Obituary: Victor Wild, entrepreneur

Victor Wild, who has died at 96, was a business leader and entrepreneur who helped launch Yorkshire Tea and make Bettys Tea Rooms world famous.

Saturday, 25th April 2020, 9:00 am
Victor Wild

Victor Wild, who has died at 96, was a business leader and entrepreneur who helped launch Yorkshire Tea and make Bettys Tea Rooms world famous.

He was the nephew of Frederick Belmont, a Swiss confectioner who created the uniquely Yorkshire chain of Bettys cafes 12 years after his arrival in England, in the years following the First World War.

Childless and anxious for an heir to take on the business, Belmont asked his sister, Ida, back in Switzerland if he could “borrow” one of her three teenagers to bring up as his own. Victor, the youngest at 13, volunteered.

He had been born Carl Viktor Wild was in St Gallen, Switzerland, in May 1923. When he arrived in Yorkshire, Bettys was well known locally, with branches in Harrogate, Leeds, Bradford and York, and its own Harrogate bakery. By the time he retired in 1996, the firm had become a Yorkshire institution and Yorkshire Tea, launched in the 1970s, a growing national brand.

Like his uncle before him, Victor arrived in Yorkshire unable to speak English. He was packed off to be educated at Sedbergh, the boarding school in the Dales, returning to Harrogate in the holidays where he worked in the Bettys bakery and used his artistic talents to design advertisements for the tea rooms.

Taking another lead from his uncle, who had been born he was born Fritz Bützer, he also anglicised his name.

With his schooling complete, he spent a year training in Claridges’ kitchens during the Luftwaffe’s Operation Steinbock, the so-called Baby Blitz of London in 1944, before returning North to work at the York branch of Bettys. As a Swiss national, he was not called up for military service, and instead worked alongside his uncle to keep the business alive in the face of rationing, food shortages and general uncertainty. He later recalled the difficulties of satisfying the queues of customers outside Bettys each day: “We had a small allocation of fresh fish – enough to put on the menu once a week and call “off” after about one hour. Meat was the same. After that it was fish cakes made with a frozen fish-mix (mostly skin) and mashed potato (no butter), corned beef hash, spam fritters and more fish cakes.

“Ingenuity helped. We used honey salvaged from a warehouse fire, hence the burnt flavour, to supplement the sweet ration with a special fudge.”

After the war, Victor returned to Switzerland to train in hotels and restaurants. He came back to Yorkshire in 1947, became a British citizen in 1949 and married his wife, Kay, the following year.

In 1952, Frederick died suddenly, in his office above the Harrogate tea room. He was 67. Respecting his wishes, Victor chose not to close the cafe, even for the day.

With Frederick’s wife, Claire, installed as chairman, Victor assumed, at 29 years old, the managing directorship. By his own admission, he was unprepared for the task, and found it took many years to stabilise the business in the face of post-war austerity and heavy death duties.

Nevertheless, his sense of fairness, coupled with intellect and creativity, fostered an entrepreneurial streak – and within 10 years he had purchased another Yorkshire family business, CE Taylor and Co, a tea and coffee importer with a number of tea shops of its own, for £180,000. Its prize asset was the beautiful Cafe Imperial on the corner of Parliament Street in Harrogate, which is today Bettys’ flagship branch.

Victor also experimented with an espresso bar in Leeds, and opened a continental delicatessen to an uncertain Yorkshire marketplace of the 1960s. However, it was the purchase of Taylors in 1962 that was to prove his masterstroke.

“The proposition was a gamble. It confirmed my long-held belief that there is a large element of luck in many business decisions and if you were in the right place at the right time you had to act,” he later recalled.

Now with nine cafes, including three in Harrogate, along with bakeries and the tea and coffee business inherited from Taylors, Victor turned his focus to establishing the shape and foundations of the business for the future.

In 1977, as part of a team of four, he launched Yorkshire Tea, with the aim of taking Bettys’ values of quality and “properness” to households nationwide. Last year it became the nation’s number one brand.

Recognising that prosperity, though essential, was not the only indicator of business success, Victor turned down several offers to buy the business. “My objective was to have a business one enjoyed working in,” he said. 

Although he was by any measure a successful Yorkshire businessman, he remained Swiss at heart was and in many ways an unconventional leader. He never took up the golf lessons his uncle purchased for him, preferring painting, walking and gardening to networking on the links. Art was a particular passion, and the illustrated advertisements he produced as a young man can still be found on the walls of the tea rooms.

By the time he retired in 1996, he had been with the firm for five decades. He was succeeded by his son, Jonathan Wild, who had joined the business in 1975, himself retiring in 2011. Until last month, Lesley Wild, Victor’s daughter-in-law, was chair of the board.

Kay Wild died earlier this year and Victor is survived by three children, five grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.