The BBC’s weekly The Boss series profiles different business leaders from around the world. This week we speak to Lesley Wild, chair of Bettys & Taylors of Harrogate, the parent group behind Yorkshire Tea.
Visit a British household and it’s quite likely you’ll find a box of Yorkshire Tea in the kitchen cupboard. After all, the tea brand is the nation’s second favourite after PG Tips, with more than 5.5 billion teabags produced in 2018.
Last year its growing tea sales were given a boost by some top Yorkshire celebrities – and self-professed fans of the brand – who appeared in its latest advertising campaign.
They included Sir Michael Parkinson, indie band the Kaiser Chiefs and Olympic-medal winning triathletes the Brownlee brothers.
So why is Yorkshire Tea so well loved? “Because it tastes so good,” says Lesley Wild, chair of Bettys & Taylors of Harrogate, the family business behind the brand.
“We have a hugely dedicated team who taste thousands of teas every day to ensure that we always have the best quality. Our blends also take into consideration the type of water that will be used to brew them at home.”
Yorkshire Tea is arguably the group’s best known product, but it also owns the coffee and tea merchant Taylors of Harrogate and the high-end cafe chain Bettys.
Yorkshire Tea is also a relatively new part of the firm, having been launched in 1970, and the group’s origins actually date back as far as 1919 when the first Bettys teashop opened in Harrogate, Yorkshire.
It was set up by Swiss émigré Frederick Belmont, who came to England to further his career having honed his craft at bakeries and confectioners across Switzerland and France.
Legend has it he only ended up in Yorkshire by accident, says Mrs Wild, whose husband Jonathan is Mr Belmont’s great nephew and Bettys & Taylors’ former boss.
“On his arrival in London Frederick realised he’d lost the address of his destination, and all he could remember was that the place he was heading for sounded like ‘bratwurst’ (a type of German sausage). So a passer-by put him on the train to Bradford!”
Bettys, which specialised in high quality cakes with a silver service, quickly became a hit and has since opened five more traditionally-themed tearooms, all in Yorkshire. It also runs its own cookery school and online gifts shop.
The business got further into tea in 1962 when it bought Taylors of Harrogate – a tea and coffee merchant whose products are today sold in supermarkets across the UK and overseas.
Mrs Wild started working part-time at her husband’s family business in the late 1960s, while training to be a solicitor, and joined full time in 1979.
“It was my ideal job really,” she says, “and my legal skills turned out to be quite useful.”
Her first official role was as export manager, with one of her earliest tasks being to develop a range of fruit cakes to sell overseas.
“Because I loved baking and cooking, I developed the recipes and I designed the tins. Then I had to go and sell them abroad.”
In 1996 Jonathan Wild became chief executive and chair of Bettys & Taylors of Harrogate, taking the reins from his father Victor. Jonathan’s first move was to streamline the business which he felt had become too diverse.
“We were doing outside catering, baking, making frozen desserts for supermarkets… We were too fragmented and needed to get back to our core,” says Mrs Wild.
Mr Wild also decided to revamp Bettys’ cafes, which by that point had abandoned their traditional decor for a more modern look-and-feel.
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“They had lost that sense of somewhere really special,” says Ms Wild. “So we started to bring back the silver teapots and cake stands – things that people see in Bettys today and think have always been around.”
Mr Wild remained boss until 2011 when he retired and the company has since made further changes, restructuring its board to ensure that no one person has absolute power.
“When Jonathan was heading up the business, he was the major shareholder and a family member and he called the shots,” explains Mrs Wild, who became chair in 2011.
“Really people were just waiting for Jonathan to make decisions which was alright at the time. But once he decided to step down I, and others, thought, ‘We’re going to need a culture change’.”
Unusually, chief executive responsibilities are now shared equally between four directors, although the business is still owned by the Wild family.
Sales at the Harrogate-based group, which employs 1,400 staff, continue to grow. In its most recent accounts for 2017 it posted revenues of £189.7m – up from £173.6m the year before – while pre-tax profits jumped from £9.3m to £16m.
Despite its enviable performance, Mrs Wild says the firm is not immune from the challenges affecting UK retailers. Consumers have been spending less on the High Street and doing more of their shopping online, leading to a rash of retailers going bust or announcing closures.
“There’s not as many people wandering around on the High Street, but then in our favour people are still looking for experiences. So as long as they do come out, we can provide an experience different to everyone else’s.”
The group’s flagship brand, Yorkshire Tea, is also doing well but it could face risks.
“The brand’s heavy and consistent investment in its advertising is clearly bearing fruit,” says Amy Price, a senior food and drink analyst at Mintel.
“But like its fellow black tea brands, the challenge for the future will be in engaging a younger demographic, which is less likely than average to drink black tea and more likely than average to drink green, fruit or speciality tea.”
Looking ahead, Mrs Wild says Bettys & Taylors of Harrogate will keep focusing on what it does best and only branch out if it really makes sense.
However, it has put some new, Swiss-themed items on the Bettys’ menu this year to celebrate its centenary and there will be an anniversary bash for staff.
“We’re already planning for the next 100 years,” Mrs Wild says. “Frederick will be sitting having a cigar and looking down at us quite fondly, thinking we’ve done okay.”