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The Bottling Outpost Of The Buffett Billions



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.

READ MORE: The 29-Year-Old Who Was Named Chief Financial Officer Of Kraft Heinz

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.


A Country On A Roll




The tiny country of Rwanda is now producing factory-fresh Volkswagen cars from its rolling hills. Next up are ride-hailing and public car-sharing services by the German carmaker.


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The Heroes Among Us




Heroes exist in history, on celluloid, in pop culture or in these digital times, at the forefront of technology. These are the mighty who shine on the front pages of newspapers, as the paradigms of victory and virtue. But every day in public life, surrounding us are some of the real stars, the nameless, the faceless we don’t recognize or celebrate. In the pages that follow, we look at some of them, exploring the exemplary work they do, from the war zones to your neighborhood streets. They are not flawless, they are not infallible, but they are heroes.


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The Power, Humour And Anger Of Mandela



It is a century since Nelson Mandela came kicking and screaming into a world that he would change.

In one hundred years, his name has been spoken with pride from the paddy fields of Vietnam, through the savannahs of Africa to the smoky steak houses of New York. His legacy appears more contested with every passing year.

I was fortunate to have a front row seat in the Mandela years and saw the power, humour and anger of the man. I used to feel 10 feet tall at press conferences when he used to greet my questions with: “Mr Bishop, how are you?” Once I was walking to a TV interview with him, at an African Union summit in Harare, the day after I had ruptured my knee playing football, he noticed I was hobbling far behind – something he was not used to. He turned and inquired of the cause of my pain.

“May I suggest you take up boxing, it’s safer!” says the old man with that million dollar smile. I shall take the warmth of that smile to my grave.

Make it clear, I am no Mandela worshipper. He was no saint and certainly didn’t want to be one: he could be angry and petulant with the best of them; his past was chequered by domestic troubles; a man of the people, yet distant from his own family, according to many close to him. A man who promoted press freedom, yet like many of the lesser politicians who followed him, wanted his picture on every page of the morning newspaper. Mandela drew the line at the sports page – he joked that he didn’t want to risk being associated with losers.

The greatest fear Mandela had was that his ideals – not his name – would be forgotten after his death. Not for Mandela the greed of rule, nor the trappings of power.

Yet it is very fashionable these days to run Mandela down as something akin to a sell-out. Those who claim, erroneously, that Mandela sold out his people. They say he didn’t stop poverty overnight nor right the wrongs of the past with the wave of his wand. They need to talk to those who were there in the negotiations for a new free South Africa.

“People say we gave up too much in negotiations yet we had nothing to start with,” Denis Goldberg, a man who faced death with Mandela at the Rivonia Trial in 1964, once told me.

READ MORE: Mandela Through Their Eyes

The negotiations with an entrenched elite – that held most of the cards and only grudgingly acknowledged Mandela and his comrades – were difficult to say the least. Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) could not even threaten to go back to war because the depleting arms of its military wing posed little or no threat to the state.

Even so, a deal was hammered together somehow. In the next two years, in the run-up to the 1994 elections, Mandela won his leadership spurs as he steered South Africa away from the civil war that many feared was inevitable. He flew to Durban and told bloody-thirsty faction fighters to throw their weapons into the sea and they listened. When revered freedom fighter Chris Hani was gunned down on his front drive, in 1993, many were ready to take the law into their own hands.

Mandela barged into the SABC studios in Johannesburg that night and made a broadcast to the nation to calm down and put its weapons away. He wasn’t even in Parliament then and I wonder to this day how many lives that broadcast saved with this canny display of leadership.

Then, when into power with a virtually bankrupt Treasury, Mandela steered the National Development Programme that built millions of homes and schools; electrified the homes of legions of poor people and rolled out roads to connect the nation. Yet, the money was never going to stretch far enough and millions still have no roof over their heads and too many schoolchildren attend classes under trees.

It is fashionable these days to say the majority of South Africa must rise in a civil war in which the nation will be cleansed of its past, restored of its land on the path to righteousness. It probably sounds even better after a few drinks.

READ MORE: Celebrating Mandela From Where It All Began; Soweto

I say this is bunkum and anyone who has ever seen or smelt a civil war will agree with me. How a vile, stinking trail of dead fathers, raped women and children, destruction and disorder, can lead a country to the light beats me. Those who scream for war have clearly never seen it.

The first time I clapped eyes on the great man, at the Harare Agricultural Show, on his first foreign visit to Zimbabwe in August 1994, he walked alone, without a security man in sight. I didn’t ask for a selfie – they didn’t exist then, anyway – I was tongue-tied. We merely smiled at each other in passing.

So when people in political circles told me that South Africa’s new president Cyril Ramaphosa didn’t care for wealth and power – he merely wanted to put his name up there with Mandela – I smiled like I did on that August day in Harare.

This does seem feasible as President Ramaphosa – a millionaire in his own right – was the man who stood next to Mandela, holding the microphone, on the town hall steps in Cape Town, on February 11 1990, during his famous address on release from 27 years in prison.

“I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people,” said Mandela to deafening cheers on that bright summer’s day.

Clearly this humility and willingness to serve rubbed off on President Ramaphosa on that fateful day in 1990. In his first 100 days, he has made manful attempts to stop the rot in South Africa by merely enforcing the rule of law. A course of action he made no secret of even before he took power on February 15.

“There are no holy cows. Anyone who is caught doing wrong things will end up behind the bars of a jail,” says Ramaphosa, with microphone in hand and humble service in mind at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January.

True to his word, Ramaphosa cut swathes through the corruption of the past. Former president Jacob Zuma ended up in the dock on corruption charges something that many – including me – thought they would never see in their lifetime. He removed the rookie finance minister Malusi Gigaba and replaced him with the people’s choice Nhanlha Nene who has staved off more downgrades of the economy. A clean-up of the state-owned enterprises and the institutions is underway and many who thought they were invincible six months ago have been cut down to size.

I am sure the old man, who must have been spinning in his grave over the last few years, would approve.

“Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another,” says Mandela at his inauguration at the Union Buildings in Pretoria.

As we mark 100 years since his birth, it is time for cool heads and clear thinking to make sure this utopian ideal of liberty and tolerance lives on after his death. Our grandchildren will judge us harshly if we don’t.

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