The Bottling Outpost Of The Buffett Billions

Published 5 years ago

Warren Buffett may not know the way to Midland Road, Worcester, yet be sure he has looked very closely at the cost of making the ocean of spicy, black liquid that emerges from it to add millions to his balance sheet every year.

You can’t help thinking of Buffett’s long-term investment homilies as you walk through the Victorian red-brick portals of the Lea & Perrins building. It is as steeped in history as it is in the pungent odour of churning vinegar and spices.

For this is a factory that is 120 years old; it grew from a family business that took root in this city 180 years ago. It survived two world wars and heaven knows how many recessions. Even a fire, in 1964, merely disrupted production for a few days. It also survived corporate takeovers; it sold out to HP Sauce in 1930 and became part of the Heinz stable, in 2005, through an $885 million acquisition from the French food outfit Groupe Danone. It is now owned by the world’s fifth largest food company Kraft Heinz, following a merger in 2015 – creating a food giant that made $26.5 billion in sales in 2016, according to company figures.

The Oracle of Omaha, through his holding company Berkshire Hathaway, owns 19.5% of Kraft Heinz – that is 325,634,818 shares, worth around $31 billion, his single largest holding.

Midland Road also makes Amoy Chinese sauce, another Kraft Heinz product in the competitive and crowded sauce market.

For Lea & Perrins, that market is that bit tougher because, despite the fact the sauce is made from a secret recipe, there are plenty of imposters. At least one, made far from Worcestershire, carries the name, but tastes like spiced caramel with bits in it.

“It is not a protected name. We are not like Champagne. We just have to hope people recognize our quality,” says Nigel Dickie, the London-based spokesman for Kraft Heinz, in Worcester.

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Lea & Perrins enjoys a bit of snob value with its royal warrant, granted by Edward VII in 1904, to supply the regal household.

Nigel Dickie at the factory gates. (Photo by John Bray)

It was a foothold in the market created by two entrepreneur chemists, who saw an opportunity, thanks to a stroke of luck, and made a fortune from it.

The two, John Lea and William Perrins, owned a chemist’s shop in Broad Street – the street where I bought my first beer – in the heart of Worcester. They were trying to make a sauce with onions, garlic, tamarinds, vinegar, anchovies and spices in a barrel; concluded that it tasted foul and cast it into a dark corner of their cellar. Nearly two years later, during a clear out, Lea and Perrins came across the barrel and tasted the contents. They found that maturation, unbeknown to either of them, had woven magic. The sauce was spicy and beautiful.

The two didn’t waste any time. They set up a makeshift operation at the back of the chemist shop and by 1837 it was selling fast; by 1843, it was selling 14,500 bottles a year.

It didn’t let its humble origins, in a humble county, hold it back: its spicy richness splashed across the food of the rich in New York steakhouses; into the cocktails of Manhattan and on the battlefields of Africa.

There is evidence that the handful of defenders of Rorke’s Drift, in KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, splashed the sauce on their food as they steeled for the fight of their lives against 4,000 equally brave Zulu warriors.

“While here we lived like fighting cocks as we managed to get potatoes now and then and occasionally a bottle of Worcestershire Sauce, without which you could not distinguish the ration beef from leather,” wrote one red-coated soldier at Rorke’s Drift before the famous battle in the heat of January 1879.

Nearly 140 years later, around 40 employees in Worcester make the dark sauce that tastes much the same as it did on the eve of battle against the Zulus.

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They turn out a staggering 26 million bottles every year. That’s almost enough to give the entire population of Mozambique one each. A mere eight million are sold in the United Kingdom and the rest are exported to 130 countries.

Of these, 100,000 bottles are sent to South Africa; another 400,000 to the Middle East from where, the manufacturers believe, many of these are re-exported to Africa.

It’s a massive job that belies the low key, yet industrious, operation in Worcester. Everyone in the factory has work clothes on; you expect to see suites of offices, filled with suits, until you remember the head office is in Chicago.

Most of the noise comes from huge plastic barrels full of onions and garlic. They swirl for weeks as part of the nearly two-year maturation process – about 30,000 liters of the stuff is on the go on this day. These days, huge paddles do the stirring; in the old days, there were workers called barrel rockers, whose job it was to turn wooden barrels every few hours.

Workers mix in anchovies, tamarind, molasses, salt and sugar. Then it is pasteurized to make sure the sauce never goes off whatever steamy clime it ends up in.

One of the men in charge of the process is Joe Neary, a racing man from Liverpool, who married a Worcester woman and runs a few livestock on his smallholding near the city. He came to work at Lea & Perrins, 25 years ago, from the Guinness factory in Runcorn and believes the sauce ages like wine.

“The taste improves with age over about seven years. What I do is buy a six pack and every time I take one out I buy a new one to put at the back,” he says.

Joe Neary inside the Lea & Perrins factory. (Photo by John Bray)

There is something worse that has longevity too – the unholy odour. Now, I love the smell of malt vinegar, but even I was knocked back at the door. I can shut my eyes and suffer it now. It is a pungent, sickly, sweet stench, that is hard to describe and even harder to get rid of.

“I used to go out at lunchtime to put a bet on the horses. The bookie used to tell me that until late afternoon the punters would come in, sniff the air, and say: ‘I see Joe has been in!’” chuckles Neary.

As for Worcester itself – population around 100,000 – the sweet sound of industry, of which Lea & Perrins is a vestige, has long gone. When Worcester City played its last ever football game at its doomed St George’s Lane ground in April 2013 – before developers covered it with houses – the club put a bottle of Lea & Perrins on the center spot before the game. It was a sad, unconscious nod to industrial decline; the sauce is one of the last manufactured products of the city.

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I grew up around Worcester; my family has lived in Worcestershire for nearly 400 years. It was where I kicked my first ball, earned my first penny, had my first kiss and wrote my first story. In the 21st century, my city looks down-at-heel.

Journalist Mike Grundy, Worcester-born-and-bred, has chronicled the county for 60 years and believes the hi-tech industries that have come in place of heavy industry have not yet caught up when it comes to employment.

Grundy also believes the city missed a trick in the destructive years between the 1930s and 1960s when town planners pulled down scores of picturesque black-and-white Tudor houses around the cathedral. They had become slums, but foresight could have saved them.

“We could have been a real medieval tourist town like York,” laments Grundy.

“Maybe we need a Donald Trump character to make us great again,” he chuckles.

Trump probably doesn’t know the way to Worcester either, but at least Buffett is keeping his millions in Lea & Perrins alive and, like the sauce itself, he is in it for the long run.