The latest Head of Steam outlet opened in Leicester in April.
Richard Turnbull

UNW Exclusive Client Interview: John Foots (Financial Director - Camerons Brewery)

Founded way back in 1865 by John William Cameron in Hartlepool, County Durham, Camerons Brewery is the largest independent brewer in the North East and recently acquired The Leeds Brewery and Head of Steam brands as it evolves its business strategy. We recently chatted to Finance Director John Foots about his career and Camerons plans for The Head of Steam brand.

As a qualified chartered accountant, could you please expand a little on your move from professional services into senior finance roles within the pub industry?

I spent 8 years in insolvency practice at PwC after graduating from Manchester University with a Maths degree, before joining International Maritime Group in 1998. My first experience in a senior finance position in the pub industry came in the early part of 2000 via long-time associate Ron Turnbull, who was then the Finance Director at Pubmaster. The company was well established, and I had a great experience helping that business grow substantially before it was sold to Punch at the back end of 2003.

I joined Camerons Brewery as Financial Controller in February 2007 after spending a few years at Wessex Taverns. If you care to use the old football saying, I’ve always viewed Camerons as somewhat of a ‘sleeping giant’, and it’s been an incredibly successful venture where I am a member of the main Board as Group Finance Director.

Camerons operates within a mature industry, how challenging has it been to ensure you can adapt in a rapidly changing marketplace?

That’s a very interesting question. Camerons does operate within a mature industry, but a changing and evolving one too. Real ale has had a bit of a chequered past, and Camerons itself went through a host of owners in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

We’ve changed as the industry has changed. When I arrived at Camerons, we were a big brewer with a few tenanted pubs and a free trade business. However, a combination of the economic downturn and smoking ban meant they were no longer as viable, so our strategy had to change to become more about managing our own brands. This is something that I think is coming to fruition now for us.

Camerons Brewery acquired the Head of Steam brand in 2013. In what ways has it helped you shift perceptions of the real ale industry and appeal to a new demographic?

Drinking habits have certainly changed, and there be a certain fussiness that there wasn’t previously, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Younger men and women perhaps don’t drink as much as they used to, preferring to be taken on a journey of the wide range of flavoured, international brands we can offer.

But it’s challenging and why we changed approach. We used to focus on the male dominated village pubs out in the countryside and in remote locations, but it’s not like that anymore. Our primary focus is now on the big city centres that are student dominated, but also an opportunity to attract a more affluent market, too. The Head of Steam brand has been a major factor in attracting this demographic.

**Camerons Brewery acquired the Head of Steam brand in 2013. In what ways has it helped you shift perceptions of the real ale industry and appeal to a new demographic?

We’re looking to develop it on a national scale. Chris (Soley, CEO) and myself are focussing on acquisition, property and operational teams as we aim to open between 8-10 Head of Steam outlets per year, which is no mean feat!

This year has seen Head of Steam outlets open in Didsbury, Nottingham, Leicester and Birmingham, with two others in the pipeline for Derby and Cardiff, and potentially Manchester and York. A great deal of effort and research has been undertaken into these locations to ensure that the brand can fit in and work there.

Around 4 years ago, with the help of UNW Partner David Ward, we purchased another pub group, The Leeds Brewery. While Head of Steam is our primary focus, we can’t lose sight of that or the tenanted pubs we still have, as they are also doing extremely well.

Despite this success, could you share the biggest challenge faced by Camerons Brewery during your time?

We have a very supportive bank in HSBC who buy into our vision, but loaning from a bank does mean there can be certain constraints put upon us. We’ve been well supported as we look to re-structure into a vertical, integrated business model and focus on creating and managing our own brands, but there have also been times where we’ve had to be rather prudent, but we like it that way.

As the business changes, there may come a time when we look at different business models, but our current strategy is working very well for us.

You previously referred to your working history with UNW Tax Partner David Ward, could you describe the working relationship that Camerons shares with UNW?

Yes, the main link is David, who I’ve known for many years. He’s very technical and knows the pub industry well. The work David and his team do for us ticks all the boxes. We’ve worked with them for around three years, and there will be more work with UNW coming up as we look to re-structure the business and potentially have separate property, brewing and brand companies going forward.

I like the set-up at UNW, and it’s filled with professionals with ‘big4’ experience. I think the journey UNW has been on is pretty similar to ourselves in terms of trajectory, which aids the relationship as we matter to them. The working relationship is far more personal and supportive than we have experienced in the past.

Finally, could you describe a relevant piece of advice that has stuck with you throughout your career?

Personally, I learnt in my career to never presume the person you’re talking to knows more about the subject than you. Always back yourself. You’re also never too old to learn!

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