Meet Jonathan Neame
PUBLISHED: 10:19 21 May 2015 | UPDATED: 10:19 21 May 2015
Jonathan Neame, chief executive of Shepherd Neame, on family history, a competitive market and a new dawn for the beer industry
When your name is Neame it’s hard to avoid the family; wherever you go in Kent you’ll come across a pub with Shepherd Neame emblazoned on its frontage. But Jonathan Neame, 51, chief executive of the Faversham-based brewery and, from 2016, the next Chairman of Visit Kent, isn’t starry-eyed about his position.
Sitting in the board room, where a large painting of his father Bobby (the company president) is prominently displayed, he tells me: “In terms of the family aspect, it’s an enormous privilege to be in the position to run a business like this. However, it is a very tough, very competitive, fast-moving market and you cannot afford to be sentimental about the family history.
“Nobody is going to buy our beer simply because we’ve been around a long time. That counts for something, but the key is to make your pubs and brands relevant to today’s consumers and sometimes we get it right, but sometimes we don’t get it right.”
Shepherd Neame is famously known as Britain’s oldest brewer and while the familiar term “established in 1698” first appeared in an advertisement for Faversham Brewery in the Kentish Gazette of 11 April 1865 (also the first time it appeared under the name of Shepherd Neame & Company), there is evidence that its heritage pre-dates even this period. The original Faversham Brewery was founded by Richard Marsh who, like the Neames and the Shepherds, came from an old East Kent family.
In his capacity as mayor Marsh held King James II as a prisoner at the brewery after he ran aground off Faversham while attempting to flee to France to avoid William of Orange and his Dutch army during the Glorious Revolution of 1688.
Ten years later Marsh actually bought the brewery, signalling the official start of its history. The first evidence of the Neame family’s involvement is found in the acceptance of a bill by Percy Beale Neame in October 1864, a new partner in a firm then known as Shepherd, Mares & Neame.
As Jonathan says: “An organisation like Shepherd Neame is constantly re-inventing itself and I think that’s what we’ve been quite good at over the years.”
He’s not wrong there. Shepherd Neame was one of steam pioneer James Watt’s early customers and in 1789 was the first brewery outside of London to install a Boulton & Watt steam engine, becoming known as the Faversham Steam Brewery.
“That was pretty radical at the time!” he smiles. “We were also pretty big innovators when the North Kent Railway came through Faversham in 1857 and the brewery had a significant period of expansion when we took depots in south Essex, London and the south east and used the railway system to expand.”
He adds: “Just recently what we have done with our bottling line and with our water-treatment plant is also innovative, and we’re innovating with our brands, pubs and hotels too. We are always conscious of our past and of the authenticity that we can bring, so we are extremely proud of our heritage; we are authentic with a big ‘A.’ However, my main focus is to run the business as best I can for today’s market.”
A key part of achieving that is keeping his employees happy and although Jonathan acknowledges “we are tiny compared to the big brewers, who will always have bigger budgets than us,” he is acutely aware that Shepherd Neame is a big business in Kent.
“We have some incredibly capable people and we tend to give them freedom and empowerment to make their own decisions, so they feel quite autonomous in what they do. That gives them a sense of empowerment that you don’t tend to get in larger companies. People sometimes think old company equals slow moving, but we are the exact opposite,” he says.
“We are a small, nimble company that can bring new products to the market faster than the opposition, can hopefully be a bit smarter and more creative than our competitors and respond to an opportunity quicker. That’s the beauty of being smaller.”
Of course for all sizes of company, the customer is king, and an increasingly vocal one too – helped by the rise of social media and the direct engagement that provides.
Jonathan tells me: “Our customers are always looking to us to bring out new beers and recipes, but what is fascinating to me about the market today is the incredible awareness our customers have about raw materials, how beer is made and so on.
“That is so different from 20 years ago when the trends in the market were all about consolidation of brands to big mega global brands and the niche specialist stuff was being left to the side. What you see now is a complete reversal of those trends.
“I think in part it is has come from America, which now has 12 per cent of the market in craft specialist beers, but you see the same things happening throughout the world and across most drinks categories.
“There’s a certain anti-big brand thing going on, people are really connected again with their roots, with regionality and craft – the internet gives incredible knowledge and everyone is a ‘specialist’ now.
“However, this sea change represents both an opportunity and a threat for Shepherd Neame, because there are 1,500 breweries in the UK, 1,400 of which have opened in the last 10 years. There are 35 small brewers in Kent alone, all of whom are producing decent beers and some excellent beer, so we cannot be complacent.
“We have sold 60 pubs since 2007 and many others in Kent have closed too, so we have to remember to put it all in context. But the market is much healthier now because the better ones are coming to the fore and now we are investing in the better ones, so the whole Kent pub stock is lifting.
“We have a loyal customer base and the benefit of having some great beers and a great pedigree, but we have to keep bringing out new products and engaging with our customers,” he emphasises.
Jonathan describes the ‘black hole’ the industry went into 10 years ago, with issues of binge drinking in the UK, excess alcohol consumption, problems on the streets, too many pubs with a bad reputation, unhealthy lifestyles generally – closely followed by the smoking ban, and then the recession.
“That was really tough for our sector, but you know what? It was tough and exciting, because it felt like the beginning of a new dawn. The new dawn we are now in is that, whether it’s us as brewers or as pub owners, we are right at the heart of a lifestyle trend where going out and socialising in a responsible and healthy way is part of an active, healthy lifestyle.
“Everyone wants to go to the pub again.”
Find out more
Shepherd Neame Limited
The Faversham Brewery
17 Court Street
Faversham ME13 7AX