He’s charming, knowledgeable and passionate about the past, present and future of the British drinks industry. An hour in the company of brewery chief executive Jonathan Neame leaves you in no doubt as to his interests and loyalty.
Hardly surprising. He’s the fifth generation of his family to enter the brewing profession and naturally regards the Shepherd Neame brand as worthy of promotion, protection and preservation.
I meet him at the Faversham brewery late on a Friday afternoon and he strides across the foyer in an expensive-looking dark suit and tailored shirt. “Sorry you got the graveyard shift”, he tells me ruefully, extending a hand in greeting. “It’s been a busy week”. I suspect it always is.
As direct boss of 1,500 people, spread between the brewery and the managed estate, the role of chief executive is complex and time-consuming. A further 2,500 people work within Shepherd Neame’s tenanted estate, although not as brewery employees.
We move into the historic panelled boardroom, where it is believed that in 1688 Mayor of Faversham Richard Marsh – who took over the lease of the brewery in 1678 and bought it 20 years later – entertained King James II who had been held prisoner in the town after he was brought ashore from a boat in which he was attempting to flee the country.
Understandably, Jonathan is intensely proud of the long history of Shepherd Neame and its claim to be Britain’s oldest brewery. The official founding date is 1698, when Richard Marsh first took it over, but there is strong evidence to show that brewing took place on the site at least 150 years earlier. Jonathan was born in January 1964 and went to Harrow, then studied classics at Cambridge University, before joining the COBA Group in London – a specialist in mergers and acquisitions – to learn about the way the City worked. He also spent four years with Price Waterhouse, gaining insight into the financial, property, manufacturing and retail aspects of various businesses.
- Jonathan is married to Lucie and they have one daughter, Violette.
- His mantra for a successful working life is “take every opportunity with both hands. Don’t be afraid to fail, keep learning, and keep adapting to change.”
- When he’s not thinking, creating, or drinking beer, Jonathan loves to be active. His interests include cricket, skiing, walking and cycling
- Jonathan was what he describes as “a highly vocal Remainer” in the run-up to the 2016 EU Referendum and confesses to being “pretty disappointed” by the result. The negotiations since the Prime Minister triggered Article 50 to leave the EU have left him “profoundly depressed” and he foresees
- “twice as much legislation, a negative impact on IT systems and cost, cost, cost” when the UK finally breaks free of the Union in 2019.
I ask why he did not join the family firm straight away. He smiles and tells me: “I needed to learn more about the wider world of business before I focused in on brewing.” Even when he joined the brewery as company secretary in 1991, he was encouraged to sample all roles, including spending time on the drays, in pubs and with the sales team.
“The business is all about communication. It’s about people. It was important I found out all I could about the industry, so I could play my part in developing the company,” Jonathan says.
After a few years working for the company, Jonathan became managing director in 1999 and chief executive in 2003. His father, Robert, stepped down as chairman in 2005 after seeing through a major upgrade of the brewery including the installation of new keg plant and the opening of a distribution centre.
Jonathan is anxious to tell me that he is not the sole family representative in the company. His father retains a strong interest in how it is run and, although he has retired from the board, will still give advice when asked. There are also several siblings and cousins involved in running the brewery.
“My great-grandfather had 10 children, so there are many descendants. We operate a family council which was set up four years ago and we hold a ‘young cousins’ event every year which generally involves about 16 people. Several of my younger relatives have done work experience with us and I am hugely impressed by the wealth of talent they have shown. The scheme helps us identify future skills and where we can best use them.”
Succession is important to the management of Shepherd Neame. The brewery was named the Best UK Family Business in the £25 million-plus turnover category of the Coutts competition for 2009/10 and Jonathan is proud that it remains an independent enterprise, in an industry which frequently sees mergers and take-overs among the “big boys” in the market.
Jonathan retains strong links with the industry, as executive member of the Independent Family Brewers of Britain. He was chairman of the British Beer and Pub Association for three years from 2012 and is a court assistant of the Brewers’ Company, as well as a Deputy Lieutenant of Kent and chairman of the tourism group Visit Kent.
Asked his management style, Jonathan ponders a while and tells me: “I like to think I am hard working, a team player. I like to achieve a consensus and am fairly analytical. It is key to have a sense of humour, because we are in the entertainment industry.” Wise words indeed.