Just shy of 150 years ago, George and Susannah Bateman founded what would become George Bateman and Sons, to supply Lincolnshire farmers who paid their land workers in beer, money and crops.
Though Batemans no longer remunerates in pints or produce – the family brewer-cum-operator of some 50 pubs across the east of England managed to pay its first ever company bonus in February and forecast a record year for both production and profit during 2020 according to current managing director Stuart Bateman.
Yet within weeks, Batemans had embarked on what would become an unprecedented year for altogether different reasons as its pubs joined the rest of the UK on-trade in calling last orders amid the spread of Covid-19.
Having overcome “massive problems” such as potential bankruptcy and threats to its independence since the beermaker’s inception in 1874 – not to mention Spanish flu in 1918 – the novel coronavirus pandemic has thrown Batemans from the cusp of breaking records into “survival mode” once more.
"We are quite a fortunate company we have a very strong asset base and a low borrowing-based balance sheet,” Bateman tells The Morning Advertiser (MA). “So we are quite well set, as it were, for the future.
"We definitely have no pubs that are going to close for good,” he adds. “The rent concessions we have given is approaching £1m but we're here for the long term, not for short term profit, so I think all of our pubs will come out of this – for which we've had to give them an enormous amount of support.”
‘We’re not being punished’
Rather than the record figures forecast by Bateman, pub numbers reported over the past 12 months make for far less pleasant reading than had been hoped in February.
According to Government data analysis by real estate adviser Altus Group, some 446 pubs closed for good during 2020 – roughly one every 20 hours – while CGA revealed the wider hospitality sector saw sales plummet by more than £50bn as a symptom of the ongoing pandemic.
However, despite operators chomping at the bit to resume trade and pump some much needed funds into their depleted coffers, Bateman implores publicans and politicians not to rush the reopening process.
"There has been a big push to get pubs opened as soon as possible again,” he says. “I understand that, I just urge a little bit of caution.
“We have to learn from the fact the Government makes knee-jerk decisions,” Bateman continues. “I know they're in a difficult situation, but the first time they reopened on 4 July the industry asked for six weeks’ notice and we were given about five days.
“We're not being punished – it's a worldwide pandemic affecting millions,” he adds. “What we have to be absolutely sure of is that once pubs reopen that they're reopened indefinitely because I think if there's a false dawn and we open too early and then close again four or five weeks later due to a resurgence, that's going to be absolutely catastrophic.
“Yes, let's get open as soon as possible, but let's not push it in terms of being open too early.”
What’s more, while the pub sector has spent a reported half-a-billion pounds on Covid-precautions over the past year, and the industry is – in Bateman’s opinion – well practiced at reopening quickly and safely, he states that stirring staff from long layoffs will be a key challenge.
“On the whole, the hospitality industry did a bloody good job putting the precautions in place, training their staff, getting procedures in place to make customers feel as safe as possible – we have to address that again,” he says.
“We have to make sure that people are motivated, prepared and in a lot of instances there will have to be training as well, people won't have been doing their jobs for 12 months if not more.
“People are going to be taken from zero up to 100% overnight and they've got to be mentally ready and motivated to take on the tasks that are ahead of them.”
‘A bloody resilient lot’
By the time Bateman, who joined the family business as assistant managing director in the mid 1980s following a pupillage at Mansfield Brewery, spoke to The MA in January 2021 having endured close to a year of Covid-closure, just five members of the brewery’s 45 staff members were at work.
“Those people have no job satisfaction,” he says. “They've lost the camaraderie, the banter – how do we keep them confident for the future, how do we keep up their morale? How do we keep up their sense of belonging? We've really had to look at the ways in which we're communicating with people and what we're communicating to them.
"Furlough has been really important but it's going to be difficult for people on furlough to suddenly have to get into the discipline of going back to work again,” he continues, “especially when you've got drivers and draymen that load up and take out about seven or eight tonnes of goods a day. That's a serious physical task, so we're just trying to prepare people and keep them motivated and do as much as we can for their mental health ready for them actually coming back to work.”
Yet despite the hardship, Bateman describes both his brewery staff and the tenants at his company’s 50 pubs as a “bloody resilient lot” and claims whinging and moaning haven’t been among his operators’ Covid symptoms despite months of closure in the rear-view mirror and uncertainly and restricted trade ahead.
“All they want to talk about is 'shall we do this, shall we do that, shall we do the other' – there's not very much talk of 'it's not fair on us', they're just looking on the whole at their businesses,” he says.
“This has been an opportunity for publicans to actually step back and have a look at their business. Pub business – those that survive – will come out stronger and even more resilient.”
‘People are your business’
Like his publicans, Bateman explains that the Covid crisis has encouraged him to shine a “flashlight” all over the family business – even its historic bricks, mortar and treasured 18th century windmill – in an attempt to futureproof the near-150-year-old operation.
“So as far as the brewery's concerned, we are looking at all the buildings we have on site and how can we actually convert those into holiday letting cottages,” he tells The MA. “We will end up with holiday lettings on this site, probably a dozen different holiday cottages which will include our brewery windmill.”
Yet, while founder George Bateman would – according to historic accounts – check the temperature of a brew by sticking his elbow into the mash tun, the fourth generation Bateman currently running things believes it’s going to take more than elbow grease to emerge in a strong post-pandemic position.
“The major difference on this is I've always been a big believer that the harder you work the better the quality of your decisions, the better your people, the better you lead, the more chance you've got of success – that doesn't quite apply now because things are out of our hands,” he says.
“I think for senior people in organisations the further up the tree you get, the more people can look up your trouser leg – but if you're not up to the stress and the strain of it then you shouldn't be leading a business in a pandemic.
“What is so different here is that, in business you always, always have to look after your people because people are your business.”