Change at the top at Fells as company returns furlough cash

Paul Symington has said he will be stepping back as chairman of UK agent Fells at the end of the year, while the company announced it will be returning all furlough money to the government after trading during the summer proved better than “we ever dared hope”.

Symington (pictured), whose family is the majority shareholder in Fells, has been chairman for 15 years and will retire on 31 December this year.

His place will be taken by current managing director, Steve Moody, who will become executive chairman of the company in addition to his role as MD.

Symington told the drinks business that his retirement was due to a “family rule” that older family members should give up senior positions around the age of 65 (he is 66).

“I”m a bit sad to be stepping back,” he said, “but it’s the right thing to do,” and a, “healthy and vital factor” in ensuring company’s remain fighting fit, especially in a market as competitive as the UK and in such unprecedented times as well.

Looking back on his time at the head of the firm he said he was “slightly surprised” to see that Fells is now one of the UK’s top premium wine importers. “It puzzles me how we did that when I look back on it,” he said.

Fells was acquired by Pauls’ father and uncle in 1977, as a potential lifeboat for the family during the uncertain days following Portugal’s revolution, which came very close to precipitating a communist takeover.

Since then, a key factor in its success according to Symington, the company has built up a portfolio of largely family-owned business, with Miguel Torres taking a stake in 1993 and Robert Hill-Smith in 2018.

Moody will now report to Rupert Symington but said that the overall day-to-day operations of the board and team would carry on much as before.

He told db that it had been a great opportunity for both Fells and himself to work under Paul and the business had expanded and premiumised enormously during the last 15 years.

“It’s a change that, while sad, is not daunting change,” he said.

The news comes after an extremely uncertain year for the entire UK drinks industry. Moody said that, like all other companies, “we didn’t really understand what effects Covid would have on our business. As a management team we had to react but had little idea of how things would unfold.”
Fells quickly had all of its employees working from home by the end of March and 19 employees were placed on the government’s furlough scheme.

In the end, however, Moody continued, “we expected the worst but the reality is business has fared reasonably well”.

Symington added that cash flow was a major concern at the outset but around May it became clear that orders were still rolling in to the extent it was, “almost too good to be true”.

Of course, the on-trade, where Fells has many clients, “has been devastated” he continued but, “other areas of the wine trade in the UK came back much better than we ever dared hope”.

With the staff returned from furlough from 1 August, the board decided to return the money provided by the government for the scheme and will not claim the bonus for reintegrating staff either.

Symington said: “We felt that the furlough scheme was for companies in serious difficulties and as the months went by and we were trading reasonably well, we felt it was the right thing to do returning the money.”

Although incredibly thankful for having got through an incredibly unusual and potentially destabilising period, both Symington and Moody admitted they felt “quite fearful of the new year”, which could yet be seriously hampered by rising unemployment and further lockdowns.

“We’re not complacent,” said Symington, “there’ll be no plain sailing into 2021.”

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