From Liverpool with love

By Hamish Champ

- Last updated on GMT

Timing, as they say, is everything. A few years ago brothers Sudaghara and Ajmail Dusanj turned up at Ludgate House on London's South Bank to pitch...

Timing, as they say, is everything. A few years ago brothers Sudaghara and Ajmail Dusanj turned up at Ludgate House on London's South Bank to pitch for the contract to distribute the Daily Express, then headquartered in the building that now houses The Publican.

At the time the pair owned a number of corner shops and convenience stores in their hometown of Chatham in Kent - having decided against becoming doctors, their mother's career choice for her sons - and saw national daily newspaper distribution as the next phase in their growing business empire.

They narrowly missed out on the deal, but from disappointment often springs a new opportunity. "If we'd got that contract we would still be in newspapers today and we wouldn't be running a brewery in Liverpool," says Sudaghara, aka Sid.

The Express contract may have catapulted Sid and his younger brother into a much bigger league in their then chosen sector, and such ambition remains typical of the brothers' business philosophy.

"We're always looking for the next challenge in the market we're in and we want to push ourselves," he says.

Staying put in corner shops for a while longer, they later learned of a Midlands-based drinks wholesaler on the market and saw it as their next move. Then, having been in that business for a few years, in 2001 they read an article about a loss-making brewery in Liverpool that was up for grabs.

Sid and Ajmail, known to his older sibling as "Bill, or 'Billy', as in Billy The Kid", had at that point never been to Liverpool. Regardless, they knew an opportunity when they saw one, and their feelings were confirmed when they toured the 10-acre brewery site early in 2002.

Ambition for the industry

The pair's enthusiasm for the operation, which they bought for £3.4m in the summer of that year, shows no sign of abating. Nor does their pride in what they've achieved for the brewery and - they believe - for helping raise the profile of their adopted home city.

Wandering around the Stanhope Street site with the pair, the thrill of owning Cains is self-evident. "Look at it, this place is a palace of brewing," says Sid, as he points out the elaborately decorated brickwork on the brewery building's redstone walls.

Bricks and mortar are all very well, but the company's the thing. After buying the Cains Brewery the pair embarked on streamlining its workforce, changing the logo at a cost of £250,000 and ditching third party beers in the company's 11 pubs in order to sell Cains beers exclusively.

"We've also made the day-to-day decision-making process much faster," says Bill, "and if people need something from us they get it really quickly. We're always here and we're always on call, seven days a week."

The long hours and hard work are paying off. A near £400,000 loss on £21m-worth of business in 2003 has been turned into a £57,000 net profit on sales of £26.3m last year. Meanwhile, off-trade listings are growing, pubcos are showing interest and the group's reputation for service quality is spreading.

But where the pair's enthusiasm really comes across in spades - or rather barrels - is Cains' beer itself. "We have a catchphrase, which is we want the beer to be the hero," says Sid. Cains' beers, whether they are the CAMRA award-winning lager or their aforementioned Raisin Beer, are at the heart of what the pair are about.

While paying tribute to their 90-odd staff - "they're all heroes", says Sid - the brothers have set about making Cains' beers a recognisable icon of Liverpool again. They saved the brewery, but knowing nothing about the brewing process themselves set about getting people in to improve the beers.

There's been no shortage of ambition on this front. A range of monthly seasonal ales will be launched next year, while recent beer releases - Raisin Beer and Liverpool Lager, to name two - have become established favourites.

Then there are the tie-ups with Liverpool Council events for which Cains has sole 'pouring rights' - such as the recent Mathew Street festival, the UK's largest free community event. And let's not forget Liverpool's City of Culture celebrations in 2008, for which Cains is the official beer. In fact Cains - "Liverpool in a pint" - is simply everywhere.

Retail ambitions

If the brothers' retail ambitions prove successful, the name will be even further afield. The opening of a Cains branded, up-market, High Street bar in Liverpool early next year is intended to be the first of a number of new-build outlets across the North West and possibly beyond, that will further the Cains name. The goal of owning 100-plus pubs, as long as they fit the company's brand model, remains.

Other coups have included a number of high-profile packaging contracts for some well-known names - the brothers don't want these published - as well as own-label packing deals for leading supermarkets.

They have recieved plaudits for saving a local institution and success in producing a fine range of cask beers. However, the doors have still not opened to the UK's brewing establishment, as witnessed by the decision by the Independent Family Brewers of Britain to refuse them entry for another few years. Race was not an issue in their being refused entry, the brothers believe. Instead the fact that they eschew the country's grouse moors, preferring to work all hours, might not square easily with some of the country's brewing gentry.

Nevertheless the pair are not bitter. Indeed the old brewing guard are the Dusanjs' heroes. "Bobby Neame," they reply when asked who their own icon is, with John Young and the not-so-old Tim Martin in close succession.

"Shepherd Neame was the first beer we ever tasted and we really admire what he has done for brewing," says Bill, while Wetherspoon's Martin gets the nod for transforming beer retailing.

And their own ambitions? Aside from owning a substantial pub and bar estate it would be "to become the UK's first regional craft brewer", says Sid. "We want to take premium brands beyond cask ales and we strongly believe the positioning of Cains' brands will break down barriers. We want every product we produce to be a premium product."

Those who think the Dusanjs are a 'here today/gone tomorrow' pair will be disappointed. "We are in this for the long term," claims Sid.

Owning such a huge site with much unused space in an up-and-coming city, it is tempting to suggest Cains will sell 'n' move when land prices become irresistible, à la Young's. Not so, says Bill. "We will find ways of utilising the empty space, but we'll still be here in Stanhope Street in 10 years' time."

By which time they'll be members of the family brewers' gang, or so one would hope. Like they say, timing is everything.

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