From 450 entries, Charles Wells is now on a five-strong shortlist for the CBI/Real Business Growing Business Awards 2003. Paul Wells tells Mark Stretton about the rise to fame.
A sign outside the White Horse in Bedford says: "If you had a good time please tell your friends. If not, please tell us." It is the finishing touch on a major face-lift for the community local. The pool table, the jukebox, wooden panelling and naff carpet have all gone to the great pub development skip in the sky, replaced with brown sofas, white walls and open log fires. It now looks like every inch the modern cutting-edge local bar and Charles Wells is hoping punters will pass on the news.
The White Horse is one of a handful of pubs that remains in Wells's managed house arm. The group believes that a viable managed pub will soon need to take £15k-a-week so many have been converted to tenancy. Now just 17 are left but the reduction is not an exit sign but a signal of intent - although Charles Wells has stripped back the division to its bare bones, it is ready to grow.
In many ways the no-nonsense action taken in its managed house division mirrors what happened to the entire business seven years ago. Then Charles Wells was a low margin, own label brewing business. It stopped doing a lot of harmful things, laid a solid foundation for growth and has been building a business based on premium niche beer brands ever since.
"We haven't been as good at developing a strong retail business as I would like but we now have a great platform," says managing director Paul Wells. "Elsewhere we have taken really good care to understand what our core capabilities are. I think some people say core competencies but that sounds a bit like consultant speak."
The rest of the business is absolutely flying - so much so that the company was short-listed for the CBI Growing Business Awards in the category of Company of the Year 2003. From an entry list of 450, Charles Wells made it on to a final list of five firms - from not just pubs or brewing, but across the entire spectrum of UK business.
"It sounds more impressive when other people say it," says Paul. "It is pretty awesome. I like the idea of us going through that process and getting through to the final few. As a company I think we have good teams, we have good freedoms within the company and we have a clear plan."
The competition, which was held in conjunction with Real Business magazine and is open to companies with 500 staff or fewer, Charles Wells had to demonstrate the following: outsized profits and sales growth compared to its peers; the creation of new jobs; how it had developed and trained its people; an innovative and compelling strategy and how it had launched or developed its range of products.
The company has scooped a long line of awards, which includes the title of Regional Brewer of the Year at The Publican Awards 2003.
To demonstrate how it had outperformed its peers in sales and profits growth, Wells highlighted its track record for its "BCR" holy trinity of beers - Bombardier, Corona and Red Stripe.
Using its Frightfully English and St George's Day campaigns, it has taken Bombardier from an 11,000-barrel beer in 1994 to 50,000 barrels this year. The brand is in the top 10 UK cask ales, from a lowly 52 and is still growing volumes and sales at 30 per cent per year.
When the company took on the marketing of Red Stripe from Bulmers last year, the laidback Jamaican lager brand was in 20 per cent volume and sales decline. It is now in 23 per cent growth against an industry standard of 2.3 per cent growth for premium lager.
Since taking Corona on in 1996 the brand has gone from yearly sales of 100,000 cases in the UK to over one million. "We are good at communicating with consumers," says Paul. "We are all about niche premium brands and what customers want.
"The important thing - because it's a very competitive market - is to decide what ground to stand on. As a company you need to make sure you are not standing on the same ground as someone who is stronger and bigger because you will probably lose. That is why we have focused on niche brands."
In addition to the BCR trinity, the company makes a raft of other products designed for specific markets such as Banana Bread Beer, Eagle Bitter, Muse bottled cocktails, and has contracts for Kirin Japanese lager and Cobra Indian beer. Export is a major part of the Wells sales mix, accounting for 20 per cent of beer sales.
So is Charles Wells and its admirable and hard-working publicity machine merely good at filling out entry forms? "I don't think you can fill out an entry form unless you have something to put on it," says Paul.
"In the CBI Awards we were up against other companies in other sectors so it must be difficult to compare. There is a big difference between a mature company making great strides [Wells was included in The Sunday Times Profit Track 100] and a fast-growing start-up."
Other things picked out from a rather dense CBI application form include the company's focus on people. Charles Wells recently unveiled its new £1.5m training centre, it spends just over one per cent of its £100m turnover on training each year and has also developed training courses with Bedford College.
With its roots in Victorian brewing, Charles Wells was definitely the granddad of the CBI finalists. And by the sounds of things, it is by far the most interesting too.
The others, which are all relatively young companies, are (and it might help to say these in a Mr Bean type voice) as follows: Promothean, which makes interactive whiteboards used in classroom teaching; Sophos, an anti-virus and anti-spam computer firm; The Midas Group, a property "solutions" specialist; and Expotel, a leading hotel and conference reservations group.
And some people will try to tell you regional brewers are unsexy. "The idea of brewing beer and selling it in pubs is a very ordinary business but we have gone way beyond that," says Paul. "Beer and pubs are still the essence of it, but we are now a forward-thinking, customer-focused business. We have pubs in Moscow, Italy and Paris.
"We have raised standards, particularly in training, right across the business and we are now up there with the best when it comes to brewing, training, retailing, technology and marketing."
In the end Wells was pipped to the post by Sophos.
But companies don't enter this sort of competition unless they have something to shout about so to get down to the final five from 450 entries is a striking achievement and great for the industry.
Also, Wells was formed in 1876 while Sophos was created in 1985. The question is, will Sophos be growing quickly and up for awards in 100 years time?