Everards managing director Stephen Gould took a huge risk when he joined the family brewer, but as he explains, it was worth it. Phil Mellows reports.
There is an almost supernatural empathy between family brewers. When one of them falls over all the others rub their knee. When George Gale fell to Fuller's at the end of 2005, Everards managing director Stephen Gould had a print-out of the story hot from thepublican.com on his desk. But if he felt a twinge in his ligaments he wasn't showing it.
Regional brewers require a clear, firm strategy to survive intact in a fiercely competitive marketplace, and they need an owner resolute in their independence. The thirty-something Mr Gould believes Everards has both.
Joining the Leicester brewer as trading director in March 2003, within two years he had succeeded retiring Nick Lloyd as managing director, an ear-popping rate of ascent in this sector.
But if Everards was taking a risk with the whipper-snapper, so was Mr Gould taking his chances in abandoning a promising career with major pub operators for a family firm with a medium-sized brewery and 161 tenanted pubs.
"It was a big personal career risk to leave Punch [Taverns]," he admits. "I'd moved from a comfort zone to something that was brand new to me. I didn't think I'd have the opportunity to be managing director so soon. I suppose I'm a big fish in a small pool, but the levers that drive the business here are still the same."
Mr Gould's stint as director of training and recruitment at Punch saw the tenanted and leased giant introduce a range of bold and inventive initiatives, most famously the 10-day Modern Licensed Retailer (MLR) induction scheme, an industry first in that it was compulsory training for new lessees.
But it has certainly not been a case of importing such ideas wholesale into the quite different environment at Everards.
"I've tried to learn about the regional brewer context and I've been careful not to force-fit things from Punch," he says. "I could not bring the training over from Punch because that was a kind of 'take the medicine, it'll do you good' approach.
"The MLR is fantastic, but this is a smaller company and it's more difficult to tell tenants they're going on a course when they don't want to do it. Besides, we haven't got the volume of recruits to justify it - that's why we've introduced Flying Start."
Flying Start is a scheme in which new tenants are supported in their first months by an independent expert - namely John Walker, the former deputy director of the BII. He spends a whole day at the pub, sorting out problems and helping the fledgling enterprise to devise a strategy to meet its business plan.
It won the company a finalist's spot in last year's BII NITA Awards and the plan is to launch other schemes to help tenants who are further on in their business.
Getting more from BDMs
As much as being help for the licensees, Flying Start is support for the much-pressed business development manager (BDM).
"It reflects the fact that BDMs are expected to do everything in this industry, and they don't have time to spend a whole day with a licensee," explains Mr Gould who, counter to the trend at his former employer, has also reduced the number of pubs BDMs have on their patch. It's now about 40 and he hopes to bring it down to under 35 with a further recruit.
"I've always believed the ratio should be 30 to 35," he says. "We ask them to do too much. You can have great ideas but they can fail at execution because BDMs physically can't do all those things across that number of outlets. If you've got 55 to 60 pubs it's a tough job. You can't look at the competition, you can't serve licensees well."
Some things Mr Gould has introduced from Punch - laptops for BDMs, for instance, and, more controversially, dispense monitoring. But again, the "spy in the cellar" has not been roughly imposed and, as he points out, there is a more positive side to it in addition to stopping a tenant buying out.
If anything, the rather different culture at Everards seems to give Mr Gould a foundation of security from which he can address the future. He describes the shareholder structure at the company as "the strongest of any regional brewer", with chairman Richard Everard and his sister Serena Richards holding between them more than 90 per cent of the shares.
"The chairman takes a custodian's view of the business and he likes to keep moving forward. He describes Everards as a trading property company rather than a pubco and that means you can look to the long term and worry less about short-term profitability."
It has, for instance, enabled Mr Gould and his team to rein back on the grander ambitions for the brewer's flagship cask ale, Tiger Best Bitter, and rather than go for cheap distribution in the national pub chains, concentrate on building the brand's regional franchise in what he calls "the heartland strategy".
"It becomes a price-based proposition if you go national and start going for big volumes. There is a danger that you just become busy fools and you're not converting all the effort into profit.
"You bump into quality problems, too, and it raises questions over whether you've really got a licensee franchise - what reasons are you giving them for not taking another brewer's brand in your place? If you can build a real franchise it makes it difficult for a licensee to switch to another brand."
Rebranding the ale range
Mr Gould, with the help of former Punch colleague David Bremner, who heads marketing at the brewer, has overseen a rebranding of the Everards ale range, which also includes Beacon and Original plus seasonal beers such as Sunchaser.
"Rebranding has given us a clear family of ales," says Mr Gould. "We are building the Everards name rather than Tiger alone, and so far it's going well. Sales of most brands are ahead of last year.
"Good real ale operators don't take themselves too seriously. They have fun with their brands and do distinctive things." To wit, the nod towards this summer's football World Cup, which bears the elaborate pun Svengal Tiger.
Without a genuine national brand, though, the temptation might be for Everards to give up brewing to focus on its pubs. It would not be the first time a regional brewer has made such a call. But for Mr Gould brewing is an important factor in what makes Everards pubs distinctive, for the licensees as much as the customers. "Our licensees tell us it's important to them that we're a brewer," he says. "It's a point of difference."
That said, the long term goal is to get out of the present site, a soulless-looking building next door to a retail park in Narborough, in Leicestershire, and move to a smaller plant where the Everards ales could continue to be produced without the company having to rely on contract brewing to fill the mash tuns.
"It's not in our power but we'd love to come off this site and become more like craft brewers, a cottage industry," says Mr Gould. "In fact everything we do now is in the context of that happening."
Pictured: The Greyhound at Burton on the Wolds, Leicestershire, is one of the first to sport Everards' new black livery following a £150,000 refurbishment.