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As I See It

Doggedness has created brewing billionaires

Terry smiling headAfter an awards ceremony at the Dorchester in London some ten years ago I was introduced to a pony-tailed young man in the hotel reception who told me had some exciting plans in the Aberdeenshire area.

He sat alone, looking a little lost among the black tie guests pouring from the ballroom. He said he and his friend wanted to build a brewery. Not just any brewery, but the biggest in Scotland.

I admit that I thought the young man, Martin Dickie, and his friend James Watt were deluding themselves by thinking they could achieve such heights. “What? Bigger than Tennent’s? ” I said, disbelievingly. I recall my reaction being met with a stony look of conviction.

At the time, Tennent’s and Scottish & Newcastle ruled the brewing roost in Scotland. But the brewing industry was about to undergo further upheaval. Less than a year later S&N was broken up by Carlsberg and Heineken and the following year Tennent’s was acquired from its US owner by Dublin-based cider company C&C. The craft beer phenomenon had yet to take off and when it did, Ellon-based BrewDog was barking loudest.

Dickie and Watt have gone a long way towards fulfilling a dream in a relatively short period of time. The UK spread of BrewDog bars was quickly emulated overseas.  A brewery has just opened in Ohio, and as Daily Business reported on Saturday, the co-founders have just raised £100 million, giving BrewDog a £1 billion valuation.

It’s a remarkable achievement, built on a blend of self-belief, dogged (pardon the pun) determination and, at times, sheer-bloodymindedness.

Until now, money for the venture has been raised mainly through that other phenomenon that has grown up alongside them: crowdfunding.

The pair have also created an aura around them that has drawn admiration and gasps of disapproval in equal measure.

James Watt and Martin Dickie

James Watt and Martin Dickie: unconventional

They certainly did not set out to do things the conventional way, nor did they achieve their phenomenal growth by currying favour with those upon whom start-ups are supposed to rely – banks, council officials, regulators…

They got themselves noticed by maverick displays of behaviour and even launched their crowdfunding campaigns with a strong lack of deference for institutional funds who might have been prepared to back them.

They showed no interest in conforming to corporate rules. When potential suitors were said to be circling the company just over a year ago, Watt tweeted: “Go away silly big companies. BrewDog is not for sale, especially not to you.”

Yet, the aggressive and, it has to be said, sometimes offensive stunts, seem to have been toned down as they have sought some serious money to support their next phase of growth.

After running hugely successful fund-raising campaigns through their army of “punk investors” they now appear to have gone straight and found new friends among the established private equity community.

They have even drawn criticism from erstwhile supporters over their battles over naming rights with a Midlands pub owner and an attempt to claim the rights over the word “punk”.

Some of those who welcomed BrewDog as a breath of fresh air in an industry dominated for decades by brewers producing lousy products, began to lose faith with the craft beer messiahs. There were accusations of bullying tactics and behaving like a “multinational machine”.

However, just as Dickie and Watt show signs of joining the establishment, so their supporters need to wise up to the realities of running a big business.

BrewDog – already being nicknamed the ‘Brewnicorn’ after joining the billionaire club – is an astonishing success story.

Dickie and Watt may have faced a few wagging fingers and raised eyebrows at their antics. Yet it has worked and it has given Scotland another reason to celebrate.

Cheers, boys.

A decade of BrewDog stunts:

  • They caused a storm after creating an ale served through the bodies of dead animals.
  • They spoofed Guinness’s iconic ‘Surfer’ advert by wearing a horse suit and frolicking in the Aberdeenshire sea and a local swimming pool.
  • To celebrate a crowdfunding record, they chartered a helicopter to fly across London and drop stuffed “fat cats” over the City.
  • After a replica bar was discovered in China, Watt wrote to the owner thanking him for him copying the “motherf*****g cathedrals of craft beer”, but suggesting he didn’t do it again.
  • When Russia banned homosexual propaganda at the Winter Olympics, Brewdog launched a beer called ‘Hello My Name is Vladimir’.
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