The Key Elements of Success

10 February 2015, 15:57 pm
Expert Eye by John Shepherd

On Thursday 25th May 1972, Partridges opened its doors for the first time at 132 Sloane Street, London. The doors were in fact opened by my brother, Sir Richard Shepherd, the first of at least eight family members to work in the company

It was a different world then. The day before had been the first attempt at the Watergate Burglary and T.Rex were number one in the charts with Metal Guru. The temperature was 57 degrees Fahrenheit, a dollar was equal to 34p, and a new film had recently opened in America called The Godfather.

It was a different Speciality Food World, too. 1972 was a time of frozen jugged hare and veal, ham and egg pie, and not forgetting coronation chicken. There were gulls’ eggs in the fridge and the shelves were adorned with Jacksons Teas, tins of Birds Nest Soup and Campbells Beef Bouillon. Olive oil was found mainly in chemists. We always sliced smoked salmon by hand and sold Chablis for 77p a bottle, except for on Sunday afternoons due to the licensing laws. Few products had sell by dates, and Justin de Blanc and Oakeshotts were our big rivals.

Fast forward 15,000 days of trading and about 19 million customers or so, and we find ourselves 200 yards South West, adjacent to the King’s Road and facing the delightful Duke of York Square. Along the way we have been granted a Royal Warrant, been co-founders of that great organisation the Guild of Fine Food Retailers, acquired four new shops, sold tea in Japan, launched over 20 food markets in Central London and launched a new generation of food shop called Startisans. A lot of lessons have been learned, discarded, forgotten entirely and learned again during the journey. Looking back, two things stand out amid the mass of experiences and insights, and they are the integral values of a family business and the importance of innovation.

Family values

When one starts working in a new business, the last thing one thinks of is shared values. It is more about being dynamic, professional, adhering to a business plan and working long hours to bring it about.

However, this does not always lead to an open and creative environment for staff or a congenial place for customers to shop. It is not likely to be sustainable on its own. Perhaps my biggest regret is not the many commercial opportunities we might have lost but the good people in our organisation that we have let slip through our fingers – either through a lack of empathy or understanding, or perhaps by not spending enough time with them. And if we have lost good members of staff, imagine how many customers we must have lost for the same reasons over the years.

Working with good people brings a shared desire for success and innovation, and hopefully a feeling of empowerment. This also applies to suppliers and landlords. We are lucky to have had some of our present suppliers for many years and even a few from our very first day – not forgetting our first free-range egg supplier who was actually the family dentist. When we moved to the Duke of York Square in 2004 it was with the help and support from many of them. Its all about learning from mistakes, maintaining relationships and, of course, seeing the big picture.

Finally on this subject, I recently learned that 30% of the biggest companies in the world have been classified as family businesses. This was a piece of information I got from Family Business United – a very valuable resource for family businesses everywhere. Our long suffering and long standing human resource director Ian Willard (25 years) recently calculated that our current staff had clocked up over 1000 years of service – interesting information but I wish it was longer!


Essentially, innovation is the brainchild of desperation. I do not think any of the new ideas we have launched have been done only in a spirit of creative planning. The relentless march of the supermarkets – we have four in our immediate vicinity – and indeed many other factors has often made the outlook appear bleak. So the extension of our deli counter, own-label development, the coffee shop and wine bar, export initiatives and the Saturday food market have all arisen from a desire to survive.

The food market is perhaps the most unique example, which we opened with the support of our landlords the Cadogan Estate. Inviting 50 small family businesses to trade outside the front door selling artisan food every Saturday may seem like an act of insanity. The question I get asked all the time is: “how does it affect the shop?”

Well, the answer is that it affects sales adversely in one way as there are many extra opportunities to spend money other than inside the shop, but in another way it drives footfall to the front of the shop, on good days up to 15,000 people, which inevitably helps the turnover. In short, the food market, despite the management challenges of running it, provides an abundance of goodwill, diversity and great food that entirely complements the shop. In doing so we also aim to give a helping hand to start up food businesses – the ‘Startisans’ – and in October of last year we opened a premises in Shelton Street, Covent Garden which provides a platform for startups to find their feet five days a week. These traders, who trade alongside more established businesses, are demonstrating all the energy, innovation and drive and, of course, family values needed for success. We hope that the first shop will lead to others soon.

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