It’s 40 years with the family firm for Jonathan Adnams

Jonathan Adnams at the Adnams distillery in Southwold.
Photo: Anthony Cullen

Jonathan Adnams at the Adnams distillery in Southwold. Photo: Anthony Cullen - Credit: Archant

On November 26, 1975, the day after his 19th birthday, Jonathan Adnams started work with the family firm, of which he is now chairman. Business editor DUNCAN BRODIE went to Southwold to talk to him about his 40 years with the Adnams brewing, pubs and hotels company, and its diversification into retailing and distilling.

Jonathan Adnams has seen many changes during his 40 years with the famous Southwold-based firm which has carried his family’s name since 1872, and has been actively involved in driving his fair share of them.

He officially joined the company as an engineering apprentice in November 1975 after flirtations with fishing and estate agency, either side of some early part-time experience in the brewery.

Jonathan was educated at Framlingham College but left at the age of 16. In his own words he was “not the most academic” of students and was never particularly fond of school but he came to an agreement with his father that, if he achieved five O-levels, he could leave school and fulfil a wish to spend a year trying to earn a living from fishing.

The necessary grades duly achieved, he set about his fishing ambition which, in the event, only lasted from the summer until the following February, although a love of the sea remained with him and he went on to serve as a member of the local lifeboat crew for 27 years.

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Following the end of the fishing venture, he worked part-time on manual work in the Adnams brewhouse and cellars for around six months before going off to college in Southampton.

The family business at that time also included the H A Adnams estate agents business and Jonathan’s father, himself a chartered surveyor, saw this as a potential career for his son. However, although he passed his first year exams, Jonathan says that the subject “did not capture my imagination” and so he returned to Southwold and, the day after his 19th birthday, started work as an apprentice engineer in the brewery.

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His training included a nine-month stint at the Young’s brewery in Wandsworth, London, which was undergoing a major expansion involving new equipment – a road down which, many years later, he would also travel at Adnams.

Having studied for an ONC in electrical and mechanical engineering, followed by an HNC in mechanical design engineering, Jonathan went to work at a new distribution centre then being built in the middle of Southwold – the distribution operation has, more recently, relocated again, to an out-of-town site in Reydon – and went on to become distribution manager and then, in 1983, distribution director.

In 1986, he moved over to the pubs and property side of the business, following the retirement of his father. and joined the main board as pubs and estates director in 1988.

In 1997 he became joint managing, alongside Hugh Roberts who was overseeing a change in company structure, and then sole MD a year later. He remained in this role until 2006 when he succeeded Simon Loftus as executive chairman and then in 2009 took on his current role as chairman, with Andy Wood, who had succeeded him as MD, becoming chief executive.

During all this time, Adnams has undergone a remarkable transformation, from a locally-based brewer into a nationally-recognised brand.

The wider industry has also changed, with the former mix of around six large national players, 12 or so regional brewers and a proliferation of local brewers, of which 40 years ago Adnams was one, being replaced by the present dominance of multi-national brewers and national pub companies, accompanied by the ever-growing ranks of small craft brewers.

Adnams, however, has followed a path all of its own, remaining apart from the consolidation process but managing nonethless to establish itself as a national brand, characterised by quality and values and offering retailers and pub companies alike something different from the larger brewers.

An early sign of a “values-led” approach might be seen in the creation in 1990 (to mark the centenary of Adnams as a public company) of the Adnams Charity to support local good causes.

However, Jonathan says that, while he is hugely proud of the charity, which has now distributed more than £1million to community organisations, it was not initially part of a cohesive Corporate Social Responsibility strategy. This, he says, began to emerge from the mid 1990s with the appointment of the first executive directors and senior managers from outside of the owning families.

The change in culture has, he says, been based on a focus on the long-term, involving investment in the future, looking after customers and reaching out to the community – or, put more simply, “treating those we work with in the way would would like to be treated ourselves”.

Whatever the title he has held since joining the company management, Jonathan’s role has, not surprisingly in view of his background in the areas of brewing and logistics, tended to involve a major focus on production.

He recalls that, during his early years with the business, the brewing operation largely involved second-hand equipment, typically 70 or 80 years old, and was prone to yeast infections, particulary during the summer.

This had an effect on beer quality and, in two severe cases, a significant impact on production, representing a set-back at a time when volumes were growing amid the CAMRA-led revival of interest in cask-conditioned ale.

Jonathan says that this created in him a determination to invest in new, cutting-edge, brewing equipment, although when an opportunity for this might come about was not immediately clear.

The process eventually began in 2001 with the start of work to renew the fermentation capacity, with further additions in 2003 and 2005 as beer volumes grew. A complete refit of the brewhouse followed in 2007, involving not just renewal of the vessels but the addition of a high level of automation and computerised control.

The flexibility of the new brewery, combined with Adnams’ highly innovative head brewer Fergus Fitzgerald who took over the role shortly after its completion, has resulted in a vastly increased range of Adnams beers – about 40 a year in total being brewed each year – although Jonathan freely admits that he did not foresee the extent of this development.

Adnams’ pub estate has undergone an equally significant evolution although, in contrast with beer volumes, it is now slightly smaller compared with 40 years.

From around 67 pubs in 1975, the estate grew to 85 by 1990 and then peaked at around 135 following a major acquisition from Whitbread in 1993. Since then, however, the estate has been gradually refocused, principally away from smaller rural pubs, in response to factors including higher petrol prices, the ban on smoking in public spaces and the trend towards drinking at home.

The estate currently numbers 52 pubs, plus six hotels, and Jonathan does not see this total changing signficantly in the immediate future.

Another development has been the creation of the Adnams Cellar & Kitchen chain of shops which, says Jonathan, grew originally out of a belief that the company needed to get closer to its customers, but has also served it well in terms of the change in drinking habits towards home consumption.

He concedes that some mistakes were made in the early years, both with the speed of expansion and the location of some of the stores, but says that the chain, which now numbers 12 in total, has become a valuable part of the business.

“The first five to six years were relatively hard yards to win, but they were worth winning. We are now in a very different position to many of our competitors,” he says.

In particular, the shops have served as a launch pad for new products, not least those of company’s distillery, which was launched in 2010 and was very much a project driven by Jonathan.

The addition of a micro-distillery to the business was, he says, very much a natural progression for Adnams although, at the outset, there was the small matter of an old law which, it was thought, made it illegal for a brewer also to be a distiller.

The former brewery copper house, made redundant following the brewery refit, was an obvious home for a distillery but it was the arrival on the scene of the English Whisky Company in Norfolk which, says Jonathan, “really started me thinking”.

Extensive research convinced him that the burgeoning craft distilling market in the United States could be replicated here and the company board agreed to support the preparation of engineering drawings by John McCarthy from the brewery team, now head distiller.

There remained the question of the law but, while offering no guarantees, HM Revenue & Customs indicated that if an applicaton was made it would be considered.

Approval, if it came at all, was not expected quickly but in fact it was received within a matter of months, in March 2010, the facility went live the following October.

Adnams gins and vodkas soon began to pick up awards and in 2013 they were joined by the distillery’s first whiskies.

The five-year plan for the business has ben far exceeded and, with the distillery having been operating flat-out, seven days a week for the past six months, a £500,000 investment to treble output is due to go online in January.

“It has been a hugely successful extension of what we do, and a very natural step,” says Jonathan. “Both the brewing and distilling operations are, for their size, world class.

“At our size we are never going to be a low-cost producer but consumers increasingly want quality products, with a good story attached to them, and that is what Adnams offers.

“I have worked with some wonderful people right through at all levels,” he adds. “I still retain my enthusiasm and hopefully have a few more years to give to the company yet.”

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