The long and distinguished history which Venners enjoyed has continued since the firm became part of Christie Group. The founder, Edwin Venner, Came from a brewing family which owned forest Hill brewery in South London and about eighty pubs between the capital and Brighton. He first qualified as a chartered accountant with the family firm of Edward Moore & Sons (later Moore & Rowland), which had many clients in the brewery licensed trade. His experience revealed how easy it was to pilfer stock and he realised that there was a need for much tighter control on stock and gross profits. This encouraged him to start providing a specialised service – a regular stock-control system. He established his own business, trading as E J Venners & Co, Valuers and Gaugers, was formed in 1924.
Venners remained a family business until its acquisition by Christie Group, Edwin Venners was joined by his son Franklyn, another chartered accountant, and by his nephew, John. Edwin and John in particular were invited to join many company boards within the brewing, wine and spirits and licensed trades as a result of their wide experience and accumulated expertise. John later took over as chairman and managing Director of E J Venners & Co and, despite his ill health, was very much involved in local government affairs. Edwin Venners was knighted in 1951 in recognition of his service to the Government in relation to the licensed trade.
For many years the business was located at Bishopsgate in the City of London. However, Edwin Venners sold the freehold to the National Provincial Bank in 1924 and some years later the NatWest Tower was constructed on the redeveloped site. It was the start of redevelopment which led Venners to move from Bishopsgate to Tooley Street, near London Bridge, in 1965, then to George Row in 1989 and subsequently to Harlow in 2003.
Also in 1924, both the Forest Hill brewery and the family’s pubs were sold to Whitbread, the latter’s intention being to acquire more pubs. However, buying the brewery gave Whitbread surplus capacity and it was later sold to make way for a United Dairies’ milk bottling plant.
A glimpse of how E J Venner & Cooperated can be gleaned from the recollections of John Chaplin, who joined the business at 19 Bishopsgate on 15 April 1952. The atmosphere was very much that of a family company. In summer there were outings to the Isle of Wight or down the Thames on the Royal Daffodil to a Southend hotel.
The last event of this kind was a day trip to Brighton in June 1970, an occasion that Derek Fitch remembers well. He arrived home in the early hours to an empty house and a message to ring the hospital as his wife had given birth to another daughter, Lisa. Some 26 years later, Lisa joined the London office staff as a secretary.
At Christmas the company used to give all married staff either a fresh or a frozen turkey, dependant on their seniority; these gave way to gift vouchers in recent times. A cricket team arranged matches against clients such as the Courage Brewery, and over the years many football teams were formed which had varying degrees of success. More recently, the company’s philanthropy has extended to sponsoring the Venners Centenary Prize at the Licensed Victuallers’ Association School.
The Bishopsgate offices comprised six departments dealing with the varied requirements of private and corporate clients. Five of them were each made up of a supervisor with six to eight clerks while the sixth was the comptometer department with eight young women and their noisy machines under Miss Robinson.
Mental agility was a valuable attribute, combined with well-thumbed Ready Reckoners. The stocktakers arrived in the office each morning, bringing with them the figures from their previous day’s stocktakes as well as the fees they had collected (typically 10 guineas – £10.50 – per stocktake). Michael Venner remembers a ‘cash business’. All the wages were paid in cash each week and the stocktakers sometimes borrowed money from the fees they had collected, in order to get them through ‘’emergencies; – with a promise to pay it back when they were next paid.
Most of Venners’ work at the time was located within the M25, with a few exceptions in the Brighton area where Les Bunting, a dedicated and long-serving employee, lived. As the London breweries took over a variety of suburban firms, the need for Venners’ services expanded. At the time, most of the work could be done using public transport. However, following the cuts to the rail network in the early 1960s under Dr Beeching, the company was forced to consider company cars. Michael Venner remembers that a fleet of Ford Anglia cars was leased from the Kingswood Garage in Surrey and that this made controlling expenses and planning the work much easier.
In those days, the figures were processed and passed on to the comptometer operators. These were returned to the relevant department after a couple of days and checked again and again, and the details were copied intro a booklet sent to the client. Sometimes this arrived only days before the next stocktake was due to take place!
A new clerk would spend nine to twelve months simply transferring figures recorded in large ledgers from the previous period to the new one, a process known as ‘Pencil Stock Forward’. Every fourth occasion, the whole inventory had to be transferred to yet another section in the ledger, referred to as an ‘Ink Stock Forward’.
There were numerous other stages in the process, each with its own individual title, such as ‘Putting In’ (transferring figures from the stocktaker’s books to the ledgers), ‘Centre Column’ (calculating sales figures) and ‘Taking Through’ (where an efficient clerk, thumbing through his Ready Reckoner, handled the whole process himself).
Every task had a prescribed time allotted to it and each clerk had to record the time spent on every task for a specific client. A complete working day, exclusive of 45 minutes for lunch, came to 7 ½ hours. A working week was 5 ½ days (on three Saturdays out of four, staff worked until lunchtime).
The formidable Miss Lawrence, who retired from the firm after 50 years in 1953, was responsible for the overall progress of each stocktake. She checked the time record of each member of staff every afternoon when she visited all the departments. Anyone well over their time limit received a ticking off. One girl was so slow that, even though she took work home with her in an attempt to catch up, she eventually accumulated a backlog of five days! She received a severe warning and shortly afterwards left the firm.
The company had clients from throughout the licensed trade, including not only pubs, hotels and restaurants but also golf clubs, working men’s clubs and staff canteens. Many of the major breweries – such as Watney’s, Charringtons, Trumans and Courage – were clients, as were many companies formed to take over groups of tenancies from the brewers, like Modern Inn s & taverns, Levy & Franks, and Pioneer Catering Company.
Stocktakers had eagle eyes for sharp practice. At a distillery in Stratford in east London, where a weekly stocktake was carried out on bonded stocks, the stocktakers discovered that cases counted on one floor were being sent by lift to the next floor while the stocktaking team took the stairs! Where one brewery owned three pubs all located very close to each other, the same stock of cigarettes was being barrowed from pub to pub. The ruse was discovered only when all three stocktakes were conducted simultaneously.
In 1961 John Venners’ sons, Michael and David, were appointed joint managing Directors with Jon as chairman; he eventually stepped down as chairman in 1965 because of ill-health. David did his National Service in the RAF and joined Venners soon afterwards. He was in charge of the finances. Before joining Venners, Michael worked for Kelsey’s Brewery in Tunbridge Wells, followed by National Services with the Royal Marines and a course at Usher’s Wiltshire brewery covering brewing, malting and pub management. Michael looked after the client contact side of Venners’ business. Michael’s daughter, Katherine, and her husband Alan Richardson, still work for the company; and David’s younger daughter Claire, worked at the company’s Edinburgh office for a while.
A major spur to the growth of the business in the 1960s was the company’s association with Berni Inns, which led to Venners’ expansion beyond London and the Home Counties and the opening of an office in Manchester.
The Venner brother’s always appreciated the advantage to the business of emerging new technology. The first computers were introduced to the company in 1963, a punched-card system using a mechanical IBM accounting machine. In 1967 Venners acquired IBM’s first small computer, the card-driven 360/20, and established a data-processing bureau to sell excess capacity. EJV Data Services secured business from clients unrelated to the stocktaking business, such as Hertz, Mars and, for a length period, IBM itself. Because the 360/20 was such a revolutionary and rare piece of equipment in the UK, IBM rented time every night on Venners’ machine in order to train their engineers.
In 1971 Venners took delivery of an optical character reader (OCR) valued at over £100,000, a significant sum of money in those days. This machine, capable of reading handwritten characters, enabled information to be analysed much more rapidly, in a matter of hours rather than weeks, as previously. This OCR equipment transformed the production of stocktaking results and Venners’ bureau operation expanded dramatically, producing stocktaking results and reports for both their competitors and also large brewery chains such as Courage and Watney’s. These companies employed their own stocktakers and they passed the stocktaking data to Venners for processing. It was a profitable operation although its heyday was over by the mid-1980s.
A leading light in pioneering the use of computer technology within the company was Derek Fitch. He joined Venners in 1960, became the computer programmer in 1963, was promoted to computer manager in 1967 and was appointed technical director in 1977. He was the originator of most of the reports produced by computerised stocktaking systems in the UK throughout this period and into the 19902. Venners led the way, with other companies copying its reporting style and systems.
Shortly before being acquired by Christie Group in 1984, Venners acquired several smaller firms, most notably Reid West in Bournemouth and Adstock in Edinburgh, which enabled the company to cover Scotland from a Scottish Base. In the mid-1980s the company name was changed to Venners and the use of the name E J Venners & Co was discontinued.
In 1989 the stocktakers were issued with laptop computers for which Derek Fitch designed and part wrote the software. This enabled instant stocktaking results to be produced on site and, by giving field staff a much more important role, transformed the business. In due course, numbers of office staff were substantially reduced while field staff multiplied and most staff began to work from home. In 1992 all five regional offices were closed, leaving only London, such was the pace of advancing technology.
Gwyn, Lord Kimble and Michael Venner. Michael entertained everyone with his recollections of life at E J Venner & Co.
In 2002 Trevor Heyburn was appointed managing director of Venners and Derek Fitch moved to deputy chairman. Trevor joined Venners in 1974, working first in the London office, then as a licensed stocktaker for fifteen years. He became a director in 1992, always championing the Christie Group diversification into retail stocktaking during the 19902.
Although the market has become much more competitive, Venners, thanks to its innovative and pioneering approach, remains the largest firm of stocktakers in the UK. Also providing inventory and broking services, the company today employs about 200 staff.