Bettys boss Clare Morrow - the woman who took control of the historic business one week before lockdown and never looked back

When Clare Morrow officially took on the role of chair of the Bettys & Taylors Group in March 2020 she had a clear strategy in mind.

She was taking over the reigns from Leslie Wild who had been with the firm for 41 years and during a period of huge transition for the 100 year old business.

As such she intended to ensure as smooth a period as she could, presenting her staff and customers with no dramas or uncertainty.

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And then, one week into her role, the firm closed all of its branches for the first time in its history.

Clare Morrow is chair of Bettys and Taylors. Picture by James Hardisty.

“That didn’t even happen during the war,” said Clare.

“We took the decision slightly ahead of having to. We were attracting people out and that didn’t feel right. It was the right decision.”

It was the first of many steps Clare would have to put into place to help the iconic Yorkshire business survive and thrive during the pandemic.

With the nation stuck at home, Bettys and Taylors began to see a surge in demand for its products online.

Clare Morrow took control of Bettys one week before lockdown and never looked back

Staff who worked in the tearooms were redeployed to working on the tea lines and warehouses.

By the time it filed its full year accounts for the 12 months to October 31, 2020 it would post a two per cent growth in sales to £232.9 million.For Clare, who has sat on the Bettys board since 2013, it was a hugely welcome reminder of what esteem the firm’s products were held in.

“It was a very different start than I expected,” she says, speaking to The Yorkshire Post from its Harrogate branch.

“But we have been fortunate because people love our brands. The lovely thing is that there is something slightly intangible about Yorkshire Tea and Bettys.

Clare Morrow took control of Bettys one week before lockdown and never looked back

“During the pandemic they seem to have been a source of certainty and comfort. They have been symbolic.

“When it came back to opening people felt it would be safe to come to Bettys. It felt like normality for them It felt like things would be OK if Bettys was open.”

Clare is no stranger to well-known brands.

Brought up in Hessle and educated at Cambridge, she began her career in journalism, working initially for the Beverley Guardian before moving to the BBC and eventually Yorkshire TV, where she held in a number of roles, most latterly Head of News and Programmes.

Clare Morrow took control of Bettys one week before lockdown and never looked back

She left the profession in 2007 seeking a fresh challenge and would over the next few years serve as non-executive director of Leeds Teaching Hospitals and the Rugby Football League, as well as chair of Welcome to Yorkshire until 2015.

But it was in 2013 when her journey began to steer her towards Bettys and Taylors.

“It’s not the most natural of journeys is it?” she jokes.

“They were looking for somebody on the board who shared their values - one of which is proud of Yorkshire’s heritage. There is a way of working here that is very values based. You really need to check out that people are on the same mission. The family was in the process of transitioning from being family-run to being family-owned. That was a project 10 years in the making. They have managed that incredibly carefully.”

The process was so meticulous that it took six months before it was concluded.

When asked why she thought she was selected to succeed Leslie, she takes her time in considering her response.

“I guess they must have seen me as someone who had potential,” she said.

“They would not have been comfortable with bringing in someone who had not already been blooded.”

During our hour-long discussion, Clare brings up the responsibility her role entails multiple times.

Although she is a hugely experienced business leader across multiple disciplines she had never worked for a family run business before, much less one which has a unique operating model that sees the chief executive role shared.

“Navigating this through safely on behalf of this family who have nurtured and cared for this business for 100 years was a huge responsibility,” Clare says.

“A family business is completely different. You think about 100 years on your horizons, not five. It is a very different way of operating.”

Another huge challenge presented itself when, just a few weeks into lockdown, Victor Wild died.

Victor was the nephew of Bettys founder Frederick Belmont and had worked alongside him. His son Jonathan would take over from him when he retired before his wife Leslie took control.

Up until his death Victor had still be an active contributor to the business and attended shareholder meetings.

“There was that direct link with the founder which, in a family business, is really significantly important,” said Clare. Him dying, shifts that dynamic in the shareholders.”

Clare said that she now looked forward to working with the next generation of shareholders.

Dealing with the pandemic showed to Clare just how important the firm’s unique operating model and values were.

That framework that the family had fought so hard for proved invaluable as it focused its attention onto both its team and communities.

“We are here for the long term,” says Clare.

“We have been here for 100 years, we want to be here in another 100 years. We want to make sure we are a good employer, that our community wants us to be here and that we have strong relationships with people in the countries we deal with.”

As the pandemic begins to subside Clare says her biggest challenge will be pulling off the unique balancing act with keeping the Bettys tradition alive while still moving with the times.

“If you look at the history of Bettys it has never stood still,” she says.

“It does have a timeless quality but it has always moved with trends.

“The trick with Bettys is making sure it is relevant to the next generation.

“But it is a lovely feeling to know we give pleasure to people.

“I could not be prouder.”