‘We’ve always innovated’: Fortnum & Mason boss Ewan Venters on the posh grocer’s recipe for success


Come Boxing Day, Ewan Venters has had quite enough of turkey and mince pies. On top of selling tens of thousands of Christmas puddings, the boss of Fortnum & Mason will have hosted 12 people for lunch the previous day to feast on a heritage breed Bourbon Red turkey and all the trimmings. But, unlike most of the country, there will be no turkey curry or stuffing sandwiches as he sends his lucky guests home on their merry way with an upmarket doggie bag.

“I like to start all over again, maybe with a rib of beef," the 43-year-old well-built Scot says.

In the days leading up to Christmas, Venter’s world at 181 Piccadilly is abuzz with glorious festive cheer. Fortnum & Mason’s food and gift emporium remains the destination for those wanting to treat themselves and others with something a bit more special, whether that is Florentines or foie gras.

Even during the recession, when consumers watched their spending carefully, there were still the loyalists who believed in life’s little luxuries.

But with confidence back in almost full swing, Fortnum’s is predicting its best Christmas yet. “Our Magnificent Christmas Pudding, which has a ball of brandy butter that oozes when it's cut into' will do very well," Venters says.

Despite being dressed in a sharp, black suit, his gingerbread men-shaped cufflinks and red-and-white striped tie is an instant giveaway of his seasonal cheer.

Foie gras sales at Fortnum & Mason account for 2 per cent of the UK total. Fortnum & Mason is known for its luxe decor Photo: ALAMY

Since he arrived four years ago, the boss of the Fortnum’s has been working hard to ensure that the five-floor store isn’t full of just American and Chinese tourists stocking up on souvenirs, and has instead restored its status as a beacon for foodie Brits.

“Historically, we were always known as the smart grocer in London, but this had become replaced by a reputation for our tourist customer base. So we have worked to be more relevant again to customers here,” Venters says.

Roughly 60pc of customers last year were British, according to Venters, compared to around 30pc before his arrival. He has even managed to tempt Hugh Bonneville, the actor best known for playing Lord Grantham in Downton Abbey, to switch to buying his Christmas beef wellington from Fortnum’s, he proudly admits.

A walk around the store proves that many are Londoners, and some more regular shoppers than others. Staff at Fortnum’s often greet customers by their names, a familiarity that harks back to the level of customer service in TV series Are You Being Served?.

Venters had an early start in retail, selling bread rolls from his parents’ kitchen to the local neighbourhood aged just 11-years-old. Five years later, he began at Sainsbury’s, when the supermarket was run by Lord Sainsbury. After almost a decade at the grocer, he moved to food supplier Brake brothers, and then on to department store Selfridges, owned by the wealthy Canadian Weston family. After revitalising Selfridges’ food hall, he was approached to run Fortnum’s, owned by the English branch of the Weston family.

“Being family owned means that we can take a considerably longer view than some of our rivals. We don’t have a short horizon on decision making," he says.

Around 80pc of Fortnum’s sales are in food and drink. But while it is best known for its wicker hampers, the store has been revamping its product ranges for increasingly adventurous palates.

“We’ve always innovated,” Venters says in response to whether he risks alienating his loyal band of traditionalists. For example, Fortnum’s was the first shop to bring garlic to Britain and it claims to be the inventor of the Scotch egg in 1738 when it was created as a snack to satisfy the appetites of affluent landowners travelling to their country estates. Today, the food hall sells a traditional or black pudding Scotch egg for £3.50.

Ewan VentersFortnum's employs extra staff for Christmas

The Dunfermline-born boss recently took a very personal interest in the production of a traditional Scottish black bun that will be sold in Fortnum’s and can elaborate on a detailed description of how it was made in a Cotswolds bakery. And, he boasts, he knows that the retailer’s shortbread, made by the third generation of suppliers in Edinburgh, uses Irish butter to give it a “richer yellow colour”.

“I was able to advise one gentleman in our shop of all the ingredients in our puddings. He asked if I was one of the buyers, and when I said I was the chief executive, he almost fell over,” Venters beams.

Venters cringes at the corporate gobbledygook that could be used to describe Fortnum’s “network” of suppliers, but adds that the quality of its relationships with bakers, butchers and chocolatiers is what makes the shop known as the place for products.

He is also fully aware of the wider benefits of supporting craftsmanship – not only does Fortnum’s take on an extra 300 shop floor staff during Christmas to ensure impeccable standards at all times, but its suppliers also take on hundreds more workers to cater for the frantic festive season.

“There’s been a lot of emphasis on local produce, but what is local, local to what?” he says. “It’s much better that the product is authentic, artisan and has craftsmanship. Our producers come from all over and they are of the finest quality.”

Suddenly, his soft Fife burr is interrupted by a loud cackling and whooping next door. Has Fortnum’s, the safehouse of quiet British sophistication, become overrun by hoi polloi? Venters smiles and explains that many of the boardrooms, all painted in the store’s famous jade and gold theme, are now available for hire for private parties and dining rooms.

Fortnum & Mason, LondonFortnum's now has four shops including its emporium on Piccadilly, and outposts in Heathrow Terminal 5, St Pancras International and Dubai Photo: Alisdair Macdonald/Rex Features

This is just one example of the gradual expansion of the Fortnum’s brand. Earlier this year it sponsored Port Eliot, the first time in its history the store has backed a festival. It now runs the ice skating at Somerset House, started a pop-up restaurant at 45 Jermyn Street and recently opened small boutique versions of the Piccadilly emporium in Kings Cross International station and Heathrow Terminal 5, as well as another in Dubai to cater to the tastes of expats and affluent locals.

The St Pancras branch recorded a 50pc rise in sales last year and Venters admits the store might be too successful as it had to cancel its “click and collect” service during the festive period as it was running out of room to store the sheer number of hamper orders.

Venters says there are no plans for further store openings next year, but he wouldn’t rule out further “food and drink opportunities”.

As an avid Tweeter, he is all too aware of the potential of online. The store’s recently revamped website is now a huge driver of the group’s sales with orders taken from over 150 countries and deliveries of hampers to Australia being offered within six days. Fortnum’s recent accounts show that online sales rose by almost a fifth in the year to July, lifting total sales by 19pc to £88m while pre-tax profits increased by a third to £5m.

Despite this, he is entirely committed to what he calls the “sense of pleasure” consumers can have from visiting a store that prides itself on service and quality products.

But he warns that this is being risked by “archaic” Sunday trading laws.

“Peoples’ lives have definitely changed and we have a willing work force who would like to work for longer hours. Apart from during the Christmas season, when people like to get their shopping out of the way and visit earlier in the day, we would want to be open much later."

Mr Venters reveals that he has already written to Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, to urge for London to accelerate the trialling of later Sunday shopping hours. However, Johnson wrote back to say that, unfortunately, legislation still needed to be passed even for a trial.

Last month Prime Minister David Cameron was forced to pull a vote on relaxing the Sunday trading laws in face of opposition from the SNP and a small band of Tory rebels. Despite being a Scot, Mr Venters holds little loyalty to Nicola Sturgeon’s party on this matter, particularly as he points out that in Scotland there are no rules about Sunday trading.

“We live in an increasingly multicultural society and much like how if you are Jewish, you would respect Saturday as a day of rest, but shops are open on a Saturday, it’s about giving people flexibility.”

“We’re not giving up, this has to change," Venters says. “Particularly because next year Boxing Day will fall on a Sunday, meaning one of the busiest days for most retailers will also be one of the shortest.”

With that, he takes a final sip of his Countess Grey tea, and heads off to check the hourly sales reports.