JW Lees - breaking with tradition

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Tucked away 50,000 feet up in the French Alps, close to the snowy ski slopes of Mont Blanc, are two real ale pubs, the White Grouse and the Perdrix...

Tucked away 50,000 feet up in the French Alps, close to the snowy ski slopes of Mont Blanc, are two real ale pubs, the White Grouse and the Perdrix Noire.

Designed by an Oldham craftsman and serving JW Lees Bitter on draught, the Flaine pubs are the most distant, and most unlikely, outposts of the Manchester brewer's empire.

In these days of enhancing shareholder value, this kind of eccentric anomaly would have little place in a publicly listed brewer with City investors poring over the books.

But JW Lees is 100 per cent family owned and is currently run by the fifth and sixth generations of the original John Lees who founded the company in Middleton, Manchester, 172 years ago.

It is proud of its traditions and, although it has modernised its brewing facilities, it boasts of delivering half of its real ale in oak casks and employing full-time coopers.

But this year the company has broken with tradition and stepped up marketing of its beers, aiming to take on the national brewers and turn its ales into major regional brands.

It has also taken a step away from traditional pubs and locals by making its biggest-ever investment, £1.75m, in an award-winning Manchester city centre bar, Rain.

William Lees-Jones joined the family firm four years ago and is now sales and marketing director but he brought with him several years' practical experience, having quit a job as managing director of an advertising agency in London.

"We have to stop being so insular in Manchester," he said. "We have to use the same clothes as the national brewers are using."

JW Lees produces a complete range of ales and lagers but the marketing focus has been on JW Lees Bitter, known for generations as John Willie after its founders' first names.

In April it launched a poster campaign in the North West featuring "a bloke called Dave" and his trusty pint. But it jolted the brand into younger people's minds in September with a new campaign featuring a buxom woman next to the catchline: "My mate John Willie just got pulled — by Samantha the barmaid".

Traditionally JW Lees' market has been over-45s but this new campaign has quickly attracted new drinkers in their 30s and even younger.

"We are spending the same money per barrel as some of the national brewers but we are doing it in a smaller, targeted way," Lees-Jones explained. "We are in it for the long term, which is why these levels of promotion are absolutely essential.

"We are certainly having an impact but we are not going to see any payback for about three years."

The brand is handled by wholesaler The Beer Seller, and a growing number of national operators are adding it to their regional lists, most recently Enterprise Inns and the Pub Estate Company.

This month, The Beer Seller features JW Lees for its lead ale for the on-trade, promoting John Willie's, a new premium ale with an ABV of five per cent. In its bottled form, it won the title of Tesco Beer of the Year 1999 and will be stocked by the supermarket for at least a year.

Lees-Jones said this accolade would build JW Lees' profile in the on-trade, adding to the 200 freetrade customers and 50 working men's clubs.

It produces a Smooth Bitter (3.9 per cent ABV), the notoriously strong Moonraker of 7.5 per cent ABV, a range of seasonal beers and a value ale, Greengate smooth beer (3.2 per cent ABV), costing just 99p a pint.

Lees-Jones said the brewer continued to be committed to mild with its light-coloured GB Mild (3.5 per cent ABV).

"Although the market is in long-term decline, ours has proved more resilient than other people's without trying to give it trendy names," he said.

The brewer experimented with turning its springtime ale Archer Stout into a smooth product, priced 20p less than a pint of Guinness, and, after initially rejecting it, decided to launch it as a new brand.

JW Lees has been fermenting lager for 40 years and now produces a leading regional product, the four per cent ABV Golden Original. This was followed two years ago by the stronger Golden Export at five per cent ABV.

"We used to want a more continental flavour but made the flavour less complex, less flowery and more commercial," Lees-Jones said.

Mainly for the off-trade it produces its own pilsner, Edelbrau Pils in bottles and Edelbrau Lite in cans.

Remarkably, JW Lees succeeds by not allowing any competing national draught beers into its pubs, whether they are smooth ales or premium lagers.

Last year it decided to close its bottling plant, outsourcing to Frederic Robinson of Stockport, to make space for expansion of the brewery's facilities.

Close to its 800,000 capacity, the brewer does not contract brew for anyone else. "We have a total commitment to brewing," Lees-Jones said.

The company is a focused vertically-integrated brewer. It has closed its own cash and carry operations and disposed or converted all of its Willoughby's wine shops, except for one flagship outlet in the centre of Manchester.

Willoughby's continues to be a major part of JW Lees as a wine and spirits supplier to its own estate and other companies in the region, offering more than 3,500 different lines.

"You can end up trying to do too much and that can be terribly dangerous," Lees-Jones said.

Its 134 tenanted pubs and 40 managed houses are targeted at the traditional, unbranded end of the market. The estate stretches from North Manchester to Crewe, Preston and Wrexham, with 31 pubs in North Wales.

"We specialise in backstreet boozers which profit from having licensees with personality," Lees-Jones said.

The size and split of its estate hasn't changed much for years but in August it unveiled a new direction, the Rain Bar, developed out of a former umbrella factory. It is a high-profile part of Manchester's bar scene and last month won the title of Pub of the Year in awards run by listings magazine City Life.

"We don't try to hide that it's owned by a family brewer," said Lees-Jones. "It's very overtly branded as a JW Lees pub. It's not just a retail operation but a showpiece for us."

In Chester it unveiled a modern café-bar, Dutton's, and is planning another bar in the town, but Lees-Jones said: "We're not interested in branded concepts."

EPoS has now been installed in all the managed houses and food sales have been pushed up, under William's cousin Christina Lees-Jones, who has improved menus and ensured all food is cooked on the pub premises by trained chefs.

His father Richard, who is chairman, has been involved in the business for 42 years and his uncle Christopher, the vice-chairman, for 39.

While Christina ran her own catering company, Simon Lees-Jones joined to look after property after working as a chartered surveyor and Michael Lees-Jones gained experience of brewing at Bass and, most recently at Shepherd Neame in Kent, before joining last month to look after quality control in the brewery.

Lees-Jones said: "It's a positive thing to have lots of members of the family coming into the business. With a guaranteed longevity of service, you can do things that are more long-term.

"If the company was listed, we would be held back by short-termism.

"We are changing a little bit in terms of branding and investment but we haven't had expensive reorganisations or sudden changes in direction every five minutes."

The outlook is positive, especially with Manchester's regeneration turning the city into the region's capital.

"We see there are lots more opportunities in the region," Lees-Jones said.

"We were accused for many years of hiding our light under a bushel but the profile of the company is now greater than it ever was."

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