Forty years of wholesale change

By Dave Hunter

Acquisitions helped business to build reputation in the wine world

• Inverarity Morton boss Stephen Russell.
• Inverarity Morton boss Stephen Russell.
TEN years ago Inverarity Morton boss Stephen Russell had a tough task ahead of him.
Having just taken over as sole managing director of the then William Morton business, he was faced with turning the company around after it had recorded its worst ever financial performance.
With revenues down, some might have chosen to downsize in an attempt to cut costs.
Instead, Russell and his team went in the opposite direction.
“When I took over ten years ago our turnover was £27.9m,” said Russell.
“This year it will be somewhere between £70m and £75m.
“I knew the only way to recover was to grow. There’s that old saying: ‘get niche, get big or get out’.”
The decision would lead to several major acquisitions in the coming years, as the business first took over wine wholesaler Inverarity Vaults, then LA Wholesale – the specialist spirits wholesale division of LA Group – and then, most recently, Forth Wines.
Subsequently, the Inverarity Morton of 2015 is a different beast to the company Russell joined as a fresh-faced assistant accountant in February 1975.
William Morton was, at that time, one of three wholesalers in the same company.
Within two years the three firms – William Morton, John Grant Blenders and Classic Wines – were merged and Russell found himself as buyer for the company.
“It was quite a different trade then,” Russell told SLTN. “It was far more… basic, would be the word. You were dealing with a lot of traditional pubs.
“The product range was nothing like it is now. Premium spirits have mushroomed. But if you go back those forty years it was very traditional: whisky, gin, rum, brandy.”
In 1980 Russell progressed to commercial director of the firm, with Bill Armstrong as finance director, David Bishop managing director and Sandy Bulloch as chairman.
Then, in 1999, when Bishop retired, Russell and Armstrong became joint managing directors of the business.
“Bill and I had a fantastic relationship,” said Russell. “In 29 years we never argued once, never had a disagreement once, because we both saw things the same way. We both saw the end result, even if we had different ways of getting there.”
Armstrong retired in 2004, leaving Russell and his team to turn the business around and back into growth.
As the company grew through its acquisitions, wine, for a long time a personal passion of Russell’s, became a major focus for the company.
Inverarity Morton now sells around six million bottles of wine a year and is a major provider of WSET training. Earlier this month the firm hosted its annual wine tasting in Edinburgh, which included 600 wines from 60 different producers.
The progress is a matter of personal pride for Russell.
“I’ve always loved wine, from when I started back in 1975,” he said. “I like food and drink, so therefore I’ve always enjoyed wine and I’m delighted we’ve grown as a wine-led company.”
Each acquisition has brought its own set of lessons and challenges. But the business may not be finished growing just yet.
“We want to get better at what we do,” said Russell. “We’re already quite good, but we want to get better.
“We don’t have any plans in the short term to look at acquiring anybody else, but never say never.”