Tea plantations in Kenya continue to underpin Wemyss Development Company, the Scottish family business tracing its roots back 450 years, according to its latest accounts just lodged at Companies House.
The group, which has three members of the Wemyss family on the board including chairman William and managing director Andrew, has its head office in Edinburgh but its origins in Fife. One of Scotland's most historic private companies, it has interests in French vineyards and Australian sheep farming, as well as whisky distilling and property development closer to home.
Now the directors say they are in "discussions with various parties over the purchase or building of a distillery", though the sites in prospect have not been revealed. They say the group continues to invest in building up stocks of vintage malts as they believe demand will remain strong.
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Incorporated in 1897, Wemyss ventured into new territory in 2010 with a £1.5 million investment in Deanston Hydro, a renewables business based in Canonbie, Dumfriesshire. The directors note that in its first year of ownership, the business was "not without its challenges" but say management were satisfied with its performance.
The accounts show that the Sotik Highlands Tea Estate, where Wemyss has a 70% interest, and the Sotik Tea Company, where it has 54%, were again the bedrock of its empire with turnover in Africa of £21.7m in the year to March 2012, down by £2m from the previous year.
The directors say profits were marginally below 2011 due to a poor final quarter, but volatile currency markets impacted the contribution to the group result. The business has been boosted over the past few years by the boom in commodity prices. Total group turnover was also down £2m at £27.9m
Group pre-tax profits fell from £7.27m to £6.57m, while Wemyss had a corporation tax bill of £78,571 in the UK but £2.84m overseas.
In Australia, Wemyss has abandoned viticulture in favour of avocado growing. The directors write: "The wine business in Australia despite actions to reduce costs continued to struggle due to a lack of volume and the strong Australian dollar."
They say the sheep farming operations in Australia returned to profit, despite being hit by the weather at cropping, but go on to warn: "Prospects for the business have been hit by the ongoing and currently unresolved issues regarding the exports of live sheep to the Middle East."
For the second year running the directors report that the French vineyard's performance was "solid if unspectacular".
In the UK, the property business like many others remains focused on the performance of its existing portfolio, and has continued developing and refurbishing units for sale. But the directors add: "Management is increasingly focused on identifying quality opportunities for future developments given current market conditions."
Operating profits were £6.59m, down from £7.41m, while shareholder funds rose from £36m to £38m. A £150,000 dividend was declared after the year end in September. Headcount fell from 3331 to 2978 and the highest-paid director's remuneration was static at just over £101,000.