At first sight, the genteel Suffolk town of Bury St.Edmunds might seem an unlikely venue for, what is arguably, the most successful regional brewery in the land. Certainly since Georgian times, the town has always been closely associated with the more refined aspects of country life, and, in particular, it has long been regarded as a social centre for the Suffolk gentry. Daniel Defoe, visiting the town in 1722, found it "crowded with nobility and gentry, and all sorts of agreeable company; and as the company invites, so there is the appearance of pleasure upon the very situation; and they that live at Bury, are supposed to live there for the sake of it". As Richard Wilson later put it in his excellent treatise on Greene King: " Bury's prosperity had always largely been dependent upon its position as the market and social centre of West Suffolk...More than most county towns in England, Bury acted as a social palliative to ease the boredom of rural existence". Part of the reason for the lack of industrialisation in Bury can be attributed to the fact that the nearest navigable waterway, the River Lark, is some three miles distant at Fornham, and even the coming of the railway in 1846 did little to alter the status quo in the town.

Being close to prime grain-growing country, Bury has long had a recorded association with beer and brewing, and it is one of only two towns (Helston, in Cornwall, being the other) in Britain mentioned in this respect in the Domesday Book, the brewers there being identified as cerevisiarii.

When Mr Greene met Mr King...

The precise start date of the Greene King story is 1st June, 1887, when the Frederick King's St.Edmunds Brewery merged with the adjacent Westgate Brewery, then owned by the redoubtable Edward Greene. The merger created one of the largest country brewers in England at that time, and the resultant company was one of the first breweries to adopt limited liability status. King had started brewing in the town in 1868, but the time of the initial connection of the Greene family with brewing in Bury is somewhat shrouded in mystery, but was approximately around the turn of the 19th century. The firm's logo proudly proclaims '1799', whilst a date above a Head Office door says 'founded 1800'. The imprecision is unsurprising since less significance was placed on exact dates in those days. The Westgate brewery was apparently purchased by Benjamin Greene and William Buck from the Wright family in 1798, so we have three dates to play with. The '1799' and '1800' dates probably approximate to the time that Benjamin Greene first came to Bury after completing his pupillage at Whitbread's in London, and may well signify the commencement of a Greene being involved with brewing on the site. The first positive evidence of a Greene brewing connection in Bury comes from an advertisement carried by the Bury and Norwich Post in April 1806. Whatever, it was not until later in the 19th century that a 'founding date' was felt necessary for publicity purposes, and the '1799' date doesn't actually appear in print until 1875.

History tells us that the new company was 'getting it right' from the outset, for as the same newspaper related in the obituary of Edward Greene on 21st April 1891: "He was one of the first country brewers to discover that beer need not be vile, black, turgid stuff, but brewed a bright amber-coloured liquid of Burton-type, which he sold at a shilling per gallon and made a fortune".

The Company...

Until recently, Greene King plc comprised three main businesses (four, if you include Belhaven, which is being run as a separate company): the Pub Company, which covered their managed houses, and comprised such concepts as 'Hungry Horse' and 'Old English Inns'; Pub Partners, which encompassed tenanted and leased properties, and the Brewing Company (Brewing and Brands), which is responsible for the production, marketing, and distribution of the company's products. These three divisions are supported by Business Services, who take care of day-to-day activities. Then last March, the board announced a reorganisation of its managed estate, which had been the third fastest-growing managed house business in the UK. The Pub Company was split into two separate divisions, a move made in recognition of the vastly differing needs of its drinks-led and food-led managed house operations. The 'local' pubs now consist of 510 predominantly community and town venues, while the 'destination' pubs comprise 280 of the firm's more branded, food-led establishments. Mark Angela, who ran the managed estate for three years has left and been replaced by Jonathan Lawson (ex-retail operations director of Sainsbury's convenience stores) who is managing director of Local Pubs, and Jonathan Webster (ex-chief executive of Hardys and Hansons, when it was bought by Greene King), who runs the Destination Pubs division.

Each of the five complementary divisions is held individually accountable, as a stand- alone business in its own right, but is arranged such that each creates more value in combination with the others than it could by standing alone.

Greene King survived, unscathed, after the 'take-over mania' of the fifties and sixties, and the company was one of only a handful of the larger British brewers who were left relatively unaffected by the 1989 Beer Orders, since they were not obliged to divest themselves of any parts of their estate. More importantly, they did not succumb to the blandishments of the City during the subsequent era of 'pubco mania', where the received opinion of the time was that business focus required one either to brew beer, or to run pubs - one couldn't do both! In hindsight, the decision to remain vertically integrated has proved to be a significant factor in their success. Instead of handing over their tied outlets to an 'outside' source, they remained intact, and now have a highly- remunerative estate under their own control. Ironically, the Greene King estate is the UK's third largest pub company, after Enterprise Inns and Punch Taverns (which are both, incidentally, major customers of the Bury brewer!). The large brewers that divorced themselves from their estates soon found that, with the power of the pubcos, the margins that they could attain for much of their beer decreased year-on-year. This, in turn, led to company break-ups, and, in most cases, purchase by a foreign brewer. As we speak, only Scottish & Newcastle, of our national brewers, remain in UK hands.

As is the case with all successful brewers, the Greene King story contains its fair share of take-over activity. The first of these acquisitions were made the late-1880s, and were followed by others at fairly regular intervals over subsequent decades, culminating in the purchase of Wells & Winch of Biggleswade in 1961 (where brewing persisted until 1997). One of the typical, fairly early, purchases was of the intriguingly-named F.C.Christmas & Co., of Haverhill, which, with its 49 public houses, cost the princely sum of £55,000 in 1918! After a period of relative take-over inactivity during the 1970s and 1980s, Morland's of Abingdon (with an estate of around 400 pubs) was purchased in 1999, followed, six years later, by the capture of T.D.Ridley & Sons, of Hartford End, Essex, which added another 70-odd pubs to the estate. Sadly, brewing has now ceased at both of these sites.

There was some surprise, when, in October 2005, Belhaven, Scotland's leading integrated pub company and brewer, with a 282-strong pub estate, and Scotland's number one draught ale brand, Belhaven Best was acquired. The company is continuing to brew at Dunbar, and, apart from increasing its estate, the Belhaven purchase allowed Greene King to learn much, first-hand, from the introduction of the smoking ban in Scotland. Management there had worked hard to minimise the threats posed by 'no smoking', and to maximise any opportunities that may accrue from this huge change in pub culture. As a result, Greene King is extremely optimistic about its ability to flourish in the new, smoke-free, age in England.

The most recent purchase, in September last year, was of the Nottingham brewer Hardys & Hansons, with 185 tenanted and 83 managed pubs. Brewing has now ceased at Kimberley, but some H & H beers, including Dark Mild, will continue to be brewed at Bury. To illustrate their commitment to the region's beer drinkers, Greene King have recently invested around £4.5m. in a new facility at Eastwood, near Nottingham. The new depot is the company's largest and best equipped distribution centre, and has a state-of-the-art, energy-efficient, cold storage unit, to ensure that beers are stored correctly, and delivered in peak condition. As Brewing managing director, Justin Adams, says: "This level of investment is an illustration of the group's determination to keep local roots in what was Hardys & Hansons' heartland". He adds: "To be successful, you have to continually invest in infrastructure to make sure the production, distribution, and after-sales support for your products is second-to-none". Other depots are located at Abingdon, Crayford, and Totton.