September 27, 2013 6:49 pm

Briton who traded City career for life in Porto’s port industry

Adrian Bridge, managing director of the company which makes Taylor’s, Croft and Fonseca port, in his garden near Porto©Ruben Mália

Adrian Bridge, managing director of the company which makes Taylor’s, Croft and Fonseca port, in his garden near Porto

Adrian Bridge is hardly the first banker to trade a career in finance for a life making wine. “Plenty of City men buy wineries after they retire,” says Bridge. “I like to say that I simply made the move a few decades before the rest.”

A Sandhurst graduate, Bridge was a UN peacekeeping officer in Cyprus in the mid-1980s, before making the move to finance, joining Merrill Lynch in 1988. Today Bridge, 50, is managing director of The Fladgate Partnership, a Porto-based holding company which owns the premium port wine brands Taylor’s, Croft and Fonseca.

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Taylor’s is the oldest of the wine label trio and has the most complicated history. Founded in 1692 by Job Bearsley, the company was headed by Joseph Taylor in the 19th century, who brought in two associates, Fladgate and Yeatman.

Almost 30 years ago, Bridge met Yeatman’s descendant Natasha Robertson, then studying in the UK. In 1989 the couple married and five years later moved to Portugal, where Natasha had spent her childhood, and where her family’s company was based. Nearly 20 years on, Bridge still has yet to perfect his Portuguese. But, since being made managing director in 1998, he has successfully expanded Fladgate’s reach to 72 countries worldwide, and as a result the company has earned prominence within Portugal.

Home for the Bridges is a spacious garden house in Vila Nova de Gaia, usually referred to as Gaia. The town was founded in Roman times and lies directly across the river Douro from far larger (and better-known) Porto. Its riverfront promenade is lined with the cask-filled cellars and barrel-laden warehouses at the centre of the region’s port winemaking industry.

Rabelo boats on the river Douro in Porto©Ruben Mália

Rabelo boats on the river Douro in Porto

The Bridges’ home is about 700 years old and was given to the couple by Natasha’s parents. “It’s a historic property, a traditional quinta [farmhouse]; the flower and citrus-filled gardens are like an oasis for us,” says Bridge, whose three children are now studying in the UK.

Decorated in traditional Porto-styled whites and ochre, the home has “changed and been chopped up over the ages”, says Bridge. “We spent two years on upgrades and improvements to reopen windows, touch up granite work and restore the paint damaged by years of harsh Atlantic winters.”

As Fladgate’s public face, Bridge readily concedes there are few boundaries between his private and professional life. Having married into a 300-year-old company he feels a responsibility not just to sustain Fladgate, but to add value to the company. Armed with his banker skills and nearly two decades of on-the-job training, Bridge’s duties place him mostly in Portugal – typically in Gaia or Porto, but also deep in the Douro Valley where Fladgate grapes are grown. “We spend time in the Douro as a family on summer holiday,” he says. “And then I’m there three or four days of the week during the grape harvest in September and October.”

Throughout the year, Bridge travels frequently – monthly to the UK, quarterly to North America. His UK visits often coincide with key cultural or sporting events – such as Ascot or Wimbledon – and, along with preventing homesickness and retaining Bridge’s innate “Britishness”, these allow him time to be with his children. “Porto is still relatively small and we felt there would be far more opportunities for them studying in Britain,” says Bridge, who spent part of the summer with his 15-year-old daughter, trekking for charity along Hadrian’s Wall. “And an English education is perhaps the only way my children will ever truly understand their father.”

Bridge’s youngest two children were born in Porto, while the eldest came over aged just three months, so all three went to local schools before continuing their education in England. “Not only do all three speak Portuguese like natives,” says Bridge, “but the school was a nice way for Natasha and me to become more involved in the local community.” Nonetheless, Bridge concedes he has yet to assimilate fully into Portuguese society, or fully finesse the complexities of Portuguese culture. “We still operate in a sense as a British company,” he says, “and are still viewed by many locals that way.”

“Outsider” status, however, has its benefits. Bridge admits his Portuguese can feel limited when dealing with top-level businesspeople and politicians, or when he’s interviewed on television, yet, as a foreigner, Bridge says he has been allowed the freedom to ask questions and challenge processes within a business environment still frustratingly slow and highly bureaucratic nearly three decades after Portugal joined the European Community. “Portugal is a hugely charming country with wonderful people, but many companies are still run like they were 50 or 60 years ago,” he says. “There remains this mañana mentality even when it comes to business,” he adds, “and this can be hugely challenging – particularly considering Portugal’s current situation.”

With 85 per cent of Fladgate’s sales outside of Portugal, the company has been sheltered somewhat from the economic slowdown that has crippled the Iberian peninsula. Indeed, even as the nation’s economy contracted, Fladgate still managed to open a €31m hotel. Tax rises and other domestic austerity measures, however, have eroded Fladgate’s ability to reinvest in the company or offer salary increases to its recession-stricken staff. “Many of our best-qualified employees are now moving abroad to find better opportunities for their families,” he says.

As for his own children, says Bridge, it is too soon to determine whether any of them will eventually join Fladgate, though he and his wife are certainly open to the idea. First, though, Bridge hopes his children will nurture their own interests and develop their own careers.

“Family businesses are notoriously easy to enter but difficult to leave,” he says. “So we want our children to explore the world and create their own paths so they join the businesses ready to contribute for the long-term.”

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Buying guide

Pros

● Porto is the gateway to the beautiful Douro Valley

● The city is relatively affordable, in terms of real estate, shopping and dining out

Cons

● As one of Portugal’s northernmost cities, Porto’s winters are far cooler – and darker – than in the country’s southern Algarve resorts

What you can buy for . . . 

€100,000: A 500 sq ft renovated apartment in Porto’s historic centre

€1m: A 4,000 sq ft townhouse in the seafront village of Granja, with direct access to the beach

This article has been amended to change the word for farmhouse from quinto (Spanish) to quinta (Portuguese).

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