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The business of brewing

Words by Colin Bradbury

St Austell Brewery CEO, James Staughton, looks back over 40 years spent building a Cornish icon.

James Staughton, CEO of St Austell Brewery

It’s difficult to imagine what 43 million pints looks like, but that’s how much beer St Austell Brewery produced last year. Even more mind-boggling is that since its foundation 168 years ago, more than 1.7 billion pints of the good stuff has flowed out of the company’s mid-Cornwall brewery. Add its 177 pubs, inns and hotels, and St Austell Brewery is one of the region’s biggest businesses, as well as being Cornwall’s largest private sector employer, with 1,500 staff.

That’s quite an impressive set of numbers. But CEO James Staughton is reflecting on a couple of more personal statistics as he prepares to step down in January after 40 years – 20 of them as boss – at the company started by his great-great grandfather, Walter Hicks, in 1851.

“I’m still thinking that there’s so much to do,” he says, determined not to rest on his laurels. But the dramatic expansion of the business during his tenure as Chief Executive, at a time when many other independent breweries across the country were shrinking or going out of business altogether, suggests that he has already achieved rather a lot. Not least of which was the important landmark reached in 2018, when St Austell brewed a record 150,000 barrels of its own brand beer. That’s a very satisfying ten-fold increase on the 15,000 barrels that were being produced annually when James took over as CEO in 2000.

St Austell ales are a taste of Cornish excellence

But let’s rewind another 20 years to 1980, when the fresh-faced 21-year-old first came down to work at the family business in what was very much the backwater of Cornwall. Though he had spent plenty of time down here visiting family, the county was still somewhat terra incognita and, in those days, a good eight-hour slog by car from his west London home.

The next generation isn’t always interested in jumping into the family firm, but having discounted following his father into a career as a solicitor – “I’m a people person, not a paperwork man”, he explains – James was eager to learn the brewing business. The agreement was that he would give it a try for two years, with no commitment from either side that he would stay on beyond that if it didn’t work out. He threw himself into the business right from the start, working as an apprentice across all areas. He was acutely aware of his novice status, though. “I brought nothing to the party at 21,” he says with total candour, and to counter any feeling that he was receiving special treatment as a family member, he “made a conscious decision to try my hand at everything and earn some respect by rolling my sleeves up.”

That awareness of the scrutiny under which he would find himself as a family member continued when he was made CEO in 2000. He took over a business that, while not exactly struggling, wasn’t thriving either. The quality of its beer was indifferent and, in common with other independent brewers, St Austell faced competition from national brands like Watneys, and from rival products such as lager.

Roger Ryman, Head Brewer

The period either side of the millennium would prove to be pivotal for the business. Closing the brewing operations and focusing on the more profitable pub side was a real option for the company. However, James decided to make a last attempt to revitalise the beer business, taking a big risk by recruiting a new Head Brewer, Roger Ryman, from a brewery in Scotland. In the hidebound world of brewing, where anybody under the age of 50 was regarded as a neophyte, hiring the 32-year-old Ryman from hundreds of miles away was a brave move indeed. Ryman had been nurturing an idea for a new beer, but was only prepared to put it in practice in the role of Head Brewer. By happy coincidence, just as he joined the business, St Austell Brewery decided to launch a beer to celebrate the August 1999 total solar eclipse that would bring hundreds of thousands of visitors to Cornwall. Ryman’s new brew, marketed with the inspired Daylight Robbery label, was that beer, and garnered huge publicity from a national media greedy for eclipse-related stories.

Re-launched as Tribute, the beer went on to become by far the biggest selling ale in the St Austell stable and is now sold globally. And the company’s own pubs, whose licensees had been agitating to sell guest ales, were now more than happy with the popular in-house brew. No wonder James still has an unopened bottle of Daylight Robbery on his office shelf as a reminder of that pivotal decision 20 years ago.

The turn of the millennium was an important time for Cornwall as a whole. The Eden Project opened its doors in early 2001, and restaurant entrepreneurs like Rick Stein were starting to put Cornwall on the gastronomic map. That was the beginning of ‘Brand Cornwall’, which has become an important weapon in the armoury of local businesses seeking to expand beyond the county borders. St Austell Brewery has taken full advantage of that, having set up a National Sales division back in 2002. From almost nothing, beer sales outside Cornwall now account for around two thirds of the total.

The St Austell Brewery brand is iconic throughout the Duchy

“Brand Cornwall is a huge part of our success. Our ‘Cornishness’ has been vital,” James asserts. He puts that down to the positive associations that consumers have with Cornwall, and believes that they are minded to try products with a Cornish brand. “The entrée you get, the opportunity in a very crowded market is a huge positive.” He’s particularly proud that St Austell beer is now available on British Airways and admits: “It gives me a huge buzz to be on a flight and have Tribute served. I still can’t get over it!”

The company’s wider ambitions were also reflected in the 2016 acquisition of the Bath Ales business. Its brewing facilities and stable of pub properties has given them a firm foothold in the Bristol and Bath area, the gateway to the south west.

With annual turnover heading for the £190M mark in 2019, St Austell Brewery is a rare creature – a very large family business that has remained family owned. While James is proud of that, it creates pressures that might not be felt so acutely in businesses whose shareholders are remote from their employees. As he puts it: “As I progressed through the company, I was aware that there were a lot of mortgages resting on my decisions.”

The Chainlocker, Falmouth

So in 2011 when the decision was made to move some of the operations to a new regional distribution centre in St Columb Major, James realised that it would be disruptive for some employees who had previously been able to walk to work. “It turned out to be a very good move, but it reminded us that there are real people behind business decisions. We’re a family firm and we really do care. It’s not all about spreadsheets.“

And while being a family business brings extra burdens – albeit ones which James is happy to shoulder – it also has its benefits. “I don’t miss reporting to the City every month”, laughs James. Not having to answer to outside shareholders also allows the management to take a longer-term view, particularly in relation to investments. This has been especially important in the development of their pub portfolio, which still underpins the business.

So, for example, they have been able to pay up for top quality sites where it makes long-term business sense. “Some of our acquisitions are at premium prices. Some businesses wouldn’t be able to take the longer term view or have the capital available and the stability to take that view.” The same philosophy applies to expenditure on existing properties. The most high-profile recent example was the Chain Locker in Falmouth, a harbour side pub that really does live up to its ‘iconic’ tag. James says simply: “We know it is the best site in Falmouth so no expense has been spared to renovate it sympathetically, retaining its unique character.” He is convinced that the apparently high cost of the work will appear cheap when the company looks back on it a few years hence.

Speaking of the future, James believes that his successors have the tools they need to drive the company in the future. St Austell Brewery will continue to add selectively to its pub properties and is a staunch supporter of the ‘Long Live the Local’ campaign for reduced beer taxes. He does believe though that some pubs in areas where there is an oversupply will probably go out of business.

As for James himself, he’s going to heed the advice of friends and resist the temptation to rush into any new commitments when he retires in January. He will continue as chairman of the St Austell Bay Economic Forum, focusing on the regeneration of the town and rebuilding its reputation from the dark days when detractors referred to it cruelly as ‘St Awful’. With the aid of a £1M coastal communities grant, they will build on its China Clay and ceramics heritage and its connections with Eden and well-known gardens such as Heligan and Caerhays. James is also looking forward to the opportunities presented when the Tour of Britain cycle race passes through the town next September.

And he’s going to continue to promote Cornwall in his old London stomping ground. In 2022 he will be appointed Master of the Worshipful Company of Brewers, the livery company in the City of London. This is a huge honour and one he sees as an opportunity to fly the Cornish flag in the heart of the capital.

James will also have more time to pursue another long-term vision, setting up a Cornish ‘embassy’ in the capital. The building, which will likely be in the Paddington area, will have a pub, offering regional food and drink, together with meeting rooms and conference facilities. He’s been encouraged by expressions of support from other Cornish businesses, who have indicated their enthusiasm to use the location for meetings with existing and potential customers. You can’t help thinking that Cornwall couldn’t wish for a better ambassador than the man who has dedicated his working life to building a business of which everyone in the county can be proud.

For now, though, James is focused on completing his tenure as CEO and handing on his family business to its next custodian in the best possible shape. Even now, 40 years after he first joined St Austell Brewery, you sense that he still feels the need to work that little bit harder than everyone else. As he says: “The first half of my time here was trying to prove I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth. I was earning my stripes, conscious of the fortunate circumstances that presented me with that opportunity. That’s still there, every minute of every day.”


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