BQ Newsletter
Success Story

Black Sheep grows up

Tuesday 10 April 2012 6:00

Alastair Gilmour

Taking over a company is never easy but when it’s the family firm that has carved its name in its industry’s history, it’s a big ask, as BQ discovers.

As an inspirational business story or tale of subterfuge, enterprise, enthusiasm and oomph, Black Sheep is a prime example of converting “what if” into “what next.” The Masham, North Yorkshire, brewery is 20 years old this year and its beers have become such a favoured sight across the country that some people would swear they’ve been around far longer.

To others though – Black Sheep founder Paul Theakston and his recently-appointed managing director son Rob among them – the past two decades have disappeared in the snap of a finger.

Britain’s beer industry has always been a turbulent arena with takeovers, amalgamations and closures littering the landscape since the days when wooden barrels were hauled by horse and cart.

The Theakston brewing dynasty – begun in 1827 by pub-owning Robert Theakston – was never going to be immune to those outside influences and inside shenanigans.

In what must now seem another life, Paul Theakston – Black Sheep’s present chairman – represented the fifth generation of ale-producers at T&R Theakston, but a takeover by Matthew Brown of Blackburn in 1984 was followed by a Scottish & Newcastle buyout three years later.

Ownership battles and business upheaval tend not to nurture happy families. So, recognising that he wasn’t a corporate animal (“I was too old a dog to learn big company tricks”), he took a financial package and left.

That was in 1989 and Paul Theakston had had his fill of squabbles with his namesake cousins who remained in the firm through the new ownership, public petitions, writs, injunctions and High Court rulings that followed from a bewildering array of directions.

“I was 17 or 18 and at Sedbergh School when dad left T&R Theakston,” recalls Rob Theakston, who shared the Black Sheep joint managing director role for a year with his father until the back end of 2011 when he then took on the sole responsibility.

“We had him go through his ‘wilderness years’ – hanging about, seemingly doing nothing. He had been working flat out and to have him at home all the time was strange.

“But he set up an office in some old stables we had at home and then spent two years plotting his next move.

“We knew something was going on and talked about it as a family – in fact, it was my mother Sue who came up with the Black Sheep name.”

Theakston père had spent his “stable” time wisely, planning to buy the redundant Lightfoot Brewery buildings in Masham from Scottish & Newcastle through a twice-removed purchaser.

Had they known the true identity, however, we would be supping a very different beer today. (Incidentally, and fortunately for lovers of good ale, T&R Theakston has now returned to family control; its beers and the Black Sheep brand are similarly highly valued across the nation, and all relations have been restored.)

For a brand new business, it would have been much easier to acquire a new factory unit, install a shiny, stainless steel plant and produce perfectly acceptable beer, but that was a million miles away from Paul Theakston’s concept of cast iron, slate and copper.

And, great beer is not just the product of the ingredients and the recipe, but also of its provenance, plus the vital ingredient – the people who make it.

The landmark Lightfoot Brewery building, standing high over the banks of the River Ure, had fallen in to disrepair as years of neglect as a semi-redundant grainstore had taken its toll.

Despite its overburdening rodent population, rundown fabric, and the little matter of raising the money, Paul Theakston assembled a small team around him to fight the rats and build a brewery – a traditional country brewery.

He searched the length and breadth of Britain to find suitable plant and equipment. The early 1990s had seen the demise of many breweries following rationalisation within the industry.

At times it became a race against the demolition contractor to whisk away vital and rare equipment before it became scrap.

Black Sheep’s brewing copper, mash tun and hop-back came as a matched set from the old Hartley’s Brewery in Ulverston in the Lake District.

Its first three traditional Yorkshire stone square fermenting vessels were refugees from a Hardy of Nottingham modernisation programme.

A further three were literally snatched from under the ball of the demolition contractor who was levelling Darley’s Brewery at Thorne, near Doncaster, to make way for a supermarket.

Rob Theakston says: “Then when Dad got the keys (to the redundant Lightfoot pile) during our school holidays and was looking at building a brewery I was drafted in as a hired hand and we got stuck into clearing it out.” Rob has three brothers, Jo, Matt and Alex; the latter two happily following careers in London not remotely connected with brewing, while Jo is Black Sheep’s director of marketing.

“I knew I would be taking it up as a career sometime in my lifetime,” Rob continues. “When you’re part of a family dynasty like we are, it’s in you, and I used to help Dad mash in before I went to school in the morning.

“The whole thing in the beginning was quite a covert operation; we needed to get the brewery sorted and to make sure it was going to work without setting the hares running. The building purchase was kept very quiet until the last moment.

“The brewery was going to be called Lightfoots after the original one, but that leaked out somehow and Scottish & Newcastle registered the name first which rather scuppered our chances.  

“Actually, it probably did us a favour as the Black Sheep name really works on all levels, plus it has that tongue-in-cheek element. Masham at one time was one of the biggest sheep markets in the country.

“We didn’t let the name out of the four walls till it was done and dusted.” The young Rob Theakston originally harboured thoughts of becoming a vet but didn’t take enough science subjects at school. A year in Canada studying dairy farming kindled the farming bug.

“My gran was originally from Canada and came back to Masham after the war but went back regularly to visit family,” he says.

“Learning dairy farming was brilliant. It was -25°C and you were hugging a cow to keep warm, but it was brilliant.

“I came back and went to agricultural college – Harper Adams in Shropshire – to do a BSc in agriculture and animal science.

But at that time there wasn’t much money in farming with the likes of government cuts and milk quotas so I looked at getting into brewing.

“Dad, being a traditionalist, advised me to do a sort of apprenticeship going round large and small breweries learning from like-minded brewers.

I started in sales at Shepherd Neame in Faversham in Kent, then had a spell with Beer Cellar – now Waverley TBS – selling Black Sheep beer around London.

“I realised sales wasn’t my forte – I’m more practical and hands-on and really wanted to be in production.

“I made a conscious decision to gain as much knowledge over a two or three-year period early in my career before I settled down into Black Sheep.

I’ve never been shy about getting my sleeves up and I’m happy whether it’s shoveling spent grains or sorting out some production problem.” Rob is also happy throwing himself into regular Monday five-a-side football sessions with brewery colleagues.

“If I had only worked here all I would have known is Black Sheep. I’ve seen the science side, driven forklifts – have my class 1 and class 2 licenses – the whole professional competence that you need. Jo started on his own path too and got a job with Wells & Youngs in Bedford and got a passion for it.Then we poached him back here.”

Theakston fils then did a year’s post-graduate study in brewing and distilling at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh – and even got married there. He eventually took up a position at Carlsberg-Tetley in Leeds.

“I was in the brewhouse doing all the shifts – two on days and two on nights – for two years, which was a fantastic experience,” he says.  

“I thoroughly enjoyed it, the Leeds boys were great. I was doing everything from scrubbing out Yorkshire squares to driving a desk with a mouse.

“It also allowed me to experience corporate management which was an eye-opener. At that time they were honing the machine – making efficiencies – all of which involved people, and to see it on that scale was fascinating. Eventually I got the chance to go back to Black Sheep under Paul Ambler who was then head brewer (and has since retired), and Alan Dunn (now head brewer) learning about distribution and technical services for two or three years and progressed to a stage where I was offered the joint managing director role last year, trying to steer this beast through choppy waters.

“It was always at the back of your mind that you’d do this. Dad is a legend of brewing – that’s not too strong a term – and what he’s done over the last 20 years is amazing.

“You think: ‘How will I ever emulate that?’ and: ‘Will I ever achieve that?’, but as you get older you get more confidence in your own skills and you take the good bits anyway and do it your own way.

“I realised I didn’t need to compete with my dad in that way. I’ve always got him as a backup. And we’ve got such a fantastic team here with Alan Dunn; Steve Constable, the finance director who’s been here since the beginning, and Brian Smith in sales.

“They’ll certainly tell me if I’m doing something wrong. It’s a big change for those guys as well; it’s tough for them – Steve’s only known dad as the boss. They’ve got to trust you to make it work and they have to have the confidence in you to move the business forward – and for their own sanity.”

The Government isn’t exactly helping the brewing industry at present – there have been huge hikes in duty over the past four or five years and brewers can’t get price rises from supermarkets and major multiples, no matter how hard they try. Beer is a commodity item; it’s what people will give up when the going gets tough.

“We’re a manufacturing industry and the Government is always going on about manufacturing driving the economy,” says Rob.

“We’ll still be driving the economy but we’re getting crippled for it. They see us as a never-ending source of cash.” Black Sheep now produces 70,000 barrels (20 million-plus pints) of beer annually which puts the operation alongside long-running regional outfits such as Timothy Taylor.

A former food factory has been bought in Masham and is being refurbished as a base for distribution, telesales and technical services which, at the moment, is off-site. 

A plan to move casking the beer to the new premises is also under consideration which will free up space at the main plant for fermenting and conditioning beer.

Paul Theakston’s new role as company chairman allows him the work-life balance he now enjoys.

He’s looking after Black Sheep exports in an executive capacity and is apparently drawing up battle plans for a renewed assault on the US where beers like Holy Grail – with its Monty Python connections – sell particularly well.

“He’s also our voice in the industry and has always been very involved in industry bodies,” says Rob.

“He’s as busy as he wants to be and he can tailor that to suit himself.” Rob’s continual references to his family demonstrate the closeness and the strength of the unit.

The lineage is set to go on and on: he has three sons aged between three and one and brother Jo has two boys of a similar age (“Mum’s desperate to have a girl in the family”), so the Theakston name has an awful lot of legs in it yet.

“There are no issues either with T&R Theakston,” he says. “We’re competitors and always will be, but we’ll have a beer together. We really need to be working together to promote Masham; it’s the Burton of the North, after all. We’re both good, strong local employers.

“It’s a tough market and I think North Yorkshire has more microbreweries per square inch than anywhere, but we’re also local and still care, producing quality beer as we’ve always done.

Those drivers are at the centre of everything we do.” During his more reflective moments, Rob Theakston might still ask himself “what if”, but he can now answer that himself with a definite “what next?.” ■