The Big Interview: Adrian Staley, Hook Norton

By Phil Mellows

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Hook norton, Beer

Adrian Staley: an outsider in the family firm, but with beer and pub in his blood
Adrian Staley: an outsider in the family firm, but with beer and pub in his blood
There’s something to be said for being in the right place at the right time. The Hook Norton Brewery nestles in a fold of the Cotswolds, a jewel of quintessential Englishness. No-one could have designed it better for a beer market thirsty for heritage and authenticity.

This is one reason why Adrian Staley describes it as “one of the most exciting businesses in the UK”. Another might be that, at the beginning of this year, he became its joint managing director alongside James Clarke, great-great-grandson of the brewery’s founder.

He joins at a pivotal moment in Hook Norton’s 160-year history, the beginning of a five-year plan that aims to grow its annual sales from 18,000 to 40,000 barrels. Significantly, that will take the company out of progressive beer duty and into a whole new level of ambition.

The idyllic location will play its part. “Being in the Cotswolds is a big cachet that nobody’s seized before,” says Staley. “I’m convinced Hook Norton’s got huge potential. It’s got the character, a wonderful area around it, a picturesque brewery that hasn’t changed since it was built, and shire horses too. It’s a quintessential English business. Yet it’s perceived to be bigger than it is. The opportunity is there to be grasped.”

And he’s probably the man to grasp it. Staley may be the outsider in the family firm, but beer and pubs are in his blood. His father was on the board at Whitbread, and he followed him there, learning the ropes in freetrade sales before taking roles on the tenanted estate and then in managed houses.

Transferring to Morland Brewery under the old ‘Whitbread umbrella’, in which the big brewer took stakes in various regionals to protect them from takeover, he extended his experience into brand development, taking Old Speckled Hen to a 30,000-barrel brand. Then he performed a similar trick at St Austell with Tribute.

“I’ve done it all,” he says. “And that’s given me a very balanced overall view. Everything I’ve learned, the structures and disciplines, are coming to bear now I’m looking after all trade sectors at Hook Norton. It’s good to be so hands-on.”

Investment

Since he arrived, the brewery has already unveiled a new corporate image and new branding that combines its Victorian origins with clean, modern lines. Pumpclips now declare the provenance of the beer: ‘Handcrafted in the Cotswold Hills since 1849.’ Staley has started to extend the stronger identity into the 44-strong tenanted pub estate.

“Currently we are getting the branding right, getting the platform right. We’re spending a lot of money this year, but we have to do that to underpin the future of the business.”

Working closely with Clarke, who takes care of the brewing, he is also getting the portfolio right. Core brands are being repositioned and a new cask beer will be launched that aims to propel Hook Norton into the  wider marketplace.

Hooky Gold has been dropped from the core range for being “too bitter” but will continue to play an important role in bottled form in
the off-trade. In its place, alongside the 3.5% ABV local favourite Hooky and the more widely-available 4.6% ABV Old Hooky, will come a new 4% ABV ale.

Based on an existing seasonal brew, Cotswold Lion, it’s described by Staley as “accessible and more-ish” and will be central to his plans.
“The knock-on effect with developing a brand like this, like a London Pride or a Tribute, is significant. It reflects on the brewery and helps with everything. It puts you on the map and draws people to the pubs.”

Staley is also keen to drive exports, too, through brands such as the 5.3% IPA Flagship, and he recently signed a deal with Norwegian distributor Malting House, whose rep was apparently won over by the perfect English image of the brewery.

Cornerstone of the business
But he’s certainly not being distracted from matters closer to home. Hook Norton’s pubs will remain, under Staley, “a cornerstone of the business”.

“This industry has got incredible competition and on the tied estate we’ve got to up our game to be successful,” he says. “It’s important that we establish a name for consistency and quality and make the most of it. We’ve still got work to do on that — to maintain and develop sites, to get a strategy in place for each pub.

“We’ve closed very few. Inevitably we have sites where the trading patterns have changed, sites that are no longer viable, but it’s a very small number. Those pubs that are invested in will survive.”

Three pub developments will be completed by the end of this year says Staley who believes that around half of the estate has the potential to be developed within the five-year plan.

An acquisition programme is also under way.

“We want to go into market towns within a 50-mile radius of the brewery and pick up individual sites at the rate of one or two a year,” he says. “We are looking at market towns because you can have a good passing trade, so there’s less risk, and they have the kind of pubs that can sell 200 barrels a year plus, which helps keep the mash tuns going. We’re already talking to major pub groups about making acquisitions.

“The key, then, is recruitment, recruiting the right people for the right pubs. We’ve found we’re attracting experienced licensees looking for a different lifestyle. We’ve taken on three or four lately at the end of their career with big branded operations who want five years or so running a tenancy. They’ve got the skills and the disciplines that are right for our business.

“And you also need entrepreneurs and young couples new to the trade. We might look at managed houses after the five years. But at the moment we’ve got to get the tenancies right so we’re focusing on that — the right licensees, training, developing the sites and a support package.

“A lot of our pubs are village pubs and we need to support them and give them help with sourcing suppliers.”

The experience Staley brings to Hook Norton he believes makes for “a perfect marriage” with the family’s brewing heritage, and he’s certainly not short of admiration for his partner.

“The fantastic thing about James is that he’s an amazing brewer! Look at the awards he’s won. It’s exciting to develop a new brand with him. But I’m used to working in unison with families, of course.

“I’m not saying it’s easy. We are spending a lot of money and our next set of results will reflect that. It hurts but you’ve got to do it.

“And I love working here. Everyone in the business is passionate, from the draymen to telesales. It’s humbling in a way — and that’s
not bullshit.

“I couldn’t work for a big company again. The thing about family brewers is that they’re always looking to the next generation. It’s not about immediate gains. Clearly I need results. But I recognise, too, that we have to work for the future.”

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