Exit interview

St Austell to pass 200-pub mark in 'next few years'

By Stuart Stone

- Last updated on GMT

Proper Job: 'I absolutely have been conscious of the fact I’ve been born with a silver spoon in my mouth – but that has made me work twice as hard throughout my career because I’ve been so chippy about it'
Proper Job: 'I absolutely have been conscious of the fact I’ve been born with a silver spoon in my mouth – but that has made me work twice as hard throughout my career because I’ve been so chippy about it'

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Having joined the company as an apprentice, St Austell Brewery’s CEO James Staughton officially bows out on 31 January after an impressive four decades at its helm. Here he shares a slice of his Cornish past.

At the age of 21, James Staughton was delivering wine and meat around London by day and DJ-ing at a travelling discotheque by night. So, naturally, the next step was to up sticks, move to Cornwall, and embark on what would become a 40-year stint at a brewery founded in 1851 by his great-great grandfather Walter Hicks.

Having joined St Austell’s wine and spirits arm in 1980, Staughton was appointed managing director in 2000 and chief executive in 2015.

“When I was 16, my father, who at the time was a non-executive director of the brewery – later to become the chairman – spoke to me to see whether I was interested in principle in joining,” he recalls.

“At that time, I didn’t want to follow my father’s career as a solicitor – far too much paperwork involved – didn’t really fancy the army and wasn’t an academic as such so the brewery seemed the best idea. Of course, at 16 you barely know what you’re signing up to.”

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On top of the early “shock to the system” that moving from eclectic ’80s London to Cornwall served up, Staughton adds that his career at St Austell was underpinned by the added pressure of being the latest family face through the door.

“I’ve had a chip on my shoulder for life,” he laughs. “I absolutely have been conscious of the fact I’ve been born with a silver spoon in my mouth – but that has made me work twice as hard throughout my career because I’ve been so chippy about it and I’ve always tried to prove that I was as good as anyone else who could do this job.

“Even though I got it offered to me as a family member, I wanted to prove that what I did with it was on merit. That’s been a lifelong ambition and I hope I’ve gone some way to reassuring people that I might be family but I’ve been prepared to work very hard for the company.”

Intense modern competition

The beery benefits of ‘brand Cornwall’

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Fronted by flagship brew Tribute, St Austell’s contemporary beer offer boasts award winners such as Proper Job IPA and Korev Lager. What’s more, as of 2016, the Cornish brewer has worked in tandem with Bath Ales – based at the state-of-the-art Hare Brewery since 2018.

However, Staughton remembers inheriting a company whose reputation for beer was “pretty rock bottom”.

“When I became chief executive it was, to me, a huge shame that was the case and I set about trying to turn that around as I was almost embarrassed by it as a family member,” he recalls.

However, the transformation of St Austell’s beer business – establishing a successful track record against a tide of adverse market conditions – is arguably the greatest success story of Staughton’s time at the helm according to the man himself, and part of a wider win for the brewery’s home county.

“One of my highlights was that, in 2000, we were brewing 15,000 barrels and in 2019 we have brewed over 150,000 barrels – albeit with a contribution from Bath Ales,” Staughton states.

“What’s been so nice and where the Cornish brand has been very strong, is that Sharp’s and Doom Bar have done the same and gone even to greater heights – yet we’re only 20 miles apart. It’s fairly unique that two breweries in the same county have increased their sales and market share to such a degree but not to the detriment of each other – it’s a great story for Cornwall.”

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Figures from Visit Cornwall reveal the county currently has around 4.5m visitors a year and the industry is worth £1.5bn – expected to increase by a further half billion before 2030. According to Staughton, the county’s reputation for hospitality has offered an invaluable platform.

“Even if you’ve never been here, people talk positively about Cornwall and the Cornish experience,” he says. “We’re obviously very fortunate to have a fantastic coastline and great natural assets – that gives you a great starting point. With the likes of chefs like Rick Stein, that positive message of Cornwall gets out with books and TV. When people see a Cornish product they will instinctively want to try it and once you’ve had that opportunity then it’s over to the product to deliver time and time again to that expectation. That you can’t buy.

“In the past 20 years, we’ve gone onwards and upwards in line with Cornwall’s reputation in the fact that it’s cool – though ‘cool’ is not a cool word anymore. It’s ‘on trend’ or whatever term you want to describe it. It enjoys a very positive image and that’s a huge start point. Doom Bar has benefited in the same way and been taken on through bigger owners and distribution and obviously become the best-selling real ale in the country.”

On 31 January, Staughton will retire as CEO of the employer of more than 1,500 people and operator of more than 175 pubs and hotels across the south-west and take on the honorary role of company president and continue to offer support in an ambassadorial capacity.

His successor, Kevin Georgel – a nonexecutive board member at St Austell for four years, and formerly of Admiral Taverns and Punch – will inherit a business drastically different to the one Staughton joined in 1980.

“We were fortunate in the 1980s that the clay, fishing and tin mining industries

were all very manual, labour intensive work and created a huge thirst for the many thousands of people they employed,” he remembers. “Pubs, to a degree, were fortunate enough to be able to simply open the doors, smile and serve beer. They weren’t worried about food or the standard of menu.

“Of course, for people in those days the alternatives for spending your leisure pounds were extremely limited. Now, there are just so many things you can do with your spare time meaning the competition is intense at any level whether it’s just staying at home or in the pub. That’s where the world has changed so dramatically – the opportunities consumers have now got compared to back in the ’80s where it was very limited. The pub trade has had to adapt.”

St Austell

Offering something different

“Not unexpectedly, and quite rightly, consumers have become ever more demanding in what they pay their hard earned cash for – they want five-star value for one-star prices,” Staughton continues. “The challenge for us is that that’s clearly undeliverable.” But what does Staughton feel has created unrealistic consumer expectations of his business?

“I suppose competition like Wetherspoon offering really competitive prices – and good on them, why not? There’s a huge sector of the market that like that and spend their time at Wetherspoon pubs. We’ve got to offer something different.”

Nevertheless, Staughton forecasts a “great future for good English pubs”.

“They are an institution in their own right and we all know its well documented that visitors to this country love to experience an English pub – and, in our case, to have a good old Cornish pasty in a Cornish pub,” he explains. “The very fact that consumers can benefit in some areas from very competitive prices gets translated into ‘if they can offer it at that price then why can’t everybody?’ but, of course, you can’t because you’re all offering different things.

“Some of our pubs might be hugely iconic buildings that we’ve turned around having been built in the 1700s – like the Chain Locker in Falmouth – and we’ve invested millions to get in tip-top condition. Well the sums don’t add up if we charged Wetherspoon’s retail prices – we’d still be trying to get a return in 25 years’ time.

“It’s not criticism at all, it’s just fact and we’ve had to raise our game to react to that competition. Consumers, of course, are the people who benefit from all of that at the end of the day.”

Threat of JD Wetherspoon

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In his years at the helm, Staughton claims little has given him sleepless nights like the incursions of Tim Martin-led juggernaut JD Wetherspoon into Cornwall, despite being tasked with navigating the choppy waters of the 2008 recession – an experience he claims leaves him optimistic that the trade can emerge from Brexit all guns blazing.

Despite Cornwall’s reputation for sunshine, surfing and sandy beaches, 17 of its neighbourhoods are among the most deprived 10% in the country according to figures from the Office for National Statistics in September 2019, with more than three quarters of neighbourhoods in Cornwall more deprived than the national average.

The pairing of fewer pounds in Cornish pockets with cut-price pints was one Staughton feared could constitute far more than just a shot across the bows.

“That did keep me awake for a night or two thinking ‘blimey – how do we deal with that?’,” he recalls.

“People don’t necessarily have a lot of disposable income and when Wetherspoon opened up with what would appear to be a great business model for our part of the world, I was thinking ‘oh my god, does this mean our particular business model for our pubs is over’. I really did wonder if we’d all have to lower our prices to survive. But that’s competition – all well and good – we have to get on with it and react, which we have, but initially that was a very tangible concern.

“At the end of the day, I’m a huge admirer of their business model, how they go about their work and what they do. They do a remarkable job and they’re good for the industry.”

Alongside JD Wetherspoon, Staughton reserves particular praise for Stonegate Pub Company – “for its strategic growth and well-executed retailing in different formats and sectors” – as well as Young’s and Fuller’s, which he believes have flown the flag for family brewers during his time in the trade.

“I’ve always thought if we got St Austell anywhere close to their reputation, we would have done all right,” he says. “They invest very well, they’re great retailers they have fantastic sites – I hugely admire what they’ve done to grow in a hugely competitive marketplace – the south-east and London.”

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Passing the 200-pub mark

According to Staughton, after investing “very heavily” in its pubs and brewing, the greatest challenge on the horizon for St Austell is to continue getting a return on that investment given all the increasing costs and overheads.

However, somewhat throwing down the gauntlet to his successor, the outgoing CEO adds that he would love to see St Austell fulfil a personal goal “bravely made before the recession” and expand the company’s estate to 200 pubs, including the launch of a flagship “Cornish Embassy” site in London – a project he claims is still very much on the drawing board.

“We’re always going to be very inquisitive and we will get to 200 pubs one day,” he forecasts. “In villages, where we’re ‘over pubbed’, there will be some more fallout sadly, but that’s nothing to do with good operators, that’s just supply and demand.

“We have got a hangover of the number of pubs that served the labour intensive industries wanting their thirst quenched. We are still reflecting that in many communities in Cornwall to this day and there are points at which we just don’t think, as a family company, it’s fair to put tenants into a business we think is going to fail. That’s still happening, it’s single figure pubs, there’s not many of them, but they’re still out there. That will take time to churn through the system then we’ll be back into net acquisitions and I’m absolutely confident that my successor will hit that target of 200 in the next few years.”

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But while Staughton plans to reacquaint himself with more than one type of deck in retirement – “I do a lot of sailing and my crew very generously managed to find some old turntables, so I’ll be turning back to being a DJ again, even if it’s in my own home” – he plans to remain involved with the industry as master brewer of the Worshipful Company of Brewers – a position he’ll ascend to in 2022.

“I won’t miss the emails, but I’ll miss the people, big time, so I’m glad I’ve got a role to play, hopefully in Brewers’ Hall,” he says.

“I’ll still be a very young 61-year-old and still feel I’ve got a lot to offer.”

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