Stuck out in the Atlantic, at least 500 miles south west of mainland Portugal, Madeira is one of the most spectacular islands anywhere in the world as anyone who has flown into the island’s airport can testify.
Comprising less than 300 square miles and guarded by some of the steepest and most rugged cliffs in the world, Madeira might present some problems for any aspiring entrepreneur to launch a business empire from. But that’s exactly what John Blandy did more than 200 years ago, setting up a wine shipping business in 1811 on the island after leaving England to make his fortune.
Now in its sixth generation of management, the Blandy businesses encompass a wide range of sectors, including hotels, banking, publishing – and of course, the production and export of the island’s famous wine Madeira.
Indeed, the Blandys have been so instrumental to the island’s economy that much of the development of Madeira’s infrastructure has in one way or the other been linked to the family.
And all this against the background of often destabilising events globally and locally such as two world wars, the authoritarian regime of António de Oliveira Salazar in Portugal and the revolution that toppled him in 1974.
The history of the Blandys business is very much tied up with world events and some of the people who shaped those events, as well as the sometimes exotic world of international trade before the advent of the container box, that any story about them is bound to be intriguing to not just those interested in family businesses, but also those with a passion for history.
Marcus Binney, the author of The Blandys of Madeira 1811-2011 has managed to tell this story evocatively with the aid of a wide selection of photographs from the various ages of the Blandy dynasty.
From the perspective of understanding the success of a family business dynasty the book portrays the Blandys as adept at bending to the current business trends of the day through its 200 years of existence. And indeed, the family haven’t been scared to sell off parts of the empire – even emotive assets such as the iconic Reid’s Hotel – for the longer term good of the company.
As Michael Blandy, the current chief executive and chairman of the company, says - “adaptability has always been at the heart of the business success. Trophy assets aren’t needed for their own sake.”
Part of the Blandys success has been a form of noblesse oblige, which although the business has been driven by the desire to make money, has been tempered by the role of it within the wider community. Nor is there a desire to borrow hugely for expansion. “We don’t sweat the assets,” says Michael.
Another crucial part of the Blandys success has been managing succession. Michael, 58, sees managing the business as a caretaker’s role before passing it on to the next generation. Christopher, 32 and head of the travel and shipping division, is so far the most likely member of the family to be the first of the seventh generation to take control.
But Michael is philosophical when asked about whether the business will be around for at least another 100 years. “I have no idea – another generation yes, but beyond that that will depend on future generations and the trends in the world of business,” he says.