The Big Interview: A calling to the south-west Kevin Georgel had to answer

By Gary Lloyd

- Last updated on GMT

Up for a challenge: Kevin Georgel believes there's plenty more highlights to come with St Austell Brewery
Up for a challenge: Kevin Georgel believes there's plenty more highlights to come with St Austell Brewery

Related tags St austell brewery Kevin Georgel Beer Cornwall Big Interview

Pubco stalwart Kevin Georgel spent 13 years commuting across the country for work because he didn’t want to uproot his family from their settled home in the south-west of England.

However, a move back to Cornwall for work has led to a permanent return to his family and he couldn’t be enjoying his life more.

Georgel joined the sector in 1996 and at what was Bass Brewery, which went on to become Molson Coors as a territory sales manager selling beer.

He went on to have a variety of sales roles within Molson Coors and, in 2003, a burning desire to get more involved with pubs was realised when he joined Punch Taverns as one of its 16 regional directors, covering areas in the south-west of England.

In 2007, he was promoted to operations director for Punch Taverns so began running all of those 16 regions across the country.

Three years or so later, he was approached to join a management team that was being put together by Lloyds Bank to “deliver a turnaround strategy for Admiral Taverns because Lloyds Bank had done a debt-for-equity restructuring of that business”.

Georgel adds: “I was asked to join as managing director, which I did in 2010 then, in 2013, I was appointed chief executive of Admiral Taverns.

“In 2015, I joined the board of St Austell Brewery as a non-executive director and in 2017, I joined the board of the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA) and, in January 2020, I was appointed CEO of St Austell Brewery so I left Admiral Taverns in 2019.

I can feel the emotion welling up now

“In November 2020, I joined the board of Shepherd Neame as a non-executive director, which is a role I still hold today. And then in December 2021, I was appointed chairman of the BBPA, which I was a role I did for two years and stepped down in December 2023.”

On his and his family’s home base, he says the family moved up to Burton he was with Molson Coors and when he became regional director at Punch Taverns for the south-west, the family moved back to “what was sort of our home in the south-west”.

“I didn’t believe I could move them again,” he explains. “So I then spent 13 years commuting away from home during the years I was at Admiral Taverns and doing the national role at Punch.

“We did move but not perhaps as much as you might think with those areas roles. I took the decision that the family were better with roots and a base here and me doing all the travelling.”

Publican Awards are highlights

Having worked at such prestigious businesses he has been “very lucky and blessed” to have had a number of highlights.

He says: “I’m sure will be plenty more to come yet but when you get recognition from your peers is the ultimate sort of accolade and winning Leased & Tenanted Pub Company of the Year​ three times in six with Admiral was a real highlight.

“There were some challenges there and we were running a turnaround strategy so that recognition through The Publican Awards​ is a highlight definitely.

“In a similar vein, winning a Publican Award in March with St Austell for Best Accommodation Operator​, was also real highlight because that acknowledgement reflects all of the hard work, all the blood, sweat and tears and investment the team put in and the ultimate highlight is when you see your team getting due recognition for they’ve done and delivered, and what they’re doing.”

At the nadir, and probably no great surprise, was Covid. Georgel says: “Having been the CEO of St Austell for only eight weeks to then have to close all of our wonderful pubs for the first time in 170 years, through world wars, plagues and everything else. It was deeply impactful for me. I absolutely love pubs and shutting those doors and the impact on the people, the teams, the communities was quite emotional.

“I can feel the emotion welling up now thinking about it and pouring away millions of pints of beer as well, which we had to do, in the following weeks that our teams had crafted just being tipped down the drains was another real low point.”

Hope & Anchor, Hope Cove
Epic scene: St Austell site the Hope & Anchor is located in Hope Cove

Explaining more about balancing his work and family life, he describes it as a “real challenge”.

“I’m always respectful and envious of those that do it well – and I don’t. My wife would say I’m not brilliant at it and I probably have to agree with her,” Georgel states.

“I worked away from home for 13 years, I’ve got four children and I didn’t see that much of them over those years.

“The move back to the south to take the amazing opportunity at St Austell was obviously even sweeter because it enabled me to come back and live at home, which I’ve now been doing for four years and that clearly helps in creating a better work-life balance.”

Being able I can get home to his own bed, even if it’s late at night, and to be in his own environment with his family “makes life an awful lot better”.

He adds that this also helps him as a business leader because being with his family in his own home has many positive impacts.

Responsibility and pressure

Of course, pressure is natural for CEOs in the sector and Georgel is not averse to feeling it.

He admits it is present if the business is not performing as he’d want it to and is not hitting its numbers.

He adds: “Beyond that – and a bit more deeply – the most pressure I feel is around ensuring we do right by our people. What I mean by that is, if your team is in a good place, if motivation is strong, if people are positive about working for the company then all of the other pressures are sort of manageable.

“I feel the pressure to ensure our people are looked after, are positive, see a future, feel motivated, feel rewarded, feel they can develop – all of those things is where I try to focus a lot of my energy and with that comes responsibility and pressure.”

He continues: “I never actually aspired to be a CEO. That wasn’t my journey or my experience. I found myself becoming a CEO through circumstance and feel very fortunate to have done that. The one thing that surprises me as a CEO is people seem to think or expect you know everything.

“And I find that quite surprising because the reality is you don’t and, importantly, nor should you.

“I would say my role is to surround myself with really talented people and to create an environment in which they can perform at their best by supporting them, encouraging them, providing clarity and motivating them.

“Clearly, there’s technical components to the role, etc. but fundamentally that’s the role of the leader and have a clear plan as where we’re trying to go.”

St Austell Brewery beer brands
Cheers to the beers: St Austell's range

If beginning again from scratch, Georgel says he would invest more time trying to find a better work-life balance and possibly looking after himself a little bit better.

He says the industry has a sound bite of ‘work hard, play hard’ and even though it is a “wonderful industry” he’d try to get that balance a little bit better.

On regrets he says if he thought really long and hard, he’d think of some but is a person who “rarely looks back”.

“All my thinking is looking forward,” he says. “So I rarely spend energy or time thinking about the past because regrets are fairly worthless – you can’t do anything about it.”

Proud moments for the St Austell chief include being elected as chairman of the British Beer & Pub Association and supporting CEO Emma McClarkin and her team in championing the cause of the industry in what were very difficult times between 2021 and 2023.

He explains: “It was a proud moment but clearly it was a fairly daunting moment in terms of that responsibility. I was very proud to give something back to the industry and be asked to do that by your peers.

“A close second would be being in the shortlist of candidates for Business Leader of the Year at The Publican Awards. I didn’t get it, by the way, Rooney Anand won it but I was in the final four.”

Always be honest, be absolutely authentic and trust the people you’re working with

And to that extent, Georgel offers advice to those embarking on working adulthood.

He says: “I do talk to my son, who’s starting out in his career and I’m going to tell you what I say to him.

“Focus on enjoying your work first and foremost because if you’re enjoying it, you’re likely to be successful and do the job you’re currently doing to the absolute best of your abilities, don’t start looking too far ahead, just focus on doing the job you’re doing today to the absolute best of your abilities.

“If you do that, you will progress and then you start again. My journey to CEO has been very much: get a job, do it to the best of my abilities, somebody taps me on the shoulder and says ‘we think you might be able to do a bigger job’ and then you start that job and do that to the best of your abilities. And so it goes on.

“And always be honest, be absolutely authentic and trust the people you’re working with.”

Rising Sun St Mawes external
Beauty spot: the Rising Sun in St Mawes

He believes that being healthier can lead to him being a better leader – and sleep deprivation is an issue for him.

Georgel explains: “I am increasingly conscious of my own health and I’m not getting any younger but I am trying to look after myself a little better.

“A healthy leader or a healthier leader is a better leader but it’s fair to say that is a work in progress.

“Specifically, I’m a terrible sleeper so I’m trying to get more sleep and the point is, if you are tired, you simply don’t make the best decisions, so looking after yourself and really focusing on sleep means if you’re getting good sleep and you’re fresh, you’re going to make better decisions as a leader.

“I go off to sleep very quickly but then I wake up and I can’t get back to sleep because my brain is just constantly churning so I’m trying to find strategies and tactics to mitigate that.

“In recent years, I’ve got back into reading and that was something I got out of the habit of doing. I did a lot when I was younger, and reading keeps your brain active and it gives your brain an escape from work and it can help stimulate creative thinking, which is a requirement of all great leaders.”

Highly supportive team

A sense of togetherness no matter which company you work for is strong within the hospitality sector and not usually present in other sectors.

Georgel says: “In our industry there’s a real strong sense of camaraderie among my peers that doesn’t exist in many industries. We’re fortunate that we have that camaraderie and I’m lucky I can count on other CEOs as personal friends.

“That enables you to chat through some of the challenges and it definitely makes it less lonely.

“Equally, I’m blessed to have a brilliant and highly supportive team around me that I can confide in and a really supportive board so I’m not going to deny there are moments where it can feel quite lonely but they are few and far between.

“People see sector first and company second so there’s a lot of support for championing the sector and that means there’s more collaboration.”

And this leads to the fact he is happy to offer advice to other operators and brewers. “The critical thing I would give advice on is to set an absolutely crystal clear vision for the business – yes, there’s all the strategy and detail – but have a really clear and compelling vision to where you want the business to be and then be forensically focused on staying true to that vision,” he says.

“Surround yourself with really talented people, look after them, reward them and be bold.

“When I look at businesses that have grown, very often what you find is they had a really clear vision for what they wanted to achieve, why they wanted to achieve it and then they have all the plans that underpin it but without that clear vision, everything gets a bit more challenging.”

Masons Arms, Branscombe
Room with a view: the Masons Arms in Branscombe

The three qualities a good leader should have, according to Georgel, are authenticity, high emotional intelligence & integrity and personal energy.

Indeed, he states what great leadership means: “Over our careers we’ve all landed on our favoured definitions of leadership but the one I’ve stuck with not from a particularly inspiring leader but a very successful one and that’s Warren Buffett.

“His leadership is about having a clear vision for how things could be and the ability to articulate how to get there and the best leaders do this, and in addition, they surround themselves with talented people, they trust them and they look after them – and, to me, that encapsulates what excellent leadership is.”

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