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Symington: ‘We are determined that no one will lose their jobs’

Associate director Rob Symington told db in an exclusive interview yesterday how Portugal’s Symington Family Estates is continuing to operate during the Covid-19 crisis, and was determined to retain all its employees.

Rob Symington is an associate director and part of the fifth generation to work at Symington Family Estates. He is the son of former chairman Paul Symington

Speaking about the coronavirus lockdown in the Douro, where Symington Family Estates is a leading producer of Port and wine, Rob said it was a “challenging time” requiring lots of “new measures”, as Portugal enters its second week of strict rules to restrict the movement of people.

As part of this, all those who can work from home must stay indoors, which, said Rob, represents only around 25% of the Symington team, who total almost 450 people in Portugal.

The other 75% of the company’s employees are “needed on site” according to Rob, whether they are in a laboratory, a tasting room, a Port lodge, a winery, a bottling hall, or in the vineyards, and hence the need for new ways of running these aspects to the business.

Commenting on a change in their working life, Rob – who is a fifth generation Symington family member – said, “It is fantastic to see how quickly the teams have mobilised to a completely different way of operating, which means social distancing, and shift work, so if someone does fall ill, it means they can go into isolation and not the whole team.”

Of course such employees are taking further precautionary measures such as wearing masks and hand-sanitising regularly, because, as Rob pointed out, “We want to keep everyone safe but we can’t afford to close down and not produce and ship orders.”

With Symington Family Estates being the largest vineyard-owning business in the Douro, with over 1000 hectares, and eight wineries in the region – as well as a further one in the Alentejo – what is the risk to this significant business of Covid-19?

Rob presents a positive outlook when asked this question, commenting that “hopefully Portugal has it under control – the situation doesn’t seem to be spiralling and the Government called the lockdown before the virus spead quickly, so we don’t have the same levels [of infection] as you see, for example, in Italy and Spain,” he began.

And while he said that the business has prepared for a scenario where it will cease operations altogether, he added that the group is “fortunate in that we are strong financially, but there are some without such stability who face an existential threat.”

Continuing he said, “We are cautiously optimistic that we will whether the storm… and we have been able to meet normal operating levels.”

The family-owned and run company owns Port brands Graham’s, Dow’s, Warre’s and Cockburn’s

As for the affect of the viral pandemic on sales of Symington products, the situation is in fact far from gloomy.

“Although the on-trade and indies have taken a hit and basically stopped ordering, the big retailers are still placing orders and even increasing their stock – they are doing a lot of trade in wine and Port,” he said.

Indeed, Symington Family Estates, which owns Port brands Graham’s, Dow’s, Warre’s and Cockburn’s, is up by around 40% in volume sales compared to the same period last year, according to Rob.

He explained, “Our understanding of Port consumption throughout year is that it’s not actually mostly drunk during classic formal occasions but in those cosy moments at home, and more as an everyday indulgence, so it makes sense that if you are hunkering down at home that you would be partial to a glass of Port.”

This does apply to “core ranges such as special reserve ruby Port and LBV,” he adds, pointing out that “more premium Ports with fancy cases that are associated with gifting are not up.”

Such an increase in sales volumes may be short-lived, however, with Rob commenting, “It could be a temporary blip for stockpiling and may tail off – that remains to be seen.”

Rob also seems slightly embarrassed to admit that his family’s company is in fact selling more Port when people are suffering health-wise or losing their livelihoods, and remarked, “No-one wants to be seen to be benefiting from a crisis.”

He also said that Fells – the UK importer and agency business owned by the Symington family –  has recorded a latent demand for alcoholic drinks in British supermarkets, but not always an uplift in sales because consumers can’t buy what they want, or as much as they’d like, as the shelves are not being re-stocked fast enough.

“Retailers are prioritising essentials, so restocking the shelves of wines and spirits is not on their radar, meaning that there are empty shelves [of alcoholic drinks] as they allocate their resources to providing a crucial service to society,” he adds, suggesting that the drinks trade could be selling more if the stock was on display.

Despite the current surge in demand for Symington brands, albeit more mainstream products, Rob told db that the group has “revised the financial forecast for the year downwards.”

Although he said that the company is “waiting to see how the next couple of months plays out,” he also commented that, “Without a doubt we will take a hit, but we can’t put a number on it at this stage”.

Among the many cancelled objectives for the group was an international new product roll-out for Graham’s Port to mark its 200th anniversary this year. As part of this the company had planned a big event that was due to take place in London on Tuesday this week.

“We were going to do a global roadshow of events to launch something commemorative for Graham’s, but all of that will have to wait,” he said.

Back in the Douro, from 14 March, Symington Family Estates had to shut up all its tourist attractions, including its Graham’s, Cockburn’s and Quinta do Bomfim visitor centres, as well as its Vinum restaurant in Porto.

The visitor centres alone employ as many as 60 people, meaning that all these staff are now based at home.

Nevertheless, Rob said that the group had found other work for such people, commenting that for instance, they are helping with research and analysis – “the sort of projects that you never have time for; we are doing are best to keep everyone occupied.”

He then stated, “We are absolutely determined that no-one will lose their jobs.”

In the longer term, Rob believes that “it is is likely now that we will head into a recession, and while the lockdown will hopefully end within months, there will be a lag in venturing out; people won’t immediately go back into travelling.”

This is a concern for the group, because “the on-trade and oenotourism is a hugely important part of our business for Port and wine consumption,” he said.

On a more positive note, he commented that during times of recession, “Alcohol in mainstream ranges often doesn’t suffer as much as other areas,” while speaking of his own family-owned company, he said, “We have an experienced and stable leadership and we have a long term perspective. … Our management team have weathered a lot of storms in the past and will weather this one.”

Among these he mentioned two world wars, the Portuguese revolution, and a Port category in the “doldrums for the 50s and much of the 60s”.

“We have got through crunches before by hook and by crook, and based on previous years of hard work we have a healthy and strong business, and I hope that it’s safe to say this isn’t an existential crisis, so we are focusing on look after our people.”

Finally, when asked by db if there were positives to be drawn from the Covid-19 crisis, he said that there had been developments that could be seen as beneficial in the longer term.

“One thing is that a lot of people in our company have suddenly understood how to be productive [from home] and very quickly learnt to use tools like Zoom, and seen how easy it is,” he said.

Continuing he observed, “It has meant we have take a great stride forward in flexible working, and this will act as a catalyst, meaning people can have more freedom and still do a great job.”

Finally, Rob said that the pandemic has “definitely brought us together as a company.”

While respecting social distancing guidelines of course, such enhanced unity has resulted from the visits by the management to workers such as the 120 who operate the bottling lines, or more contact online with employees across the company.

“We have a photo sharing initiative with a hashtag that translates as ‘we are together’ and this means that we share images of different teams at their place of work… and we send out a daily email about stuff, with a humorous element, such as gags about working from home,” he said.

In conclusion on this topic, he told db. “Our culture will be stronger as a result of this.”

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