Fine Wines and Civil Servants – a toxic cocktail

Having said that it would not be a habit for me to engage in reviewing books, I find myself about to review another book. I had better explain.

I have always been interested in the breadth of activities in which Britain’s railways engaged and found a reference in Hansard that British Railways during the 1970s was Britain’s largest purveyor of wines. It was not only the largest supplier of wines in Britain (so it was said) but had an excellent reputation for the quality of the product. Clearly this interesting assertion needed looking into.

One did not need to look far. British Railways, in those days, presided over the UK’s largest hotel chain and a chain that might just at that time have also been the world’s largest hotel chain, the very reputable British Transport hotels. British Rail also operated a substantial catering business, both on train and on station. For these reasons the corporation had enormous buying power in the wine market and also had enormous wine-friendly vaults in which it could store and age the stuff, most notably in the vast space under St Pancras station. This location, designed to store beer, was not only good for wine but enabled management to keep an eye on it as it was headquartered at St Pancras Chambers, above, which is now of course the newly-restored St Pancras Renaissance Hotel.

The enterprising hotels group thought it could use this in-house experience to the railway’s advantage by increasing this precious throughput using its buying power, and established the Malmaison Wine Club as a mechanism to supply fine wines to the public at large by mail order. There were few people in the mail order wine business in those days (the Wine Society, of which I am a member, being one of very few). The club was a notable success in a pre-internet age, certainly covered its costs and contributed to the bottom line of BT Hotels and British Rail. The quality of supply was greatly assisted by having a master of wine in charge of the purchasing operation. Plans were afoot to open wine shops, subject to the legislative difficulties that this presented British Rail, which had a number of serious constraints that affected such enterprise. There were solutions though, including shops on rail property and arrangements with third parties that could come in on the deal.

This kind of enterprise caught my imagination, in the same way that finding British Rail was the largest operator of UK golf courses, including the courses at which world tournaments took place. My desire to know more lead me directly to a new-ish, but not very well known, book called Sauce Supreme, by a man called P.A. Land, of whom I am fairly sure few people will have heard (because his areas of activity were not those that create great headlines, which might have been part of the problem). The book is about the sale of the British Transport Hotels group by British Rail and, in his view, how the process destroyed one of the world’s more successful hotel groups and failed to generate the sales proceeds that government officials suggested. The issue was not that the group ought not to be sold (it was common ground that it was probably better for all concerned that it was) it was the incompetence with the way in which it was done. This may have a familiar ring to it.

I do not intend to precis the book, which in any case would be difficult as the intricacies of the various twists and turns should be enjoyed for what they are, and the book is any any case not all that long. I should point out the themes though, as some of them might seem rather familiar and of course were simultaneously influencing wider railway policy at the time as well. That alone might justify getting a copy. The story describes events during the late 1970s and early 1980s when the privatization frenzy was beginning, and of course the lack of precedents for ‘how to do a privatization’ were a bit of a problem. Experts were supplied from outside the industry (and outside the Department of Transport) but they hadn’t done this before either and nobody running the process had much previous experience to go on.

The issues were whether to try and sell the hotels group as a whole or in lots, and to what extent the group should retain responsibility for some or all of the train and station catering businesses (which at the start of the process included three enormous regional railway laundries as all the businesses needed access to such facilities). At that time the Travellers Fare brand had been launched and was felt to be moderately successful (I understand it introduced the sandwich pack, by the way, now pretty much the way most sandwiches are made available).

Land states that the BR Board gave very clear directions to BTH about the way the future should be shaped, in consequence of which a viable and valuable privatization package was put together. The problem was the array of officials at the Department of Transport. These people were extremely bright and courteous but quite unfitted for managing (or even understanding) anything that involved business enterprise and what buyers might be looking for (the kind of thing that might add considerably to the value of a sale). Always erring to support the public utterances of their minister in a way where such person could never be ‘caught out’, Land and his team had an impossible job and the outcome was the destruction of a major hotel group and the complete failure to deliver good value for money to the taxpayer (let alone British Rail, which lost effective control of the process and of course were denied some of the possible benefits).

I have no way of knowing how accurate this book is, but I sense from the style that Land attempts to be fair-minded about what was happening given the differing objectives of the various players. His frustration at the amateurish way this was all done and the lost opportunities is very well disguised, but impossible to hide entirely! His respect for the BR management at the time, and particularly the unfailingly courteous Peter Parker, is noteworthy.

For me this is a little window on the world of BR management at that time and the behaviour of its minders at the DfT. There is every reason to suppose that other areas of BR’s business was subject to a comparable relationship with the department, mostly of a highly corrosive nature as the extremely bright people, many of whom had had never run anything themselves, attempted to impose the will of ministers whose abilities, motives and dogmas were not aligned with the practical needs of what really needed to be done and whose policies, if that is not to grand a word for them, could not be seen to fail (even if they were later quietly buried). For that reason alone I recommend this inexpensive book that sheds light on this fascinating area from the perspective of someone who was not allowed to go public at the time.

I think Land has done us a favour by making this material available, and much detail is drawn straight from documents circulating at the time. That the BTH group was annihilated (to use his term) is very unfortunate. The loss of a superb wine supplier, unforgivable.

Sauce Supreme,  Land, P.A.,  Dawn Rite Publishing, 2012,  ISBN: 978-1480105775  [And obtainable for under a fiver though I have found a definitive price hard to establish].

 

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About machorne

I have always lived in London and taken a great interest in its history and ongoing development. This extended into the history of its transport services, about which I have written a number of books - I have spent most of my working life working in the industry and observing changes from within, mostly to the good, but not always so. I continue to write, and have a website with half finished stuff in it so that it is at least available, if not complete. Several new books are in hand. I have many 'works in progress' and some of these can be found on my website; the we address is http://www.metadyne.co.uk
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One Response to Fine Wines and Civil Servants – a toxic cocktail

  1. Dan says:

    Most interesting. I recall a while back (2 years or so?) a chap who had been a senior manager at BTH wrote some articles for the Journal of the Friends of the National Railway Museum on this theme, as I think he had been senior at BTH in the time up to the privatizations. Probably the same person. Of great interest because the business history of BTH does not seem well documented in general, at least not compared with the wider scale of railway related publishing.

    Like

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