When one imagines the great regional family brewers of the UK, one looks back at their centuries of history and the dearly-held traditions that have shaped the way in which their pubs and businesses are run. When considering Adnams, nestled in the coastal village of Southwold, deep in the heart of rural Suffolk, it would be easy to expect to find something similar.
But far from being cut-off from the fast-paced world we associate with London and other big cities, Adnams is not only keeping up with trends, but is practically running alongside them. The first brewery to distil on its premises in the UK and with a range of spirits, ales and craft beers all on its production, Adnams has not been looking back at its heritage, which stretches back to when the ancestor of chairman Jonathan Adnams bought the brewery in 1872. This approach is mirrored in the way that it runs its concise pub estate.
“We’re not a company that’s rooted in tradition, in that it colours our view of the world and how we want to go,” explains Adnams. “I think we’re very much the opposite. The world is about tomorrow – that’s where the next sale is coming from. We have always gone out and tried to see where the world is going and get ourselves ready to be there.”
The local environment
Environmental issues and sustainability have played an enormously important role at Adnams since the late 90s, and over the years have come to influence every decision and thought process throughout the company. However, it all stemmed from steps taken back in 1990, when the company formed its own charity to support the local community and worked to put forward core values of treating employees, external people, customers and the local community well. While the impact of this environmental drive is certainly more powerfully felt within the managed part of the business, the company does plenty of work with its tenants and licensees, providing guidance, expertise and tips for reducing waste, as well as energy and water usage.
“Pub waste has been collected in the past and brought back to the biodigester we have and turned into biogas,” explains Adnams. “We try to get it as wide-ranging as we can. We also organise a cleaning of the beach at Southwold four times a year. Once you’ve got your feet in water with things like this, you just slide gently further in. And then it becomes a way of life within the entire company and everyone is thinking about it.”
The Adnams ethos towards its environment is also mirrored within its business as a whole. The recruitment and progression framework has been put in place to give people the guidance to go forward and succeed within the set of Adnams values. Karen Hester, for example, is Adnams’ operations director and has won numerous awards and is a member of the Adnams board. She started out at the company as a part time cleaner. While there is no specific training in place, the company has encouraged and assisted people in the acquisition of MBAs, masters degrees and other qualifications as they move through the business – or indeed out of it entirely.
“You want people to progress, so you provide training and support,” says Adnams. “Sometimes that progression means that they go off out into the wide world and fly away and we wave goodbye cheerily and say pop back and see us some time. For others, there’s progression within the company. We need both undoubtedly. We want people to come and be the best they can. It isn’t forced on everyone, but if people want to take advantage, they can have a go at it.”
Unlike other regional brewers, Adnams has never had a large pub estate and has not focused considerably on expanding it either. Instead it has looked at its own production. Since the late 70s, the company’s free trade has outgrown its pub business, while its collection of shops brings further insights from the off-trade side of the industry. This approach has allowed Adnams to keep a finger on the pulse of the customer when looking at what its pubs’ tenants can do to bolster their businesses.
“Understanding where the London market is going is important,” says Adnams. “It is different to what happens here in East Anglia to a certain extent. That feedback and conversation is important to us.”
Much of the company’s investment has been in production, which has seen an expanded brewery – costing £7.5m – and a new distillery. But in the meantime, Adnams’ pub estate has shrunk. Since 2009, the company has sold 26 pubs and its portfolio currently consists of 43 tenancies and six managed houses spread across East Anglia, but concentrated in the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk. The focus has been on dedicated to improving the current estate, rather than growing it. Not that Adnams has stopped looking for new sites completely.
“We consider we currently have a stable tied estate,” says Hester. “No opportunity is ever overlooked. In recent years, we have asked ourselves the moral question of ‘can the asset sustain a reasonable living for the tenants, as well as make the right return for the brewery?’ Rural pubs have had to become destination pubs that people will go to.”
The pub scene in these parts has altered over the years just as it has in the rest of the UK. With food becoming increasingly important to the wellbeing of these sites, Adnams also sees East Anglia as especially competitive. In a part of the country with such a rich array of producers, a focus on quality food has been inevitable. A bespoke approach to its pub estate and its tenants sees Adnams providing advice, support and care depending on each one’s particular needs. The focus is now on making sure that the pubs existing within the estate are sustainably profitable ‘destination’ pubs.
“Pubs are supported and treated on an individual basis,” says Hester. “Training is provided to tenants and their staff by our own HR team. They are supported particularly around new legislation. Recruitment is done via our website. Retention is around incentive schemes and ensuring our tenants feel fully supported by our wider brewery team.”
A significant shift, and one in which other regional breweries have also been immersing themselves, is the realm of managed pubs. The company currently has a relatively small managed estate, but it is certainly seeing a significant amount of investment and attention. Many of them are currently located in Southwold itself – the village’s two hotels are both managed houses – but the expectation is that if there is to be growth it will be down this route, whether through acquisitions or conversions.
“We’re quite new into managed pubs, but undoubtedly we’ll see more,” says Adnams. “In five years’ time the managed estate will be somewhat bigger. The tenanted estate will be somewhat smaller as we convert some tenanted into managed. We have some tenancies that as and when they come up we shall look to bring them onto the managed side.”
East Anglian promise
The counties of Suffolk and Norfolk are certainly in the public consciousness at the moment, with their idyllic landscape, the increasing ease of access to London and their rich dining scene. However, while there are undoubtedly areas of significant growth in East Anglia, not just as a holiday destination, but in terms of migration as well, Adnams also recognises the need to understand other, less fashionable parts of its estate, and to maintain the links to the local community built up through environmental and charity work.
“There are hotspots for tourism – Southwold, north Norfolk coast – but if you go to the middle of Suffolk it’s not the same,” he explains. “There is quite a high level of unemployment in some areas and social need as well. So we do have a little bit of a difference between some of the more affluent areas compared to some of the less well-off.”
Looking ahead, he expects to see even further growth in the holiday opportunity that the region boasts. East Anglia has been touted as a growing holiday destination in these pages before, which no doubt played a part in the company investing £4.5m in the refurbishment of The Swan Hotel in Southwold, one of two managed hotels in the village. The accommodation side of the business will become a more important factor as the years roll on.
“We’ve always been a holiday destination,” explains Adnams. “It’s been a very good London weekend movement for many years. It probably is as vibrant as ever – it’s probably getting more. People can work anywhere now, not just our employees who can work at home, anyone can if all you need is a laptop or a computer. So maybe you come up to Norfolk not for two days but for three. That is getting more buoyant.”
As Adnams looks to continue its trajectory ahead of the curve from the Suffolk coast, there are plenty of challenges and trends that it is racing to meet. By monitoring its numerous links to the marketplace and listening to customers, operators and suppliers alike, the company is confident of maintaining its innovative approach.