For years, King Charles was preparing to step into the role of monarch following Queen Elizabeth’s history-making reign. In the meantime, he was holding down another job: Owner of a profitable business.
Charles — long a passionate advocate of environmental causes — founded Duchy Originals in 1990 when he was the Prince of Wales to market produce from his farm. It’s since grown into the largest organic food and drink brand in the United Kingdom, according to the company. In the year through March 2021, Duchy Originals earned nearly £3.6 million ($4.1 million) before taxes.
The brand has had its ups and downs. But it’s thrived since entering into a partnership with Waitrose in 2009. The upmarket grocery chain now has the exclusive right to sell products under the Duchy name, and shoppers can find salmon, sausages, milk, carrots and blueberries bearing the “Waitrose Duchy Organic” name at its stores.
“It’s turned into a very successful business,” said Andrew Bloch, a London-based public relations expert. “You can sense with this brand, it has heart and soul behind it.”
The future is uncertain, though. Control of the Duchy Originals brand is up in the air during a period of national mourning culminating in the Queen’s state funeral on Monday.
“We will liaise with the Royal Household on future arrangements when the time is right to do so,” a spokesperson for Waitrose said.
Ownership of Duchy Originals will most likely pass to Charles’ eldest son Prince William, who also inherits the separate Duchy of Cornwall estate — worth about £1 billion ($1.2 billion). And while the prince has studied organic farming, he’s likely to be less hands-on than his father.
“He’ll be interested, but he’ll entrust others to run it,” said Sally Bedell Smith, a biographer and author of the book “Charles: The Misunderstood Prince.”
A passion project
Charles spent decades preaching the benefits of organic farming and protecting the environment, even before such issues became mainstream causes.
In 1985, he converted Home Farm, near his Highgrove estate in Gloucestershire, into a fully organic system. The Duchy Originals venture emerged five years later.
“Since the beginning of the 1980s, when I first had responsibility for managing some land in my own right at Highgrove, I have wanted to focus on an approach to food production that avoids the impact of the predominant, conventional system of industrialized agriculture, which, it is increasingly clear to see, is having a disastrous effect on soil fertility, biodiversity and animal and human health,” Charles told Country Life magazine in 2021.
The first Duchy Originals product was an oaten biscuit sold in 1992. Initially, items bearing the brand were only found in high-end shops such as Harrods and Fortnum & Mason, though they later expanded into outlets like Waitrose, which caters to wealthier shoppers but has many more locations.
The business was on rocky ground in its early days, Smith wrote in her book. It took on too much debt, and Duchy Originals had to look for new producers and manufacturers once it became too big to rely solely on Highgrove.
Its fortunes later improved, according to Smith. She reported that when Charles visited the British embassy in Spain in 2004, he burst in with gift-wrapped products, announcing, “I’m a self-made millionaire, you know!”
Waitrose steps in
An ill-fated attempt to expand into the United States, however, combined with the onset of the global financial crisis, pushed the business to the brink of collapse.
Facing millions of pounds in losses in 2009, Charles turned to Waitrose, which threw him a lifeline by agreeing to serve as exclusive distributor.
It marked the end of the prince’s ambitions for a large presence in the US market, but the start of a robust turnaround in the outlook of the business.
“The Waitrose rescue during the financial crisis in September 2009 was absolutely vital,” Smith said.
By 2017, 25 years after the oat biscuit’s debut, the line had expanded to 300 products, including fruits, vegetables, meat and beer, and annual sales reached £200 million ($231 million). More than 30 countries around the world, including the United States, Germany, Japan and Australia, have received exports of select products.
Charles has access to vast personal wealth through his portfolio of land and property, but he has never directly profited from the Duchy Originals business. All royalties collected from Waitrose have been donated to charitable causes. In its annual report for 2019, the firm said it had raised more than £30 million ($35 million) since striking the licensing deal with Waitrose.
“It has provided a very substantial income stream into his foundation and has helped to fund his charitable work as well as to promote organic products,” Smith said.
Still, the venture hasn’t been without controversy. A range of herbal remedies, including the “Herbals Detox Tincture” blend of artichoke and dandelion, was accused by an expert on alternative medicine as based on “outright quackery.” A regulatory agency later said online advertisements for two of the line’s herbal medicines were misleading and instructed Duchy Originals to change the wording.
William’s new venture?
Changes have been underway in recent years as Charles prepared to take the throne. In 2020, his team said he wouldn’t renew the lease on the sprawling Home Farm, but would continue to farm organically at the late Queen’s Sandringham Estate in Norfolk that he had started managing in 2017.
Observers now believe William will take the reins of Duchy Originals and its partnership with Waitrose, part of his new responsibilities as the Duke of Cornwall.
“I think there will be a tension between his new role as King Charles III and what he can and can’t do,” said Bloch, who also has worked on a voluntary basis with Charles’ Prince’s Trust charity. “It’s likely that Prince William will take over.”
In his first address to the nation as king, Charles acknowledged that his responsibilities will change.
“It will no longer be possible for me to give so much of my time and energies to the charities and issues for which I care so deeply,” he said. “But I know this important work will go on in the trusted hands of others.”
William spent lots of time on the Highgrove estate growing up and enrolled in an agricultural management course at the University of Cambridge in 2014. Still, Smith doesn’t think he’ll be as involved in the details of the business.
“I wouldn’t imagine he’ll get into the minutiae of it that Charles did,” she said.