ALE November 1999 No. 296

Industry Watch

Industry Watch : the Major Players - the Smaller Players (ALE 297 follow-up)
Since ALEs 294 and 295 the industry has been through immense changes and there are plenty more to come, most of them bad for consumer choice.

By May 1500 pubs had changed owner this year and the total may exceed 10,000 by the end - around one in five. Half of all pubs may then be owned by ten groups, possibly reducing to six in a few years unless the Government intervenes. 10,000 pubs have closed in the last ten years.

The common theme here is that behind the scenes moneymen are pushing companies to maximise shareholder value - which has little to do with consumer choice. Most of the companies here are either plcs (shares traded on the Stock Exchange, with the likes of pension funds as the big shareholders) or controlled by financiers such as venture capitalists. This drive is forcing the pace of innovation and some examples are included here.

Anything which shows up as giving poor returns on a balance sheet or doesn't fit marketing theories is liable to disposal for the best possible price, irrespective of the fate. That's good for the short-term gain of shareholders but what about the big picture?

The other major issue worth mentioning at the moment is the big brewers' claim that real ale is declining. The reality is that they fail to promote their largely poor-quality real ale whilst spending enormous sums promoting awful but consistent nitrokeg products.

They point to the closure of Morrells (Oxford), Vaux (Sunderland) and Ward's (Sheffield) breweries as being due to the decline, when in fact they were all successful breweries and were closed for asset-stripping. Similarly Mitchell's (Lancaster), Ruddles (Oakham) and Morland (Abingdon) were fundamentally viable, though perhaps requiring better management.

Many regional brewers such as Ridley's (Chelmsford) and Holt's (Manchester) are reporting healthy profits, showing there's nothing really wrong, provided management is free from the short-termism and the lack of understanding of financiers. Holt's has a low overheads policy and their pubs are cask-only. Some beers are delivered in hogsheads which come back for refills the same day. Both Holt's and Everards (Leicester) are celebrating 150 years of success. Greene King is celebrating 200 years.

However it's not enough to leave the promotion of real ale to the competent regionals and microbreweries - the big budgets of the nationals are needed to keep it viable.

Some figures

(Roger Protz, writing in the Licensee & Morning Advertiser 20-May-1999, 16-Sep)

Keg is declining rapidly and nitrokeg is in trouble, only propped up by massive advertising, under the new "smoothflow" or "cream" labels.

Sadly the urban North West of England (and to an extent much of northern Britain) is becoming a real ale desert, with cost-efficient fizzy beers displacing tasty live ones.

ALE November 1999 No. 296 : Next section
Cambridge & District CAMRA