainebleau (the Wharton of Europe), he worked as an analyst in a London brokerage before joining the family company in 1992.

“My generation was encouraged to get some outside experience,” he says.

According to Rupert, “The worry these days is that some of the younger generation become so involved with their own personal project that it’s become more difficult” for them to return.

However, the CEO adds, “We’ve got no less than four members of the younger generation keen to work here in Portugal.”

Not Keeping it in the Family Business

“We believe in a family wine business,” says Rupert. “There are two key areas where the family can really contribute. One is communicating the values of the business, the passion for the wines, etc. The other area I would include in that is winemaking and, in due course, we hope to have more people there.”

But a family business that can be traced back to the 17th century doesn’t survive on family members alone.

“We have a policy of bringing in younger, non-family members in key positions.”

As a result, there are a variety of team members and directors in charge of sales and marketing, bottling and finance.

“The family isn’t doing all the top jobs,” says Rupert.

What is His Day Like?

“I wish it were tasting wines, but it’s not.”

Rupert did make a New Year’s resolution to manage his time better. He maintains a policy of not emailing at home. Instead, he spends the first hour or so in the office dealing with emails.

“Because of the time difference [between the U.S. West Coast] I get a lot of emails overnight.”

Then it’s “an hour-and-a-half going to see two or three specific people… After lunch, which is usually with my family and colleagues, I’ll spend a couple of hours working on specific products, or writing something, or number crunching.

“It doesn’t sound very exciting, but that’s business,” he says.

Rupert estimates that he spends about two months each year on the road, flying to the United States or heading to Britain.

So what does this CEO not like to do? “[Spend] a lot of time on the phone.”

Published on February 8, 2019
Topics: A Day In The Life