Here’s to you, Mr Robinson
As Robinsons quietly celebrates its 180th year, its two managing directors talk to Pub & Bar about life at the family brewer
I meet with William and Oliver Robinson in the foyer of the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington, London, bright and early at the beginning of an unseasonably warm October.
The cousins, along with hundreds of other beer and pub industry leaders, were at the hotel to attend the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA)’s Annual Dinner the night before, which is held in partnership with Pub & Bar.
It seemed like as good a time as any to catch up with the two managing directors of Robinsons Brewery – not only were we all in the same place at the same time, but the business had just gone about celebrating its 180th year in operation.
Not bad for an independent north west brewer. However, while initial conversations with their communications manager had been about this piece focusing on another impressive milestone, by the time the interview came around, the company had readdressed the public-facing fanfare of turning 180 and decided to limit just how much they made of it.
Their 175th birthday saw sizeable celebrations across the country, but what are they going to do? Celebrate every five years? This doesn’t seem entirely necessary to the duo.
“It is an important thing for us internally, but for the outside world, they don’t want us to go on about it,” says William, who is MD of the Robinsons pub division. “There is a lot of pride from the family and the employees, but that’s where it sits. For our licensees, there is a feeling that they have a longstanding business behind them, and there’s a reassurance in that.”
“Our customers just want a great pub experience, great food and great beer,” adds Oliver, who oversees the beer division of the business. “Whether we’re one year old or 180 years old, that isn’t necessarily relevant to them – what matters is the experience they’re getting today. That’s most important to us. The next big celebration will be when we hit 200.”
I don’t think I’ve ever interviewed a pub operator that has a 20-year plan – most MDs and CEOs talk about the next five years. But when it comes to a family brewer that’s built on centuries of heritage, short-term success is of less importance.
This was evident in Robinsons’ financial results for the year ending 31 December 2017. The business increased its turnover by 4.2% to £71.2m, but its profit before tax fell by 19% to £3.1m. While the year saw strong sales, further managed house openings coupled with higher overall operating costs and record levels of investment in tenanted and managed pubs meant that operating profits were reduced to £1.2m (£2.6m in 2016).
“We’ve made decisions for the long term of the business and investing back into our pub estate is critical to that, and that means profits aren’t at the level they were in previous years,” says William. “We understand why and ultimately we’re comfortable with where we’re going and why we’re doing it. If you get too fixated on a short period of time, you lose focus on the bigger picture. As a family business, we’re able to take that long-term view without pressures from people looking at what’s happening in a few weeks’ or months’ time.
“If you bring your licensees on that journey with you and they understand where they fit into it, they’re very comfortable with that. Not communicating with people is what causes problems, so we’re very open with how we work.”
“The outlook for 2018 is in many ways similar to 2017,” adds Oliver. “We will continue to invest in the long-term success of our business while looking to maximise returns through operational efficiency. We are committed and prepared for many more generations of family brewing and pub ownership, and our investment strategy should be seen as a sign of that.”
Over the years
Of course, it’s arguable that no leader of Robinsons Brewery has seen more industry change than Oliver and William. Since they started in this business in 1998, the cousins have had to adapt the large beer and pub company across a number of areas. But, really, adaptation suggests a reactionary approach to business leadership – it’s the proactive evolution through industry changes that can really set a company apart.
The growth in the Robinsons managed estate is a classic example of industry adaptation that many other operators have rolled out. Three years ago, the brewer opened its first managed pub – there are now 11 in the estate. Granted, this is still a very small number when you compare it to the 250 pubs that make up its tenanted division, but as William says, the growth in managed sites “may well be a pattern that continues into the future”.
“We have a pipeline of opportunities within the tenanted estate,” he adds. “We’re very respectful of our licensees’ businesses – we look at managed opportunities that come up through retirements or other personal reasons, and that’s how we deal with it. There are sufficient opportunities there for us to grow our managed estate and to take it forward.”
Oliver references the words of Simon Emeny, CEO of Fuller’s and chairman of the BBPA, who had spoken of pub resilience and relevance in his chairman’s address the evening before the interview.
Emeny also put the boot into casual dining chains when comparing the two sectors (one assumes he wasn’t talking about the Fuller’s-owned pizza brand, The Stable), focusing on casual dining’s limited offer and the number of restaurant closures currently sweeping through the UK. As Oliver recaps, it was all about highlighting the differentials that pubs and bars embody.
“Pubs are about providing people with the opportunity to experience different things,” he says. “As long as we continue to work on that unique position, through product range and experience, then I think the pub has a great position in society and for consumers.
“The market has changed. When we started in this business, we had two lager brands in our pubs – Carling and Tennent’s Extra. We then upgraded to Grolsch. But now we have 17 pouring lagers. You can see how different the consumer demand is. We have over 40 or 50 gins that our customers can choose from. We have 17 different ciders and 10 different cask brands at any one stage. The range of cask ales and flavours has changed so much that the whole experience of a pub today is very different to that of 20 years ago.” (See box below.)
Long Live the Local
As readers will know, it is tough/naïve to talk to a lead interviewee without having a conversation about rates, tax and general burdens on the industry. What was a refreshing variance when raising these subjects with the Robinsons was William’s focus on digital disparity. Take it away, William…
“Beer duty and business rate increases are a significant burden for both licensees and ourselves, and we encourage the chancellor in the forthcoming budget to increase his support for physical retailers by addressing the disproportionate and unfair taxation placed on them versus online retailing. In 2017, we paid £9.4m in beer duty.
“The government needs to reset the dial and consider how to move forward into this new, digital economy. Unfortunately, things only change when things start to go wrong and there’s a ‘car crash’. There are car crashes happening now, and now these significant chains are disappearing from the high street, Westminster is starting to talk about it.”
Robinsons is actively backing the BBPA’s Long Live the Local campaign (see page 10), which encourages pub goers, staff and licensees to write to their MPs about the work that British pubs do to support their communities, and the combined impact that beer duty and business rates have upon confidence and investment in the industry.
“While community support is wholly identifiable for pub customers, beer duty and rates aren’t the classic conversational topics you’d overhear at the bar. Even so, over 115,000 people have signed the campaign petition so far, and Oliver believes that number is only set to grow.
“It is so important to not only engage with our managers and tenants, but also their customers,” he says. “Do they understand the impact that tax and pub closures are having? I see no reason why Long Live the Local can’t get to 1m signatures if everyone who has signed up gets two, three or four of their friends to do it. The impact that would have nationally would really gain momentum on this and have an effect on our industry.”
William and Oliver see Long Live the Local collateral and other pub campaigns and communications first hand when they’re out and about in the Robinsons estate.
What’s clear from talking to the joint MDs is that regular interaction with the people and operations of the business is essential to their management style, as is the connected strategy between the pub and beer divisions. Both of the Robinsons bosses are well versed in each other’s remits, and it’s this aligned and complementary approach that allows the family vision to remain in focus.
“You only understand the business by going around the pubs and working,” explains Oliver. “Working on the dray, tech service team, warehouse, shop floor, out in trade with sales and BDMs – it is so important for us in terms of how we see and understand our business.
“We don’t go to those places to watch – we go there to work. It lets us see what we do really well, but also you can see where we can make things even better and where the opportunities are. There’s nothing like getting stuck in. It’s very easy to become cocooned in an office lifestyle, but none of us are very good at sitting behind a desk for too long. We’re about beer and pubs. Unless you engage in every aspect in that, how can you really understand your business?”
“Everything Oliver and I do is so intrinsically linked,” concludes William. “We’re cousins and we see each other every day. We recognise one another’s strengths and use those strengths when it’s appropriate. We’ve known each other since we were at primary school together – we have a unique criteria. It’s not about getting precious about things – we share problems and work through things for the common good and for the good of the company.”
Is cask a tough ask?
“We know we have to keep cask relevant,” says Oliver. “There’s a national decline in cask ale, so what are we doing about it? Well, we’re trying to make sure that when guests drink it, it is served in the best possible way. Nationally, because it’s in decline, beer quality struggles at times. A pub needs to sell 18 pints a day from a firkin to sell great quality beer.
“Over 50% of pubs nationally are selling less than nine pints a day of cask ale, so quality is an issue. There’s a movement to keg beer and we mustn’t be afraid of that – it’s what our consumers are choosing. We’re developing and putting in place a number of things to make sure customers are satisfied with the range.
“We’ll be pushing some craft keg into our estate next year. Everyone across our business – brewers, marketing, sales, everyone – comes together collectively to make sure what we’re offering is right for the consumer.
“We’re launching a new beer in a can next year called One Eyed Jack – a 330ml IPA with a hint of orange, crafty in its style. We’re looking forward to some of those being launched. Today’s consumer is more promiscuous than they ever were and they’re always looking to try something new.”