JW Lees ready to expand in 2022

By Gary Lloyd

- Last updated on GMT

A player in many markets: JW Lees operates 42 managed houses and has 96 Pub Partners
A player in many markets: JW Lees operates 42 managed houses and has 96 Pub Partners

Related tags Finance Branding + marketing Pubco + head office Multi-site pub operators Tenanted + leased Beer Cask ale Accommodation

Historic brewer and pub operator JW Lees has hunkered down during the pandemic to concentrate on survival first and foremost but that looks certain to change in the new year.

The Manchester-based business’s managing director William Lees-Jones said: “Since the start of the pandemic, we have focused on survival and this has meant that we have not been doing any acquisitions of capex at all, with cash preservation our number one priority but we are starting to build a pipeline of both developments and acquisitions from 2022 and beyond.

“We think there will be many opportunities and we are already looking at a number [of sites] but we will be patient and even then we will only add sites that sit comfortably within our tight acquisition criteria and perhaps more importantly are sites that we can add value to with the JW Lees brand.”

The company has also been involved in plenty of site acquisitions and disposals over recent years as highlighted within this article.

RESIZED Stanneylands

JW Lees was first established in 1828 but unlike many regional breweries it can genuinely stand the test of still being a family company with just seven shareholders, all members of the fifth and sixth generation of the founder John Lees.

John Lees had founded the brewery when he was in his 50s as a retirement project after being in the textiles business in the 1800s as a ‘manufacturer of fustians, nankeens and jaconets’ with mills in Oldham and Manchester. Middleton Junction was seen to be the perfect location for a brewery, being not just a railway station but also on the Rochdale Canal. It also happens to be adjacent to the M60 and so, for the company, this is still an ideal spot for logistics and distribution into the Northern Powerhouse.

Modern founder

The suffix ‘-Jones’ was added to the Lees name in 1936 when Dick Lees-Jones inherited shares in the company from his uncle John Willie Lees, the grandson of the original founder. 

William Lees-Jones explained: “In many ways Dick Lees-Jones is the modern founder of JW Lees since he bought out all of the other shareholders and reincorporated the company in 1955. He was joined by his sons Richard in 1958 and Christopher in 1961 and both remain directors of the company today, although they stepped down from day-to-day responsibilities more than 20 years ago.”

In 1876, the company’s current brewhouse was built and it brewing remains on the same site in Middleton Junction to this day. William said innovation has always been key to the JW Lees brewing business and it first brewed lager in 1959 – the year after Carlsberg came to the UK and JW Lees brews Carlsberg under licence today as well as its own brands of lager, Original Lager and Manchester Craft Lager.

Similarly with ales, JW Lees Vintage Harvest Ale was first brewed 35 years ago in 1986 and at 11.5% ABV it is the strongest that a beer can be with a natural fermentation and, although it is a niche brand in the UK, it is very successful overseas including distribution in high-end New York City restaurants featuring multiple vintages on their beer lists. And with it selling for US$60 a bottle for a half pint, William said “that makes even London prices for craft beer seem cheap”.

In 2019, the business opened The Boilerhouse – its experimental small-batch 10-barrel brewery that brews “weird and wonderful one-off brews to delight our customers and push our boundaries in terms of new product development”.

JW Lees also owns Willoughby’s Wine Merchants and, during recent years, it has bought a number of regional wines and spirits wholesalers, including Yates Brothers, Duttons of Chester, Scatchard’s, Bushell & Maples and Thomas Baty & Sons, and all of these businesses have now been incorporated into the JW Lees Free Trade business that typically trades with hotels, restaurants, bars, pubs and clubs in the north-west, as well as national accounts and wholesalers who distribute the JW Lees portfolios of beers, wines and spirits.

The modern history of JW Lees is one of “constant improvement and innovation”. However, in pub number terms since 2000, it has added 78 new pubs to its estate, which results in circa two or three pubs per year, while disposing of 108 that the company considered had no long-term future as successful pubs. This has left a very “high-quality estate of pubs, inns and hotels”, which includes 42 managed houses and 96 Pub Partner pubs today. 

10-pub acquisition

The biggest deal JW Lees has completed in recent years was in 2009 when it bought 10 pubs from Punch Taverns and its recent additions include the Bear’s Paw in Sandbach, Chester; the Crown Inn in Lymm; the Frog & Railway in Heaton Chapel, Stockport; and Vale Royal Abbey Arms, in Oakmere, Cheshire, from Greene King in 2017; the Stanneyland’s Hotel, Wilmslow, in 2018 from an independent entrepreneur; the Bluebird, in Samlesbury, Blackburn, from Greene King; the Goshawk, in Mouldsworth​, Chester, from Hydes; the Boot & Shoe, in Lancaster, from Thwaites; the Red Lion, in Withington, from Marston’s; and the new-build Aviator at Woodford from Redrow Homes. 

William Lees-Jones said: “[It’s] one site at a time and it is not an accident that all of the aforementioned sites have had significant £200,000-plus improvements to them since coming into the JW Lees portfolio. Without embarrassing their former owners one of them is now trading at 500% higher levels that before JW Lees bought it.”

Rooms available: the Groes Inn in Wales

He added: “Hotels are increasingly important to us of late and we now have 307 bedrooms in the managed estate and the foundation of this was the Trearddur Bay Hotel and Alderley Edge Hotel, which we used to run individually but are now within the core Hotels & Inns division of the company, along with 12 other sites.

“Our acquisition criteria are simple – we only buy freehold and we look for pubs and hotels that we will want to still own in 50 years’ time. Our geography is simple too – from Crewe to Lancaster and from Holyhead to Holmfirth along the north Wales coast and into Snowdonia with the oldest pub in Wales (500 years) 18-bedroom the Groes Inn, which we bought from a local family owner-operator in 2017.”

In 2019, JW Lees turned over £78m compared to £38m in 2000, including a £67.7m turnover in 2017​.

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