James Watt once hurled stuffed cats from a helicopter over the City of London in a publicity stunt designed to lampoon ‘fat-cat’ corporate greed. Now he’s preparing a charm offensive with the same pinstriped ranks of financiers as his craft beer business BrewDog heads towards a float on the stock market.
The blockbuster listing, rumoured to be worth more than £2billion, is one of the most hotly-anticipated IPOs among City investors keen to buy into a premium brand following the successful float of shoe brand Dr Martens.
The brewer – famous for its guerrilla marketing campaigns – has appointed high-powered lawyers at Freshfields to help chart a course towards the stock exchange, bolstering a reshaped top team that includes finance chief Niall McCallum and former Asda boss Allan Leighton, who joined as its chairman and Watt’s mentor four months ago.
Toast to the future: James Watt says BrewDog will stay rebellious
Watt, chief executive of the firm, says a float will give ‘longer term liquidity’ to its existing individual investors, who currently have a single day each March to trade shares. ‘We’re pretty much working towards IPO for them as much as anyone else. They are the heart and soul of the business,’ he says, speaking over Zoom from his office at BrewDog’s production hub in Aberdeenshire, dressed in a blue and white striped jumper with a white beanie hat covering his shaven head.
BrewDog’s knack for grabbing headlines – including the taxidermy ‘cat bombs’ – have given it an international following. Other stunts included creating a ‘BrewDog Viagra’ beer for Prince William’s 2012 wedding taglined ‘Arise Prince Willy’ and Watt and co-founder Martin Dickie dressing up as red light district sex workers for a crowdfunding ad.
It has loudly championed its initiatives to share profits with employees and cap salaries for bosses at 14 times the lowest paid worker. Annual sales growth has averaged 57 per cent over the past decade and it is on course to sell 400million cans this year.
But the past two years have delivered shocks for a company that had become accustomed to springing its own. The pandemic at times left its pubs deserted – and Watt sleeping in the office as he was working so hard to cope with the financial battering.
Worse still, he received a scathing public attack with accusations of a ‘rotten culture’ levelled by his own former staff last summer – an episode he says made him belatedly face up to his own responsibilities as company co-founder and boss. Watt is, therefore, perhaps uncharacteristically coy on the timing of any IPO – at least for the time being. Stock market conditions and the outlook for Covid curbs on bars must be right to press the button, he says. ‘The key thing is getting that certainty and stability back,’ he adds, cautioning that the final trigger point for an IPO ‘could be this year or some point in the future, we’re working towards it’. Companies rarely signal when exactly they will float until they are ready to list.
Access to fresh capital will also allow BrewDog to pursue an aggressive international expansion strategy and continue taking on established labels. ‘The top 10 beer brands are all companies which are 100 years old, in what other industry does that happen?’
A float has also long been promised for the 200,000 ‘equity punks’ brought on board through crowdfunding rounds since the brand’s launch in 2007. Since then, the Aberdeenshire-based brand has led the march of craft brewing into the mainstream: opening branded bars and hotels at home and overseas, and selling in supermarkets.
Several other craft brewers – including Meantime and Camden Town Brewery – have been snapped up by brewing giants in recent years. But Watt, who counts a US private equity firm as a minority investor, dismisses suggestions he might be caught up in the latest buyout frenzy, which is being led by private equity firms. ‘We’ve had loads and loads of inbound [takeover interest]’, including two approaches last year. ‘We’re very passionate about our independence,’ he adds.
But institutional investors may still be nervous after last year’s staff storm. A group of 60 employees published an open letter accusing it of pursuing growth at all costs, and Watt personally of leaving staff ‘burnt out, afraid and miserable’. It appears BrewDog’s unconventional approach had spilled over into its workplace culture.
Watt, suitably contrite, says the allegations were ‘difficult to hear’ and the episode offered an ‘opportunity to get better as a company’. Covid, he says, triggered ‘some tough people decisions’. It shut down its 100 bars and small collection of hotels through a string of lockdowns and played havoc with BrewDog’s plans.
He admits that, even before that, expansion was so rapid that ‘maybe we didn’t focus on the element of strategy that we should have’.
But there is a limit to how much he’s willing to grovel. ‘I think a quote I heard about leadership was if you want to keep everyone happy, you should give away ice cream as opposed to run a company – sometimes things we do are not popular.
‘And that’s kind of part and parcel of running the company, I suppose. But some of the personal elements are tough to hear. Before this I was working on a North Atlantic fishing boat. I’d never been a CEO before. I take the responsibility [for BrewDog’s 2,500 employees] very seriously.’
Outrageous: James Watt, left, and Martin Dickie prepare to drop ‘fat cats’ over the City
A ‘period of reflection on my own leadership’ followed the criticisms – as well as an independent review into the company’s culture by specialist Wiser. BrewDog then conducted leadership training, gave staff a pay rise and introduced a whistleblowing hotline. So should prospective investors be concerned there may be more skeletons in the closet? Watt says: ‘We’ve done a very thorough, transparent response to those issues. I think we’re now in a very good place.’
Meanwhile, Watt says he ‘doubled down’ on property investments during the pandemic, swooping on bargain sites for its bars and hotels. Huge new venues will soon open in Waterloo, London and on the Las Vegas Strip. Watt spent Christmas isolating alone with Covid in front of Netflix, seeing his two daughters later in the festive season. That was followed by a trip to the Maldives, swimming with sharks. He’s planning to release a documentary this year to bemoan the routine killing of sharks around the world.
But, despite what appears to have been a period in which he has matured, Watt insists the growing pains and the course towards a City listing will not mean the end of BrewDog’s rebellious image.
‘If I thought going into an IPO would change the essence of the business in any way, then it wouldn’t be part of the plan,’ Watt says. ‘We might be a slightly unconventional public company, but we’ll continue wearing our heart on our sleeve, continue to take a stand for the things that we believe in,’ he adds.
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