Guinness speaking plainly

 

THE FRIDAY INTERVIEW:Rory Guinness, scion of famed brewing dynasty and Iveagh Trust board member 

IT’S 10.30AM on a sunny morning in Dublin and the Gravity Bar in the Guinness Storehouse is buzzing with visitors.

Rory Guinness, son of Benjamin, the last family chairman of the famous brewer, politely inquires if I fancy a pint of the black stuff before we sit down for our chat.

On the basis that I might nod off midway through the interview by having a jar so early in the working day, I request a coffee instead. He had to ask, though.

Guinness is celebrating its 250th birthday this year and some time ago Diageo, its listed global parent, enlisted Rory to lend a bit of family magic to proceedings.

He’s conducting tours of the Storehouse in the St James’s Gate brewery and recently completed a 64-page, mostly pictorial, history of Guinness, aimed primarily at tourists. It’s a fine read and would be a worthy companion over a quiet pint some evening.

This involvement with the famous old Dublin brewery makes him the first member of the eighth generation of the Guinness family to be involved in the business.

It’s a small fact, but one of which he is immensely proud.

“I’m the world’s most unusual tour guide,” he says with a laugh. “How wonderful is this to have the continuity now of the eighth generation to be involved in this site.”

Rory’s elder brother Ned is the heir to the throne, so to speak, but has had no direct involvement with the brewery.

As Rory tells it, their father, Benjamin, who died in 1992, warned both brothers against working in the business. Benjamin had been plucked by his grandfather Rupert from Cambridge University to become chairman at the ripe old age of 23.

Benjamin’s early elevation followed the death of his father Arthur in the Netherlands during the second World War.

Benjamin held the role until his death. “He was the first son of the first son, but he was very young so it was arguable that there could have been other cousins that could have stepped up to the plate.

“As a result of that, he always said to my brother Ned and I: ‘don’t you ever get involved in family businesses, especially brewing businesses’.”

Why?

“Because of the responsibility; of the enormous efforts that go into looking after shareholders; looking after employees; they’re an enormous stress.

“As a result of that, the one place that really I have always wanted to be involved in is St James’s Gate.”

Really? “It is. Genuinely.”

He was so charmed with the place that he asked his wife Mira to marry him in the Gravity Bar during his 30th birthday bash. Rory was the first family member to pop the question in the brewery since good old Arthur asked Olivia Whitmore to marry him in 1761.

What of Diageo’s plans – recently put on ice – to retain brewing at the historic Dublin site but sell off some land there as part of a major reorganisation of its manufacturing operations here.

“They were going to retain the home of Guinness at the home of Guinness. I thought that was an extremely sensible, enlightened decision. Once I saw that, my worries were set to one side.”

Born in Dublin’s Rotunda Hospital, Rory had a privileged childhood, that involved mucking about on the brewery site and the family’s former 78-acre estate at Farmleigh in the Phoenix Park, which is now owned by the State.

While fiercely proud of his roots, Rory Guinness’s well-polished upper-class English accent is as smooth as a well-pulled pint of the plain stuff and gives little hint of his heritage.

He lives with his wife and two daughters in the well-heeled London borough of “Ken High” (Kensington High Street) although he has a pad close to Fitzwilliam Square.

He travels to Dublin about once a fortnight on business.

He loves rugby, which begs the question as to which team he supports when England and Ireland clash in the Six Nations.

“I knew you would ask that and what do you think my answer would be . . . don’t be cheeky.”

“I like to think of us as one of the many Irish in the UK,” he adds, with a smile and a Roger Moore-style raise of the eyebrow.

Tall and neatly dressed, Rory Guinness is a perfect host. He’s also not averse to spinning the odd yarn or two for effect.

“I actually went to the doctor the other day and did one of those funny old food tests, to see what you’re allergic to.

“The test actually came back and said I require yeast and barley and hops, isn’t that wonderful? Hah.”

He reckons the best pint of Guinness in Dublin is served in Toners pub on Baggot Street.

In London, he fingers the Ravenscourt Tavern. “You wouldn’t exactly go for the architecture, but it serves the best pint of Guinness I’ve ever had in London.”

It seems the punters there – who he describes as a “bit long in the tooth” – enjoy a bottle of Guinness, which, interestingly, also happens to be how Rory likes to take the black stuff. “I prefer the bottle to the pint. A bottle (of Guinness) with Dublin coddle, a favourite meal.”

That’s perhaps laying it on a bit thick, but there’s no doubt Rory is proud of his background and a more-than-willing salesman for the brand.

Does he drink lager? “No,” he says with a look that suggests I might be deranged.

Spirits? “Now I’ve got to plug Diageo, don’t I? Smirnoff. Gordon’s (gin). Have you heard of Ketel vodka? It’s delicious.”

So when did he have his first drink? “Don’t ask rude questions,” he answers jokingly. “It’s with you from the get go . . . there’s worse names you could have.

“I drink sensibly. Honestly. There’s been alcoholism in my family so I know about the dangers of alcohol.”

He is somewhat less forthcoming about the Guinness family’s wealth and wouldn’t disclose how many shares they own in Diageo.

“We’ve got a couple of shares knocking about somewhere,” he says with a smile. “I was told you’d ask cheeky questions like that.”

How about the size of the family wealth? “God alone knows,” he says. “I honestly wouldn’t know.”

Not that Rory is living off the fat of the land. “We’re not all fast asleep,” he says with a grin.

His main business interest is Iveagh, an asset management business in London that looks after both the Guinness wealth and that of other rich families.

Set up in 2006 with his brother Ned and two cousins, Iveagh (pronounced eye-vah) has about $1 billion in assets under management.

“We’ve got a good team in London running it,” he says.

Rory is also an active board member with the Iveagh Trust, which manages about 1,200 social housing units in Dublin. It was established in the 1890s by Edward Cecil Guinness, the first earl of Iveagh.

“He spent his own money, personally took charge of it and built those houses with such good material that we’re only now replacing the roofs, 120 years later.”

Being a Guinness isn’t all about pints and peanuts.

“It can take an enormous personal toll,” he explains. “It can be very lonely being a Guinness.

“You have your surname plastered everywhere, but unless you’ve got family around you and unless you’ve got your friends around you, it can be a very isolating experience.

“You know what, it’s great for getting in to meet people. But it’s an absolute pain in the neck because people expect you to be something that you’re not. Honestly, it comes with so many misconceptions.”

Like what? “They expect you to have a Caribbean island and a helicopter outside to take you to it.”

He doesn’t have either. But he does seem to have a nice life. We did manage to have that Guinness, only a half mind.

On the record

Age: 35

Homes:London and Dublin

Family:Married to Mira, they have two daughters, Aoife and Beatrice

Why in the news?He has produced a book called The World of Guinness to coincide with the 250th anniversary of the stout

What you might expect: He is a board member of the Iveagh Trust, a long-running family-backed charity that provides social housing in Dublin

What might surprise:Following his appearance as a mascot for London football club QPR in 1985, the Daily Express noted that “pint-sized Rory is the toast of QPR”