The 21st century hasn’t exactly been kind to British pubs. From 2010 to 2016, one in five closed, swept away by the perfect storm of supermarket alcohol sales, rising rates, the smoking ban and stricter enforcement of drink-driving laws.
Rooney Anand has seen it all, having been CEO of FTSE 250 giant Greene King since 2005, and the head of its brewing division since 2001. Since Anand became boss, revenues at the Bury St Edmunds business quadrupled to over £2bn, in large measure as a result of acquisitions including Loch Fyne, Capital Pub Company and most recently Spirit Pubs.
In the process, the East Anglian family brewer has become a national mega-chain, with over 1800 retail and 1200 tenanted pubs and restaurants.
One of only a handful of non-white CEOs in the FTSE 350, Anand grew up in Walsall and made his name at United Biscuits and later Sara Lee. Below is an edit of a conversation MT had with him over a convivial cup of tea in Greene King’s London satellite office.
Rewind to the mid 80s - what were you like when you started out?
I was a deep disappointment to my parents because I didn't want to be a doctor like them. I'm still deeply squeamish. Studying construction at poly probably wasn't the smartest decision, but it did allow me to run £20m building sites at 19, while I was working for Tarmac on my year out. Being a graduate in the building industry was quite tough. Being an Asian graduate was... character building.
From building sites to beer - that's some shift.
I did an MBA at Aston and knew already I wanted to go into marketing. Understanding what makes the customer tick is a fascinating, endless challenge. I started in brand management at United Biscuits, then got some strategy, logistics and operations experience. I got a call to take my family to Yorkshire and become the marketing director for Sara Lee. I became MD there in 1999, before moving to Greene King in 2001.
I love all the products I've sold - biscuits, cakes, confectionery, what's not to love? But beer - that's just manna from heaven. As Samuel Johnson said, 'There's nothing which has yet been contrived by man by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern.'
How did you find the transition from marketing to general management?
I confess that the limit of my career ambition was to be a marketing director, so in a sense I’m on overtime. You feel a deep apprehension verging on panic when you become an MD, but you grow up quickly. As a general manager, you feel really accountable. When you become a CEO at a listed company, it's amplified - you feel like your PDR [performance and development review] is being conducted in public every 12 weeks.
Would you say you had much of a career plan?
I haven’t been hugely proactive in managing my career. I’d probably still be working for United Biscuits if someone hadn’t called me. But by being situ for long periods of time, it does force you to think about what worked and what didn’t last time. You have to reflect, analyse and think – that makes you better at business.
Greene King’s changed a great deal since you arrived. Has it been difficult to keep the culture through all those acquisitions?
There was a real family feel in Greene King when I arrived and hopefully that hasn’t diminished one iota. It’s like a Patek Philippe, you look after it for a generation then hand it on. I think that comes from having a family presence – when I arrived, the nephew of Graham Greene the novelist was still on the board. The previous chairman and chief executive Tim Bridge was with the company for 45 years, his mother was a King.
Acquisitions have been a big part of Greene King's success since even before I took over in 2005. You're well advised to learn from the companies you acquire rather than just imposing your way. Greene King's a bit like Britain - we're magpies, we nick all the best ideas and that makes us better.
Not everyone’s done quite as well as you - what do you make of the decline of the British pub?
There were too many pubs, just like there were too many post offices and petrol stations. But no one mentions the new pubs that are opening, in train stations, airports and retail parks. It's our job to ensure the longevity of the British pub by making sure it is where people actually hang out.
How political should CEOs be, on issues like business rates or Brexit?
I'm not comfortable with being a big CEO figurehead: it's an abuse of your position to impose political views on your colleagues, and they might jar with your customers. On a personal level, I was a reluctant Remainer - the son of immigrants, the husband to a French wife - but you have to believe in the enduring qualities of the British people.
Why do you think there are so few non-white CEOs of big British firms?
My parents had to struggle a bit more because of race, but it wasn't an issue when I was coming through. The debate needs to be reframed. You want people from different backgrounds for a richer company culture, but too often the debate about diversity is dominated by conversations about gender. The discussion should be framed around merit and opportunity.
I think it’s fantastic that Greene King took the view that hiring an Asian from outside the industry was worth doing, not because they thought they’d get some points for it but because they thought I might be alright at the job, right?