The arrival of McDowall into the top job of the UK’s largest pubco took many by surprise and the move was impressively shrouded in secrecy. The fact his predecessor in the role, Simon Longbottom, who along with chairman Ian Payne was one of the key architects of the business, was stepping down was shock enough, but few expected his successor to come from the scrappy upstarts north of the border.
But McDowall, until recently a key player in the BrewDog march to craft beer domination, saw it as a move from one market disruptor to another. “I see it as that way, I think this business [Stonegate] has been a disruptor over the years, so the move is really exciting.
“The Stonegate business has been really innovative over the years, there’s always been this really healthy restlessness and curiosity, and I can relate to that.”
But leaving behind BrewDog, a business in which he, along with the co-founders Martin Dickie and James Watt had built into a hospitality powerhouse, must have been a wrench?
“It was really hard to move on,” he admits. “You know that bit when you've been such an important part of building something that's quite that special. [BrewDog] is a true UK business success story.
“And we'd been through all of the highs and lows of building that together and built quite a phenomenal leadership team. It was hard, and it was always going to take a really special opportunity for me to move away from BrewDog. I’d had plenty of opportunities to do that. But this was the one that really I couldn't pass up.
“This was the job that I've always wanted, without a shadow of a doubt. So for me, it was always about pubs, and it was always about the opportunity to lead at scale. What better match can you find than this job?”
Like many in the sector, McDowall’s pub career started unintentionally. “My pub story began when I was 18, working in a pub in Glasgow, and like most people it was accidental. So to find myself, 25 years later, running the biggest pub company in the UK is a responsibility I don’t take lightly, that’s for sure.”
Having studied marketing at university, he then found himself on the Bass Leisure Retail Management Development programme and that moved him from the bar to management, running sites, before moving onto running restaurants for a number of independents in Glasgow.
His career trajectory started to rise rapidly shortly after he joined the G1 Group in Glasgow as a GM, and he quickly progressed through the ranks there and he spent six years on the board as group operations director.
“And then I had a beer with James from BrewDog,” he says with a smile. “We got on like a house on fire.”
He quickly signed up to the BrewDog juggernaut and initially was tasked with leading the growth of the company’s bar operations. “I spent the first three or four years taking that from, I think it was nine at that time to over 100.”
The remaining four years in the business saw him step into the role of group chief operating officer, overseeing the day to day running of the commercial wholesale international supply chain.
“That was brilliant, because it gave me some real breadth that really tested my leadership approach as well.”
And while he may now be in his dream job those skills and experiences will now need to be brought to bear as McDowall faces his toughest challenge yet, running the UK’s largest pubco.
He takes on the role at an interesting time. Stonegate, the plucky young upstart established by Payne, had, just before the world was turned upside down, taken the unexpected step of buying the UK’s biggest pub operations, Ei Group, taking the business from around 700 or so managed pubs, to almost 5,000.
And then Covid hit.
So to say that McDowall is inheriting a role that’s at something of a cross roads is a bit of an understatement.
He smiles. “Listen, we don’t need to look too hard for where the opportunities are, but the foundations of what this business does are very strong and that’s a great starting point. The team that run this business are incredibly capable and that’s another pillar of why will continue to be successful.”
He points to the opportunities to convert pubs from leased and tenanted to managed, or operator led formats. “They offer an opportunity to think about the evolution of all our different brands and formats and that is really exciting - I want to focus the team on the things that truly add value.
“We should be at the forefront of what's next for the sector as well, and continue to challenge ourselves to innovate, and there is a huge willingness within the team to think differently and to evolve. It's been constantly moving since Ian and TDR founded this thing, and we need to keep up that mindset for sure.”
He says simplicity is going to be key. “Simplicity of focus, a real focus on the guest and the end experience, a focus on digital innovation and a focus, more broadly, on innovation as well. Not that the business hasn’t done those things, but certainly, we can amplify.”
He says that focus is perhaps an area that has been lacking in the past. “We tried to do a lot of stuff in Stonegate, we tried to do too many things at once. One of our value is that we’re raring to go, and sometimes that manifests itself in that we’ve not been particularly focused on our approach.
“So one thing that is clear is that there's an opportunity just to continue to remind the business that fundamentally we exist to give the guests a great experience. So I think we're working hard and just having a really focused and simple strategy and having the consumer, the guest, at the forefront of our thinking at all times.”
He says one of the key strengths he’s found within the business is its culture. “The first thing that always sprang to mind for me on Stonegate was the culture of learning and development within the organisation. Bar to boardroom, as Ian would say. And we need to ferociously protect that because we don't just talk the talk on that, this business actually does it.
“And there are so many hundreds of brilliant stories out there of people who have built meaningful careers in this organisation, and I want us to continue to ensure that our people strategy is at a true cornerstone of the business.”
While there’s the clear opportunity to reposition pubs within the estate, McDowall says leased and tenanted pubs remain an important part of the mix. “I have been absolutely fascinated by our leased and tenanted businesses and inspired, actually, by the success stories that are out there, which I don't think we talk about in terms of that model incidentally.
“Some of our best pubs are leased and tenanted pubs, and some of the best pubs in the country, are L&T pubs and we're proud to own a chunk of pubs under that model.”
Digital innovation is something McDowall mentions repeatedly, and he agrees with the idea that pubs have been behind the curve when it comes to technology. “But that's just an exciting place to be as there is lots of opportunity. I would say that, overall, at times, it feels like the pub sector has been a little worried that by looking at digital adoption and technology, we may strip some of the hospitality out of the experience.
“Whereas our mindset has got to be how do we use digital and technology to add more hospitality into the experience. And I'm excited about what we can do in that regard. There's loads to come on that for us over the next year or so.”
When it comes to the wider industry issues, he agrees there needs to be a reform of business rates. “I think there’s no doubt about that,” but he says its important the industry maintains a united and consistent voice on that and issues like VAT. “A consistent and clear voice for the sector is one of the best outputs of the whole Covid situation, and we need to use that to our advantage in the months and years ahead.”
While there are plenty of challenges, McDowall remains optimistic: “We've got to be reaching a point where consumer confidence starts to feel a little bit more positive. I think that we, as a sector, is relatively resilient through difficult financial periods. And, we see in things like Craft Union, the popularity of and the importance to communities of a great local pub. So I think we're cautiously optimistic, given all of those things.
He adds the pandemic did offer some silver linings. “When we were closed, it reminded people of how much they loved their local pub or bar, and for me, it really deepened that connection.
“We talk the sector down a little bit, and the media talks the sector down a little bit at times. But what’s truly important is that our guests feel a genuine connection with what we do, and I think that’s deeper than ever, and that’s the important bit, right?”