For years, King Charles was preparing to take on the role of monarch after the historic reign of Queen Elizabeth. In the meantime, he maintained another job: Owning a profitable business.
Charles – long a passionate advocate of environmental causes – founded Duchy Originals in 1990 when he was Prince of Wales to market produce from his farm. It has since become the largest organic food and drink brand in the UK, according to the company. In the year to March 2021, Duchy Originals earned nearly £3.6 million ($4.1 million) before tax.
The brand has had its ups and downs. But it has flourished since striking a partnership with Waitrose in 2009. The upscale 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 in its stores.
“It’s become a very successful business,” said Andrew Bloch, a London-based public relations expert. “You can feel with this brand, it has heart and soul behind it.”
The future, however, is uncertain. Control of the Duchy Originals brand is on hold during a period of national mourning which will culminate with 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 Waitrose spokesperson 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 around £1billion ($1.2billion). And although the prince studied organic farming, he is likely to be less active than his father.
“He will be interested, but he will let others manage it,” said Sally Bedell Smith, biographer and author of Charles: The Misunderstood Prince.
Charles spent decades preaching the benefits of organic farming and protecting the environment, even before these issues became common causes.
In 1985 he converted Home Farm, near his Highgrove estate in Gloucestershire, in a fully organic system. The Duchy Originals company was born five years later.
“Since the early 1980s, when I first had the responsibility of managing land myself in Highgrove, I have wanted to focus on an approach to food production that avoids the impact of the prevailing system and conventional industrialized agriculture, which it is increasingly clear is having a disastrous effect on soil fertility, biodiversity, and animal and human health,” Charles told Country Life magazine in 2021.
The first original duchies product was an oatmeal cookie sold in 1992. Initially, branded items were only found in high-end stores such as Harrods and Fortnum & Mason, although they later spread to outlets such as Waitrose, which caters to wealthier shoppers but has many more locations.
The business was on rocky ground in its early days, Smith wrote in his book. He got into too much debt and Duchy Originals had to look for new producers and manufacturers once he got too big to rely on Highgrove alone.
His fortunes improved later, according to Smith. She reported that when Charles visited the British Embassy in Spain in 2004, he burst in with gift-wrapped produce, announcing, “I’m a self-made millionaire, you know!”
However, an ill-fated attempt to expand into the United States, combined with the onset of the global financial crisis, pushed the company to the brink of collapse.
Faced with millions of pounds in losses in 2009, Charles turned to Waitrose, who threw him a lifeline by agreeing to act as sole distributor.
This marked the end of the prince’s ambitions for a significant presence in the US market, but the start of a robust recovery in the company’s prospects.
“Rescuing Waitrose during the September 2009 financial crisis was absolutely vital,” Smith said.
By 2017, 25 years after the oatmeal biscuit’s debut, the range had expanded to 300 products, including fruit, vegetables, meat and beer, and annual sales reached £200m ($231 million). More than 30 countries around the world, including the United States, Germany, Japan and Australia, have received exports of certain 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 company said it had raised more than £30m ($35m) since signing the license agreement with Waitrose.
“It provided a very substantial stream of income for his foundation and helped fund his charitable work as well as promote organic products,” Smith said.
Still, the venture was not without controversy. A range of herbal remedies, including the ‘Herbals Detox Tincture’ blend of artichoke and dandelion, have been accused by an alternative medicine expert medicine as based on “outright quackery”. A regulatory agency later said online advertisements for two of the herbal medicines in the range were misleading and asked Duchy Originals to change the wording.
Changes are underway in recent years as Charles prepared to ascend the throne. In 2020, his team said he would not renew the lease on the sprawling family farm, but would continue to farm organically on the late Queen’s Sandringham estate in Norfolk which he began managing in 2017.
Observers now believe William will take the reins of Duchy Originals and its partnership with Waitrose, as part of his new responsibilities as Duke of Cornwall.
“I think there will be a tension between his new role as King Charles III and what he can and cannot do,” said Bloch, who has also volunteered with the Charles’ Prince’s Trust charity. “It is likely that Prince William will take over.”
In his first address to the nation as king, Charles acknowledged that his responsibilities would change.
“It will no longer be possible for me to devote so much time and energy to charities and the issues that are so close to my heart,” he said. “But I know this important work will continue in the trusted hands of others.”
William spent a lot of time on the Highgrove estate growing up and enrolled in a farm management course at Cambridge University in 2014. Still, Smith doesn’t think he’ll be as involved in the details of the estate. company.
“I don’t imagine he’ll go into detail about what Charles did,” she said.