“I like the Patek Philippe analogy,” says Oliver Robinson, referring to the luxury watch brand, “not that I own one, we need to sell more beer! But you never actually own a Patek Philippe, you’re merely borrowing it for the next generation.”
It’s that sense of legacy and expectation which is pushing the two cousins to ensure they are positioning their family’s nearly 200-year-old business, Frederic Robinson in Stockport, Cheshire, so future generations can continue to build on that heritage.
179 - years old (and counting)
6 - generations of the same Robinsons family
11 - family members active in the business
280 - pubs across Cheshire, Derbyshire, Lancashire, Cumbria and North Wales (270 tenanted and 10 managed)
£68.3m - Turnover (year ending 31 December 2016)
8 - core brands
13 - bottled beers
To do that, the joint MDs are determined to look towards the future and adapt the business to meet the changing needs of the modern sector. “It’s always been about moving forward,” says William. “You need to look at the changes of the previous generation, how they evolved to meet the times, and if we can continue to do the same, that will bring long-term success.
“The last thing you do is say ‘because we’ve always done it that way’ or this is rigidly what we do, because then there’s only one way you’ll go and that’s backwards. The question then is at what speed you’ll go backwards.”
“When I started,” chips in Oliver, “we had two lager lines, Carling and Tenants, and we revolutionised that by changing to Grolsch! Now though, we’ve got 18 pouring lagers on offer – we’re constantly evolving and we know it will be quite different today than it is in a year’s time, or 10 year’s time, and will be when William and I have done our time.”
And there’s been considerable change in the business in the past few years, change which has seen the company build an entirely new brewhouse, create an award-winning visitor centre, tie up with a couple of major rock bands and start sinking some serious investment into their 280-strong pub estate across the north-west of England.
“In the last six years we’ve focused the business a lot around investment,” says William, who looks after the pub operations. “We’ve been investing in our tenanted estate, moving some into managed – I guess a continuation of what we were doing, but a stepped change in pace.”
And a step up it has been – in the past three years, the company has been putting significant cap-ex investments into 20 pubs each year. “And that’s something we aim to continue doing,” adds William. “The core of our business is around our tenanted pubs and a lot of what we are doing is to support our licensees in the best way we can.”
He says the shift into managed operations – the company now operates 10 managed houses within its portfolio – is not at the expense of its tenanted business. “We’ve got a really good core of great licensees, and we’ve spent a lot of time investing in them and investing in their future.” He also points to the opportunity to learn lessons from within the managed operations, which can be rolled out into the tenanted sector, and vice versa.
When it comes to investment, with around £2m being spent each year on front-of-house developments, the company is keen to ensure it is targeting that spend well and there is no one-size-fits-all approach, he says. “We always look at how things would work with the licensee and the pub first, and then about us as a business.” There’s no bias towards a certain kind of pub either. “We’ll invest in the small wet-led community pub, and the premium, holistic ones as well. We’re doing investments with licensees who’ve been in the business for 20 years – they’re nervous, but they trust us.”
He acknowledges that the investment follows on from a contraction in the size of the Robinsons estate, but says it has been a good thing for the business. “We, like other brewers, have contracted our estate over a number of years, and make no apologies for that. We now have a stronger, long-term estate that’s better invested, and allows licensees to generate a good level of income themselves.
“As a family brewer going back six generations, we’re able to look over a longer horizon than other businesses.”
Relationships with tenants
That ethos shows in the length of relationships with their tenants, running on average to around nine years. Oliver says that’s down to the amount of added value the company can offer, both for tenants and it’s free-trade customers.
“We’re fully vertically integrated, we’ve got our own drayman, our own tech service guys – it’s about added value, they know when they deal with us they get full service. It’s not about who can supply you with the cheapest beer. If that’s what people want, we’re not the right partner – it’s not what we’re about.”
That approach, the level of investment and attention to detail, is paying off for Robinsons and is helping to attract the right kind of talent into the business, the right tenants and the right staff internally.
Oliver adds: “Of all the investment we’re making in our pubs, brewery and people, people is the key one.
“We’re attracting great licensees and great managers because of investments, but also the support we’ve got behind those and the work we’re doing with our beers and brands to support that.
“People are knocking on our door because we’ve got a great reputation for pubs and beer, but it is also the people who support all that.”
Shaking things up
It’s not just about the pubs, of course – innovation needs to run throughout the entire business. So, as a family brewer with a long heritage, are they shaking things up when it comes to the liquid?
Yes, says Oliver. “Craft beer has been brilliant for our industry and shows that you can’t stand still. We’ve had to react to what else is happening in the marketplace, so a couple of years ago we started creating white label beers, brewing 60 barrels of something, and when it’s gone, it’s gone. That’s really helped support some of our NPD.
“But we believe we’re the original craft beers – there’s nothing more craft than cask ale.”
However, he says the emphasis on innovation has helped push the business to evolve its portfolio of beers. “You used to go to the pub and you’d have a bitter or a mild or a pint of mixed in a pot, and that was your choice. But now people are seeking something different.
“Eighty per cent of men used to know what they wanted when they came into the pub. Now, they often don’t know what it is until they get to the bar.”
Iron Maiden collaboration
And when it comes to beer, Robinsons has enjoyed massive success with its collaboration with rock veterans Iron Maiden and the creation of Trooper beer with frontman Bruce Dickinson.
“It’s been a phenomenal success for us,” says Oliver. “When we had this concept five years ago, people didn’t think it would have credibility, but the success is down to Bruce, he’s been in the lab, looking at the hops. He’s very passionate and engaged in what we’re doing, and the fans and the consumers get that.”
The deal with Iron Maiden came about following a similar tie-up with another huge band, Elbow. Having brewed a beer with Elbow called “Build a Rocket Boys”, they suddenly found Iron Maiden’s management team getting in touch.
“A fortnight later, we met them in London, and a week after that Bruce was up in Stockport brewing with us!
“They’d talked to other brewers that brewed bigger volumes, but when he spoke to us, he said it was the first job interview he’d had in years. He felt like he was on trial! We asked whether he was serious about brewing a cask beer, it wasn’t just about putting the name on a bottle, because we’re not into that. Because we challenged him, he was really into that.”
Five years later, the beer is flying out the door and is currently being exported worldwide to more than 55 countries. Essentially, where the band tours, Trooper pours!
Brand extensions have also played an important role in that, with the company collaborating further with Dickinson to create limited editions to the range.
The latest extension is the launch of Hallowed, a blonde beer made with Belgian yeast – the first time the company has brought in such a yeast to the brewery.
“It looks completely different to the other Troopers, previously they’ve been quite similar. This is a different liquid and label,” says Oliver, and he’s not the only one excited about the product. Dickinson himself recently spoke at the British Beer & Pub Association’s annual awards and took the opportunity to promote the new product!
William says the credibility of the beer and the product is without doubt. “It’s not a marketing ploy, it’s not a gimmick and Bruce is a great ambassador for it.”
So, the company is in a good position, it’s investing strongly, growing a fledgling managed arm, and hitting all the right notes with its product range.
Challenges to be met
They are not immune to the wider difficulties the sector faces and recognise the challenges that have to be met, but William says the business remains optimistic about the future. “Yes, the trade is going to have challenges, let’s not kid ourselves, but I’m optimistic about pubs. They remain the third-biggest reason people come to the UK.”
He points to growing automation in places such as McDonald’s, and says pubs can offer a different approach. “People want a connected experience and while that will be a challenge for us [in the face of Brexit and rising wage costs] we need to focus on better training and better engagement.
“If we can continue to improve on that whole hospitality piece and continue to get it right, then the pub has a bright future.”