Brewer looks to a sustainable future

In the first of a series of profiles on the winners in the EADT's 2007 Anglian Business Awards, Sarah Chambers speaks to the chairman of Southwold brewer Adnams , which claimed both the Environment award and the overall Business of the Year title.

In the first of a series of profiles on the winners in the EADT's 2007 Anglian Business Awards, Sarah Chambers speaks to the chairman of Southwold brewer Adnams , which claimed both the Environment award and the overall Business of the Year title.

IT'S lucky that Jonathan Adnams' office lies just a pebble's throw from the beach.

The sea has been a central part of his life since he was a young boy growing up in the town, and is within sight and sound of the ancient heart of the Adnams' Southwold brewing operation.

As a young 16-year-old school-leaver fresh from Framlingham College, Jonathan had dreams of making his living at sea and launched himself into his maritime adventure before being hauled back to reality, and eventually into an engineering apprenticeship at the brewery.


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“I wasn't a lover of school. I wanted to get away from school and get fishing,” he says.

Jonathan struck a deal with his father, John, then managing director at Adnams, that if he got at least five O-Levels he could leave school. He surpassed his target, and left to indulge his passion - fishing. He spent about a year as a commercial fisherman, having started fishing out of Southwold harbour at the age of 15, but began to realise he needed to do something more with his life.

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“I got to the point where I thought I really want to do something useful,” he says.

His father was quite keen that he should go into the family estate agency business, and he was sent down to Southampton to study it. But it wasn't an area that suited him, and he was moved instead into something more suited to his practical bent - engineering.

The brewery was expanding at the time, and as he was trained up, he began to realise that he loved what he was doing. “I found my role really there,” he says.

Meantime, he was able to indulge his love of the sea through joining Southwold lifeboat station. During his 27 years' of service, he was called out on many occasions, day or night, in the roughest of seas.

He was promoted to senior helmsman, a position he held for 15 years, and his bravery was recognised with a series of accolades from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

These included the Walter and Elizabeth Groombridge Award for his part in the rescue of fishing vessel Aquamanda II in 1989.

It is a role he misses “hugely”, he admits - he was obliged to retire at the age of 45, at that time the maximum age.

“It's part of the way you live because you are on call 24 hours a day for 27 years. It was a huge wrench and I can't quite get to grips with it now,” he says.

Today, he channels his energy outside of work into sailing, and will often take friends and sometimes clients out on his boat, which he keeps on the River Orwell.

Now aged 83, Jonathan's father, John, still likes in to see how everything is going at the brewery. He retired nearly 20 years ago, but remained on the executive board until his 80th birthday.

Last year, Jonathan, 50, then its managing director, took over the chairmanship of the company from Simon Loftus.

Their two families have been jointly involved in the business for more than a century: George and Ernest Adnams took over the business in 1857. By then, brewing had been going on at the site for at least 400 years, and was first recorded in 1396. The Loftus family joined them in 1901. Today, Adnams is a public company owned by around 1,600 shareholders.

Jonathan certainly served his apprenticeship within the company: from the age of 15, he was delivering beer, and, having joined the company on a full-time basis, worked his way up from the bottom, moving into logistics and distribution as he became familiar with how the company functioned. He eventually joined the board in 1985 as property and pubs director, then in the mid-1990 became managing director.

“I've worked full-time for 32 years, but of course, I worked here in my school holidays before that. My recollections of Adnams go back probably the thick end of 35 years,” he says.

“No one was more surprised I think than me when I was asked to take over as MD,” he adds.

“I don't think it was expected of me. I'm not certain I had any huge ambition, not coming in at 18 - you don't when you're 18, your mind is elsewhere. I lived with my parents at that time but after a couple of years moved to Mill Lane into a cottage.”

For the last 20 years, he has lived out in neighbouring Reydon, and, typical of the unostentatious ethos of the company, bicycles into work every day. His other great loves, outside of sailing and Adnams, are playing the banjo and Lithuania - one of his goals is to learn the language. He was divorced about six or seven years ago and has no children.

Environmental projects on the ambitious scale that Adnams has embarked on don't come cheap.

But Jonathan believes the company is investing in the future with its £10million modernisation programme, and its recently-completed environmentally-friendly new grass-roofed distribution depot on the outskirts of Reydon: in the future the firm may look at using biodiesel to runs its distribution fleet.

“There are a whole host of things we can do,” he says.

“What we are doing is we are measuring ourselves at the moment and we have an environmental action group in the company and their task is to go round and look at where you can get quick, simple wins.”

The brewery is in the process of being transformed into a hi-tech computerised operation, and new stainless steel fermentation tanks have already been installed in one of the old buildings as part of the scheme. These are capable of doubling the company's output using half the staff, and the whole operation can be controlled from several different sites in Southwold. The brewing part of the modernisation programme is due to come on line around April.

“The only time anyone comes in here is to take one or two samples as fermentation goes on,” explains Jonathan. “It's all about becoming a low-cost producer, which everybody has to in this day and age.”

Today, the turnover of the company is about £45million. Social responsibility, unsurprisingly, runs deep within the company, which is heavily rooted within the Southwold community, and has used the attributes of its residents to promote the brand. Last year, the Adnams charity donated £60,000 to local grass-roots groups. A beach clean operation its staff started four years ago has now taken on a life of its own.

Meanwhile, a student from the University of East Anglia is helping them to benchmark their carbon footprint.

“We have an aspiration that over a period of time we'll reduce our carbon,” explains Jonathan. “What we are doing is we are measuring ourselves at the moment and we have an environmental action group in the company and their task is to go round and look at where you can get quick, simple wins.”

They have already lightened their beer bottles, and are also doing the smaller things - gradually changing to low energy light bulbs, recycling where they can, trying to change behaviour within the company to save energy by, for example, turning off computers not in use.

Some of them are very obvious things “his father would have loved a long time ago”, he says.

“There is a whole host of things we can do,” he says. “We are not at the moment thinking of buying carbon credits - we want to get all the low-hanging fruit at the moment.”

He adds: “We have only just got a couple of feet on the ladder, but unfortunately, so many other organisations have yet to step onto the ladder. For a small company, I think we could be pretty proud. We are well ahead of most, I think, and that has been a huge team commitment.”

Jonathan, who took over in August of last year as chairman, spent three months of last summer taking time out, travelling to the Caribbean, then returning to the UK to sail his boat and play his bluegrass banjo before taking on his new role.

“It was all pre-planned - in fact it was planned for two years,” he says. “We had a strategic plan of restructuring the organisation and taking over from Simon was the last bit.”

His new role allows him to step back from the day-to-day issues and concentrate on the bigger picture.

“It's nice to get away from that day-to-day responsibility. It does enable you to get a bit more strategic,” he says.

“It's early days. We have been doing a lot of work in the last nine months on strategy and we are not saying we are going to start doing everything completely differently.”

He says he is delighted to have been appointed as chairman, having worked as MD for a considerable period, a role which has now passed to Andy Wood.

“It gets a bit wearing,” he admits. “There's a huge amount of enjoyment too. I enjoyed the people aspect as well but at one time I had about eight management reports at one time.”

The business employs around 300 people across its diverse operations, which include its two flagship hotels in Southwold, its pubs chain, estate agency and burgeoning chain of stores. But brewing still lies at the heart of the business, and is reflected in the huge sums invested in it over recent years.

“We have bitten off two huge infrastructure projects we needed to do because we were being stifled in the centre of Southwold,” says Jonathan.

“We'll have replaced an ageing, inefficient brewery with an ultramodern one.”

The business is growing its wine business, as well as its beer operation, and sources its wine from small, interesting growers which it sends its own people out to find.

A second generation website for its wine comes on line in April, as the importance of the internet grows within the business.

It is rolling out its Wine Cellar and Kitchen concept, with three stores now open in Southwold, Woodbridge and Holkham and a further three or four due to come on line this year. But the one area where it has no plans for expansion at the moment is its pubs business, preferring instead to concentrate on what it has.

“For us, it's about getting best return on capital,” explains Jonathan. “Is buying a pub today a good investment compared to how you can invest in another area of your business?”

He adds: “We also, I think, see a change in consumer habits in that consumers are doing more different things other than going to the pub and to be honest we don't really see that changing. It's just probably going to become more and more likely that people are going to be distracted to do other things other than going down the pub.”

Although the business has a new man at the helm, its underlying values remain the same.

“It's an ethos of what makes better businesses and part of what makes better businesses is recruiting and retaining the best staff. But it's more than that: it's how you are seen as a business by the world around you from inside and out,” he says.

“It can be summed up in a nutshell as doing the right thing.”

Because they are selling their beer onto the open market, rather than depending on sales through a large pub chain, the beer they make has to stand on its own merits, he says.

“You're only as good as the last pint you made,” he says.

“We try hard. We are a big entity in Southwold, of course we are, and not everybody is going to love us all of the time. That would be unrealistic.”

sarah.chambers@eadt.co.uk

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