Jazz Shaper: Simon Robinson

Posted on 25 September 2021

Simon Robinson is the founder and owner of Hattingley Valley Wines and until very recently also the chairman of Wines of Great Britain (“WineGB”), the association of UK wine producers.

Elliot Moss

Welcome to the Jazz Shapers Podcast from Mishcon de Reya.  What you are about to hear was originally broadcast on Jazz FM however the music has been cut due to rights issues.

Welcome to Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss, bringing the shapers of the business world together with the musicians shaping the worlds of Jazz, Soul and Blues.  My guest today, I am very pleased to say, is Simon Robinson, Founder of Hattingley Valley Wines, the eco-friendly winery in Hampshire.  In 2008, inspired by the growing English wine industry and keen to diversify, Simon and his now head winemaker, Emma Rice, planted their first vines on Simon’s farmland.  They were met with scepticism to say the least.  As Simon says, “Hampshire wasn’t exactly renowned as a wine producing area” but after converting an abandoned chicken shed into a high-tech 500 tonne winery in 2010 and releasing their first vintage three years later, Simon was ready to quit his day job at city law firm Slaughter and May and follow his dream full time.  Hattingley Valley Wines is now one of the largest, most successful English producers winning over a hundred awards in major international competitions and exporting to over fifteen countries around the world.  Did you ever think you would be hearing those words in your career as a lawyer?  Here’s the Founder of a business and he’s making wines and they are eco-friendly. 

Simon Robinson

Well certainly not at the beginning, that’s for sure.  I think towards the end of it, yes, because by that stage, towards the end of my career as a lawyer I mean, by that stage the environment stuff had come to the fore and you could begin to see the way the world was moving.  Of course, it’s made of much further since I first started thinking about this 20-odd years ago.  So, the answer to that is yes and no but go back forty years now, I wouldn’t even have thought I’d be making wine, let alone eco-friendly and all the rest of it. 

Elliot Moss

So, tell me a bit about the move from being a corporate lawyer, I am guessing, I mean lawyer but…

Simon Robinson

Yeah, I was, I was corporate. 

Elliot Moss

Corporate lawyer.

Simon Robinson

Sort of mergers and acquisitions, that sort of stuff.

Elliot Moss

I mentioned the name of the firm at the beginning, Slaughter and May, a very famous firm.  You’ve also worked at Freshfields.  You’ve also worked internationally.  Serious business, I mean, and I should know, the day job is often consumed talking to lawyers about serious things.  You transitioned to become an entrepreneur, Simon, and over the years I’ve met a number of lawyers who have transitioned but you did it pretty late as well so, did it sneak up on you or was there at some point a realisation that you could actually cut it as someone running their own business rather than helping other people?

Simon Robinson

It was a relatively slow transition, actually, you are quite right and I think it was driven by my own predilection for looking forward in life and wanting to know where I wanted to be and what I had to do, coupled with a realisation that the law, particularly in the city, tends to be a relatively young man’s game so people retire earlier than they would otherwise retire and possibly before they want for a whole variety of reasons which I don’t think is necessarily bad actually and I just wanted to work out what I wanted to do and I wanted my children to grow up in the countryside so we moved out to the country in 1992, I seem to recollect and then I got interested in the area around us and what was going on and so forth so we bought some land and it was a slow transition and when we had the land, we suddenly started thinking what are we going to do?  What’s a good use of the land because I do think that if you have an asset, you need to make it work for its living?  It’s not a question of making money, it’s a question of using it properly and sometimes you will leave it at blank but I was beginning to think well, wheat prices are low, why don’t we look at alternative crops?  And at that point, I had an interest in wine, probably to be honest, not much stronger – this is back in about the late nineties, the early noughties – probably not much more than what you might call an enthusiastic amateur but it went back a long way, back to college days, and so we started doing a bit of research as to what could be done and about the same time, there were other wineries being started in the UK that were doing something different from what had been done previously in winemaking and if you go back to the 1970s, English wine was really trying to find its way I think is the best way of putting it and by the early eighties, early nineties, people had started making champagne varietals, sorry growing champagne varietals and making sparkling wine, and more importantly they were beginning to really show in international competitions as top quality wines and that attracted me, my whole ethos in the law was quality, quality, quality so when I learned that you could actually do something in the wine area of quality, that really got my juices flowing. 

Elliot Moss

And I’m going to pause there on a nice note – quality, quality, quality.  It would be good if everything was good quality, wouldn’t it?  Well, stay with me to find out how Simon Robinson has delivered a quality product.  He’s the Founder and I think you are the CEO as well?  Do you give yourself a title?

Simon Robinson

I don’t give myself that.

Elliot Moss

Just the Founder.

Simon Robinson

Chairman and…

Elliot Moss

Founder, Chairman, CEO…

Simon Robinson

Guiding spirit. 

Elliot Moss

He’s everything.  He’s the Hattingley Valley Wines man.  So, you move from the law, not a naturally entrepreneurial place, much more into precision and mitigating risk and this is what always intrigues me about lawyers that become, you know, entrepreneurs as it were Simon, one big part of being an entrepreneur is sort of saying we’re going to go for it.  A big part of being a lawyer is saying well yes but you need to think about the eighteen things that might go wrong.  Right at the beginning, was there the lawyer in you telling the entrepreneur in you, this is crazy?

Simon Robinson

No, not really, strangely enough. 

Elliot Moss

And why not?

Simon Robinson

And actually I think Slaughters, in particularly, is a firm that… I mean all lawyers will say this but the whole ethos was trying to get to the position the client wanted to be in and we had to be very inventive and I was certainly, prided myself on creating solutions for problems that, in some cases people didn’t even know existed but equally they did know they had a problem and trying to get round it, trying to make it work for them so they could do what they wanted, it was all part of the ethos, very much.  So it was, from that point of view, it was a relatively simple transition.  It also helped that you gained a lot of experience through talking to leaders of industry, to people who could run businesses and you had a sort of general business understanding and if you were doing things like flotations and stuff like that, you got an insight into lots and lots of other people’s businesses, everything from car companies to chemical companies, the whole mass of different companies.  So, you got experience from that point of view, or I did. 

Elliot Moss

And for that, that exposure, you would have latched onto two or three things that I imagine become the Simon Robinson philosophy, even if you wouldn’t have called them those things.  But in terms of the foundations for the business, in terms of going right, if I’m going to deliver a quality wine, so immediately everyone goes quality wine in England?  Give me a break.  And even your advertising makes a very good point about “C’est Anglais”, It’s English, I can’t believe it’s English.  But if there were two or three things that defined the approach, was it about in-depth research?  Was it about relationship with the people that were going to provide you with the grapes?  What would be the two or three things that you said informed that?  Because often entrepreneurs start in their twenties, when in reality the other way round is, you’ve got thirty/forty years of experience.  So, tell me about those two or three things you think, if you look back, what was defining your approach?

Simon Robinson

You are right, there are one or two things, certainly that define the approach.  One of them is picking the right people and that’s probably true with every business but particularly if you are in my situation, where my knowledge of the science and intricacies of grape growing and winemaking were limited, finding a really top-class winemaker was an absolute boon and also applying enough capital to the project that we ended with a facility that looked the part and was very much state of the art, it was not just a question of eco-friendly, we’ve got lots of space, it’s got brand new equipment or it had when we started, and I defined it as doing it properly.  So, do it properly, find the right people and I was really lucky, and there was an element of luck in this, I’ve got to confess but, you know, everyone needs a bit of luck in life.  We were directed towards Emma, Emma Rice, who had just come back from Tasmania, I think, where she had done a cold climate vintage and they make lots of sparkling wine in Tasmania, as I am sure you know, and she was looking for a job…

Elliot Moss

Of course I knew that Simon, I mean obviously the Tasmanian, your Tasmanian knowledge is very deep.  It’s very deep now. 

Simon Robinson

You never know. 

Elliot Moss

It’s true, you don’t know.

Simon Robinson

You never know.

Elliot Moss

But now you know I really didn’t know.

Simon Robinson

You’d be surprised.  Quite. 

Elliot Moss

So sorry, do it properly, find the right people and a bit of luck. 

Simon Robinson

And a bit of luck.  And Emma came along and she got a wonderful brief from someone which was here you are Emma, let’s build a winery together, you advise me what to do, you design it, help with the design, and she ended up with a winery that she loved and, you know, it went from there.  And I suppose the one other element – if Emma ever hears this, it’ll probably make her laugh – I have an attitude which is there are no problems in life, there’s only missing solutions and if someone comes to me and says we can’t do this because of so and so, I’d say well, how are you going to get round it?  How are you going to solve the problem?  Now, that’s a slight truism to say you can always solve it, you can’t always, of course but you need to try really hard, I think, in every business to solve the problems that you are facing, that’s what business management is about. 

Elliot Moss

Stay with me to find out more about how Simon Robinson has been solving problems ever since then and indeed, how he solved the problem of the pandemic which has impacted everybody, including his business.  He’ll be back in a couple of minutes.  Right now though, we are going to hear a taster from the Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions.  They can be found on all of the major podcast platforms.  Mishcon de Reya’s Victoria Pigott talks about ESG, that’s Environmental, Social and Governance, and what the resulting long-term benefit is for businesses putting purpose before profit. 

You can enjoy all our former Business Shapers on the Jazz Shapers podcast and indeed you can hear this very programme again if you pop Jazz Shapers into your podcast platform of choice or if you’ve got a smart speaker, be pleasant to it and ask it to play Jazz Shapers and there you will find a taster of our recent shows.  But back to my guest today, it’s Simon Robinson, Founder of Hattingley Valley Wines, the eco-friendly winery in Hampshire.  I’ve read in a few places and it’s kind of apparent in the way you describe the story that being traditional, going and doing what other people have done in terms of creating a wine business, having quality in there, creating a brand, doing what they did wasn’t going to work for you, you use the words ‘do it properly’ which I really like, we should write a book on doing it properly.  How have you maintained the disruptive nature of the way you look at things over the last few years and specifically what happened in the pandemic?

Simon Robinson

I think the first thing that we did that was different from what I would regard as our competitors or perhaps friends is even almost the better way of describing them, is that we decided very early on, in fact right from the start when we released wine in 2013, the exports were going to be a key part of our platform and that the restaurant and on trade were another key part and that we wouldn’t open a shop or things like that on the sight, for a variety of different reasons, some good, some bad, so we concentrated on wholesale distribution through to the restaurant trade and exports and we built our exports up relatively rapidly I think and I still that is a really important sector for everybody because it’s obviously a world market, not just a UK market and it means that the industry will be able to grow without putting all their eggs in one basket so to speak.  But you ask about the pandemic, well as of April, March/April last year 2020, fundamentally the on trade, the restaurant trade collapsed completely because they were all locked down and the export trade collapsed as well so we were left with a very much diminished trade that we were facing and we sat back and said well what are we going to do now and my commercial director said, “Well, we’re just going to have to start selling direct to the consumer” and within a space of three or four weeks – and this is one of the joys of being a small business, we don’t have to go through layers and layers of bureaucracy – and Gareth talked to me and did I want to do this and I just said yeah, let’s give it a go.  And we did a television advert, we were the first UK winery, we believe, ever to have advertised on television and some of you will, I am sure, have seen the advert, it’s got a nice little turn on poking the French gently in the eye and…

Elliot Moss

You are so civilised, Simon. 

Simon Robinson

The French people I know actually love it. 

Elliot Moss

I bet they did, it’s really good, it’s great.  Yeah, you should watch it.  If you want to see it, it’s on YouTube, if you haven’t seen it on television but it’s really cute and it goes to the fire in communication terms of the issue, which is English wine won’t be any good…

Simon Robinson

Yeah.

Elliot Moss

And that’s the point and then that’s actually, some people will say that’s the problem.  You’d say, well it’s a missing solution. 

Simon Robinson

Yeah and the industry as a whole knows that it’s producing really good quality wines now but the professional producers are and there’s an awful lot of them now, it’s not just a few people, there’s a lot of them and actually the trade knows it too and increasingly the trade outside the UK knows it as well.  So getting through to the ultimate consumer was very important and we did it, as I say, through TV advertising, we did quite a lot of social media advertising and promotion, I think perhaps is a better way, particularly through Facebook and that proved to be very successful, coupled with some direct discounting that we did and to cut a long story short, our April budget we didn’t meet, our May budget we greatly exceeded, hugely exceeded by about 40% I think, if I remember correctly, and we’ve never missed a budget since.  And so we’ve now developed a very large direct to consumer business.  Why did that happen?  Well, I think a number of reasons, one is obviously we started promoting it but I also think the public here, there has been a move, they want to support local producers and particularly if they are very local to where they live but even not very local, they will support, and the message has got out, we can make good wine, not just good wine but absolutely top quality wine and that’s the most important thing. 

Elliot Moss

Your one revenue stream has turned into two and that can’t be a bad…

Simon Robinson

I’d take two into three actually.  Export, on trade and D2C.

Elliot Moss

There has to be a level of competitiveness and even when you talked about your competition, you said “Well they’re really my friends” and I know that, I think you chaired an industry body for a while which I think was called, you will remind me…

Simon Robinson

Wines of Great Britain. 

Elliot Moss

Wines of Great Britain and that was for a few years.  So, there’s this person in front of me who is incredibly collaborative I think and very civilised in his approach and indeed all the clients you would have met will probably say the same over the years.  Do you have to change when you run your own business?  Do you have to sort of put that at the door and say no, I’ve got to find a way through this, the pandemic is there?  Of is it less personal than that against other people and is it more about running your own…?

Simon Robinson

I think, running a business is all about keeping the variety of different groups happy and enthusiastic and first and foremost obviously, you’ve got to keep your own staff happy and that’s absolutely critical.  You know, you can’t do everything that they would like but equally if they think you are being fair with them then I think most people will support you.  Some years ago, I ran into a couple who ran a small business in the middle of the United States, making stop signs for roads and I thought, you know, capitalism, red in tooth and claw in the US, this will be a business that’s run ruthlessly and I asked them how many people they had lost out of their 135 they employed, and they said they’d only lost one in the last eighteen months which I thought was a really interesting comment on people who were running the business and I think that’s one of the keys.  Obviously, the other big constituents you have to keep happy are your customers but if you are doing a good job, producing high quality wine that the customers are enjoying and the workforce feels proud of producing and you are looking after them, you should have a good business. 

Elliot Moss

And is your sense of wellbeing in yourself different now to when you were advising clients?  As much as you would have enjoyed, I imagine, the intellectual stimulation and the fun of helping clients do their thing.  Is it of a different magnitude now that it’s your own show?

Simon Robinson

Yes, it is, to a degree.  There was always, as you rightly say, enjoyment from giving really good advice and seeing people get what they want but there is always a difference between being an advisor and being a principal and I’ve had a lot of fun being a principal, it’s a bit of heartache as well but, you know, you get there in the end and that’s fine. 

Elliot Moss

And the stress that might come with it although you don’t look stressed at all, I hasten to add, he doesn’t look very stressed whatsoever, smiling happily and very jocular but if there is stress, where does that get managed? 

Simon Robinson

The biggest stress probably comes on the finance side and we had to work very hard to get ourselves into a stable position like that and if I can do one little prod, it’d be really nice if the big English banks would support the wine industry.  At the moment, we are being supported by a very high quality American asset based financier called PNC and they’ve made all the difference in the world to us, we can now concentrate on making good wine and selling it well and so forth.  When it comes to competition, you are absolutely right strangely enough, English wine is still a relative… although we see it as a rapidly expanding and it is very rapidly expanding product to market, in the world terms we are a very small industry, very small.  Champagne produces around 300 million bottle a year, we produce probably about 10-12 million bottles a year and that gives you some idea.  We’ve got lots of potential and it will grow a long way between now and 2040/2050 but one of the impacts of that is that the various people in the industry see it as important to work together, the success of one is still the success of all and particularly in export.  There’s no point in Hattingley being the only bottle on the shelf in America because people will see it as an oddity and they’ll wonder why there’s only one of it.  I’d much rather see 10 or 12 and a little category of English wines over there and, again, with one or two honourable exceptions, I’d quite like to encourage the supermarkets in this country to devote a section to English wine.  At the moment, you will see a section of Australian, Chilean, American, all the rest of it and the English comes under ‘Other’. 

Elliot Moss

So, if you are a supermarket or a bank, that thing that you’ve heard, a really strong message here from my Business Shaper, Simon Robinson, get behind English wine.  We’ll have our final chat with Simon and play an absolute classic from Esperanza Spalding, that’s all coming up in just a moment, don’t go anywhere.

Just for a few more minutes, Simon Robinson is my Business Shaper and as you heard earlier I hope, the Founder of Hattingley Valley Wines and they’re an English wine company in the lovely hills and flats of Hampshire.  I don’t know the geography of Hampshire particularly well, I’ve driven through it a number of times…

Simon Robinson

Rolling hills. 

Elliot Moss

Rolling hills, there you go, and you’d find the adjective for me.  And it’s important, actually, the hills part and land.  The whole environmental piece, to me, has become, you know, 25 years ago when my friends were going to environmental consultancies and everyone was talking about how important the planet was, no one was listening.  Ten years ago, more people were listening.  Five years ago, more people were listening and the last eighteen months, suddenly literally the world is on fire and everyone is listening to the notion of using land properly.  You started there.  The connection you have with land and the use of it, are you mindful that you are just looking after it, as it were for the next generation and if so, what do you do on a daily basis to make sure that there’s sustainability at the core of your use of the land?

Simon Robinson

Well, the answer to that in short is, yes, very much and always has been.  And on the farm, we were very early taking up a lot of the conservation schemes that were being offered 20/25 years ago, you know, we planted miles and miles of hedgerows, we do grass margins of bird seed, wild bird seed mixed margins and all the rest of it, which to be honest, yeah we get paid for it but we’d probably do better if we were growing crops, if the honest truth were known and it does worry me slightly that some of that may well be lost in the future but we’ll just have to see the way the world goes.  In terms of sustainability in the vineyards, actually vineyards are pretty environmentally friendly.  We use far less sprays and herbicides and things like that than we would on say wheat or barley.  It’s much less of a monoculture and it’s probably, I would think, taking up a lot more carbon dioxide out of the air.  Of course, admittedly, we then produce some of it when we ferment the wine but there’s no way we can get round that.  We’ve looked long and hard at some kind of carbon capture for the wine production but it’s… there just doesn’t seem to be the technology available at the moment. 

Elliot Moss

In terms of scale though of course, one of the things that capitalism is all about, is growth.  So, if you’re going to grow and you’re going to scale up, is there then a challenge with the way the land is used or is it simply cut paste and you just do what you did on the x number of thousands of hectares and you then just do the same again?

Simon Robinson

I’m not sure about thousands.

Elliot Moss

Well, hundreds.

Simon Robinson

No, tens. 

Elliot Moss

Tens. 

Simon Robinson

One of the interesting things about the wine business is you don’t actually need a great deal of land to make a viable business, depending on how you do it and the more important thing for the wine business is the site and its suitability for growing.  England and southern England in particular, has a big advantage in that geologically it’s a big chalk bed, particularly in Hampshire as it happens, but there are chalk in Sussex and Kent and preferably below a hundred metres in altitude but not absolutely essential, it just means you get lower yield but one important thing is decent drainage and south facing.  So, all that adds together that it’s not just a question of planting the way you might plant other crops, you have to select the sites and there’s a lot of land in southern England that is suitable, sort of tens of thousands of acres or hectares, if you prefer, but not all of it will be planted and it probably, in total, amounts to roughly the same amount of land that Champagne has, not all of that will be planted by any means, at the moment we’re at about five thousand hectares, I think, across the country, which is, we’ve doubled in size as a country over the last three to four years and my guess is we’ll probably carry on expanding quite rapidly over the next five to ten years. 

Elliot Moss

And you want to grow, I imagine.

Simon Robinson

Absolutely.  I mean, why would we not?  Every business wants to grow.  From the point of view of the environment, it must make sense to make wine, bottle it here and sell it locally rather than import it from potentially thousands of miles away. 

Elliot Moss

And is it, if I recall, I remember I was in South African years ago and I heard a story that the Huguenots brought soil over, actually brought soil over, yeah, to South Africa to then create equivalent French wine.  I thought was an amazing story.  Anyway, let’s hope that English soil, soil from Hampshire, gets exported but obviously in a very carbon friendly way.

Simon Robinson

I don’t think we’ll export the soil. 

Elliot Moss

Keep the soil.  It’s been really nice talking to you, Simon and good luck with the growth.

Simon Robinson

Thank you.

Elliot Moss

And continue to enjoy it because you look like a happy person and that’s a good thing. 

Simon Robinson

Thank you.

Elliot Moss

And not that you weren’t happy before, of course, but this is another level of happiness now that you’re…

Simon Robinson

Absolutely.

Elliot Moss

…realising your potential.

Simon Robinson

Fun.

Elliot Moss

Fun.  Exactly.  Just before I let you disappear, what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Simon Robinson

Well, I have to confess, these days I probably listen more to classical music but having said that, and I’m sorry that’s probably a sin in this context.

Elliot Moss

It’s okay.  I occasionally do too.  Bit of Bach always does the spirit some good. 

Simon Robinson

But I used to dabble when I was younger, with jazz and indeed I, in the early seventies, I went to what I think was the last concert given by Duke Ellington in London, I think it was 1974 but you could probably haul me up on that and so what I’d like to hear is just something from Duke Ellington but perhaps I could leave you to make the choice. 

Elliot Moss

Well, I’ve left the choice to my brilliant producer, Stuart, and Stuart has chosen, just be clear, REM Blues featuring Charlie Mingus and Max Roach, and here it is, just for you. 

That was Duke Ellington with REM Blues, featuring Charlie Mingus and Max Roach, the artist that my Business Shaper, Simon Robinson, chose.  He is the Founder of Hattingley Valley Wines.  He talked about wanting to deliver a quality product.  Whatever he did, he wanted it to be high quality.  He talked about finding the right people, about investing properly, about not having problems but simply missing solutions and overall, doing things properly.  I love that mantra.  That’s it from me and Jazz Shapers, have a lovely weekend.

We hope you enjoyed that edition of Jazz Shapers.  You will find hundreds of more guests available to listen to in our archive, just search Jazz Shapers in iTunes or your favourite podcast platform or head over to mishcon.com/jazzshapers.

He led the team of English Wine Producers (of which he was chairman) in the merger in 2016 with the United Kingdom Vineyards Association to form WineGB and was instrumental in creating the effective and successful organisation which WineGB has become.  

He founded Hattingley in 2008 as a farm diversification project and built the winery in 2009/10. It has subsequently become one of the largest and most successful English producers, winning over 100 awards in major international competitions and exporting to over 15 countries around the world.

Until 2013 he worked at the City law firm, Slaughter and May, where he was a Partner for 24 years, specialising in corporate and financial law. Before that he worked at another City law firm, including two years in Singapore. He has also been  chairman of the Governors of Charterhouse School and a trustee of the MOVE Partnership and Enham Trust, both  disability charities.

Highlights

It helped that you gained a lot of experience through talking to leaders of industry, to people who could run businesses… if you were doing things like flotations and stuff like that, you got an insight into lots and lots of other people’s businesses.

Everyone needs a bit of luck in life.

I have an attitude which is there are no problems in life, there’s only missing solutions

The message has got out, we can make good wine, not just good wine but absolutely top quality wine and that’s the most important thing. 

Running a business is all about keeping the variety of different groups happy and enthusiastic.

You can’t do everything that they would like but equally if they think you are being fair with them then I think most people will support you.

In terms of sustainability in the vineyards, vineyards are pretty environmentally friendly. We use far less sprays and herbicide.

You don’t actually need a great deal of land to make a viable business.

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