Diamonds are forever
As the Blue Diamond Group celebrates its centenary year, in the latest of our Dynasties series, Ann Chadwick reports on a family that drove its empire from a horse-and-cart operation into a multi-million pound company
As the Blue Diamond Group celebrates its centenary year, in the latest of our Dynasties series, Ann Chadwick reports on a family that drove its empire from a horse-and-cart operation into a multi-million pound company SUCCESS, even in adversity, has always been at the root of the Dorey family's dynasty. Perhaps it has something to do with their historic links to horticulture.
This is a family that has survived two world wars and a changing economy and endured the rise and fall of the growing industry. In fact, they have not only survived, but triumphed. Their story is very much a Guernsey one.
As major shareholders, the family name has become synonymous with the Fruit Export company which was established in 1904 and later evolved into the Blue Diamond Group.
The family-firm image was compounded by the fact that the Dorey family had three managing directors within 95 years: Percy , his son, John, and his son, Geoffrey, who is now chairman.
But the family's not just about impressive spreadsheets and successful business plans; it has its colourful characters, too. Geoffrey and his wife, Jennie, were behind the controversial idea to site a 12ft bronze statue of a kicking donkey by the harbour to mark the island's millennium celebrations.
Plans for the donkey - symbolising Guernsey's independence and spirit - were kicked into touch when it was revealed the cost could be £100,000. In many ways, that donkey could also have been a monument to the Dorey family's contribution to island life through business and politics.
It all began when Percy Dorey transformed the company from a horse-and-cart business in 1904 into the largest horticultural merchant in the island. It established itself in the roaring twenties through horticulture, but a lot of its success was laid at the feet of Percy.
Geoffrey, his grandson, is the current chairman of the business. He has a quirky charm and is softly spoken, with a dash of Peter O'Toole about him.
'My granddad was a formidable character,' he said. 'He died in 1964; I was 20. I did admire him. You can see in the photos that he was a tall, big man. He was a strong disciplinarian but greatly respected.'
Despite this reputation, Geoffrey remembers him with fondness.
'He was much gentler when I knew him. But I remember driving with him in his car one day; we were up in St Martin's and there was a bloke walking along with really long hair.
'He slowed down and opened his window and said something like, ?What do you mean walking around like that? Get your hair cut!?. It was a new fashion and Granddad was clearly out of order really, but he thought it was such a disgrace.'
Mike Vaudin, the company's current managing director, said this just summed up the way business was back then.
'Bosses were bosses and staff were staff,' he said. It's well documented that Percy was considered the leading local businessman of his time. He also became one of the first conseillers in the 1940s.
Immediately after the war,
Percy was very involved in restocking the island. Two days before the dark days of the Occupation, he narrowly avoided the German bombardment of
the White Rock in 1940.
His son, John (Geoffrey's father), left for England with his pregnant wife, Blanche, to join the RAF. Geoffrey was born in Southport in 1944.
The business emerged from the war in reasonably good health. Percy was 65 when it ended and John took over as managing director at the age of 45.
Like his father, he also got involved in politics and rose to president of the Board of Administration. When he retired from the company, he still kept his hand in.
'Just like his dad, he used to pop in to see how the business was going,' remembered Geoffrey. 'But he was very supportive.'
Perhaps the most endearing Dorey in the political world was Geoffrey's mother, Blanche.
'My mother knew the characters in the company but nothing of the running of the business,' said Geoffrey. 'She wasn't a natural businesswoman but very much the matriarch.'
Blanche died suddenly in 2001. Her strength of character was marked out by the fact she overcame the tragedy of losing three members of her family - John, Percy junior and her daughter, Leonie - within 18 months of each other.
Although she didn't have a head for business, she did for politics. In an interview with the Guernsey Press back in 1998, she said: 'I don't know why. I can't say I was the greatest brain in the States. But I didn't have any fear in saying something that was quite genuine to me, even if it did not fit in. I had no fear of going against any trend - if I felt something was not right, I would say so.'
But the continuation of the Fruit Export Company, which went from strength to strength, was the family's backbone. Many staff gave 30, 40, even 50 years to the business and, as Mike said, they are the heartbeat of the group.
'We have known triumphs, promotions, sadness, great joy, dismissals, births, deaths, marriages, acts of great kindness, fraud and in fact almost every human scenario possible,' he said.
'The company, although not family-owned, has a strong, traditional ethic of also putting the company first above personal interests.'
The family name and the 140 shareholders are predominantly Guernsey-based, which Mike believes is vital for a small island.
He believes it is the family vision and ethos that has seen the group grow into an organisation employing 461 employees with a turnover in their centenary year in excess of £20m.
There also seems no hint of a black sheep in the family. Apart from the odd disagreement, Geoffrey said there has never been any awkwardness between fathers and sons.
'My father had a great affection for his father and admiration. Yes they were different, but not wildly,' said Geoffrey.
Geoffrey's son, Pascal, joined the board as a non-executive director in 2002 to continue the Dorey tradition.
The Dorey men adapted and looked forward rather than back. When the horticulture industry faltered, Geoffrey had the vision to invest in computer software when he became managing director in 1978, even though staff were just learning to use the electronic calculator. It diversified into sportswear and now the main driver of the business - garden centres.
'My dad, like me, was more a team player than dictator. It was a reflection of how business was changing but it was also our characters. I was destined to do it. I was quite shy when I was young and found it a bit daunting, but it was a gifted opportunity. I suppose in a way I would have liked to have followed something close to my heart, something of my own choice that's not thrust upon you.'
If destiny hadn't interfered, Geoffrey would have quite fancied being an antique dealer. He has a passion for vintage and classic cars.
'But I have no regrets. It's been wonderful. And it's amazing the company is thriving when you consider our business of 80 years, the greenhouses, vanished.'
Now, having moved from a time when greenhouses ruled Guernsey's economy, the group is selling a variety of garden related products in its collection of garden centres. It has five in the UK and three in the Channel Islands. Trentham Garden Centre in Stoke-on-Trent is the group's most recent business venture and is one of the largest in the UK. It is set in the historic Trentham Park featuring extensive gardens and a mile-long lake within its 750 acres.
You'd think it can't get much grander. But the group is still looking to expand. It seems the firm and the family are far from withering on the vine.
* Mike Vaudin has several copies of the book, '100 years of the fruit' to give away to any readers wishing to gain a fuller insight into the company's history and the characters that have shaped the business.
For more details, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact 720888.
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