Rob Symington is a member of the 5th generation of Symingtons to work in Port and the Douro. As a director at Symington Family Estates, he is responsible for the marketing team, and works closely with his colleagues and family members on commercial strategy. He also established the company’s new sustainability programme, managing the achievement of B Corp certification in 2019, the joining of International Wineries for Climate Action in 2020, and a new partnership with Rewilding Portugal, amongst other initiatives under the banner of “Mission 2025”.
Prior to joining his family business in 2017, he spent 10 years living and working in London, where he began his career in management consulting at Ernst & Young before starting his own business – called Escape the City – helping mainstream professionals make brave career changes in pursuit of more meaningful work. He is deeply concerned about the overlapping environmental and social challenges that threaten humanity and is committed to proactively contributing towards solutions. Rob lives in Porto with his wife Charlotte and two daughters, Lua and Alma.
How do you define legacy? What is yours?
I think all members of my family see our legacy as being the continuation of the tradition that was established when a 19-year-old Scot called Andrew James (“AJ”) Symington came to Porto to work in the Port wine trade in 1882. Five generations later, ten of his direct descendants are running a 100 per cent family-owned business that is the world’s leading premium Port producer, a pioneer of still wines from the Douro, and which farms the largest area of A-grade vineyard in the Douro valley. I think AJ would be proud that we were recently voted Ethical Company of the Year by The Drinks Business and appeared in the Top 50 Most Admired Wine Brands in the world. I honestly think all members of our family see themselves as caretakers, not owners. I think our company vision statement captures this idea pretty well: “We are committed to passing on a stronger, more sustainable family wine company than the one that was entrusted to us.”
Did you always know you wanted to take over the family business, and if not how did you come to that decision? What did you do before?
I work alongside five other members of the 5th generation of Symingtons to work in our family company and four members of the 4th generation, including our chairman, Johnny, and our CEO, Rupert. So it isn’t a case of “taking over the family business”. Each of us in my generation performs a role related to our experience and skills, and each of us will progress based on our performance and ability to take on greater responsibility. Regarding the decision to apply for a job in the family business – in my case I always had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to move home to Portugal (having worked and studied in the UK for some years). I decided to do so after I had 10 years of professional experience under my belt.
Taking over a family business is never easy, especially one that stretches back almost 150 years. What has been the biggest challenge for you?
For me the biggest challenge has probably been the transition from running my own business with a team that ranged from 15-20 people, to joining a larger organization which necessarily has more structure and process. The entrepreneurial approach is always to create as much value as possible, as quickly as possible, often with very lean resources – whereas a well-established family wine company, with 135 plus years of tradition, can seem like a very different beast. Having said that, an organization that has survived as long as we have, can only do so by constantly reinventing itself and evolving, so in many ways the spirit of innovation and change is alive and kicking at Symington Family Estates and the range and ambition of many of our current projects reflects this.
Talk briefly about the moment that Symington Family Estates transformed from a “family business” to your legacy. What was the catalyst? How did it feel?
I see myself as a part of a big, shared legacy – and I hope to make a positive contribution to that wider story. None of us sees our family business in terms of “our legacy”, we do very much see ourselves as caretakers, engaged in a team endeavour. I think it took a couple of years after moving back to Porto to work in our company that I began to feel part of the story of the company itself (in contrast to my previous feelings as someone with a deep emotional attachment to our vineyards and our wines, etc, but who wasn’t actively engaged in shaping things). It takes time to adjust and to feel like you belong, even when it is your own family company – and it also takes time to identify the specific contributions that you can make, as an individual, to help things progress positively.
Every generation brings its own contribution and leaves its own mark, what do you see as yours?
Without a doubt my generation’s biggest challenge is playing our part in responding to the big environmental and social challenges of our time. It is not an exaggeration to say that those of us working today have a crucial role to play in ensuring that collectively (we, humans) change our current destructive trajectory to evolve towards a way of life that operates within the limits of the earth’s living systems. Symington has long been committed to our region and its communities, and in recent years we have taken some really ambitious steps in this area – we became the first wine company in Portugal to become a certified B Corporation (the most rigorous company-wide sustainability certification in the world), we joined International Wineries for Climate Action, and we launched a comprehensive new sustainability programme called Mission 2025 (you can read more about it here).
What concrete advice would you give, that you wish perhaps someone had given to you, to someone looking to step into a family business?
I think the more time you can spend getting to know your family business before you join, the better. I had worked various temporary jobs in our visitor centres and harvests in our wineries prior to joining, but once my professional career began I had fewer opportunities to spend significant chunks of time learning about different areas. I think that often people see joining a family business as an all-or-nothing decision, and it is true that this can be the mindset in more traditional companies. However today people are used to working more flexibly, remotely, and creatively – which opens the door to different ways to engage, either part-time or on project-based work. I think this can be a great way to understand if you want to commit full-time. And, finally, even though you might be on the receiving end of external pressure from family members to join, it is really important – if you decide this path isn’t for you – that you make your decision based on what will make you happy. People might be disappointed but, in the long run, you should do what is right for you.