Running a family firm, listed on the stock exchange and operating in a fast-moving sector has its challenges but Rob Theakston has big plans for Black Sheep’s future, writes Mark Casci.
Perhaps more than any other name, that of Theakston will always be linked with Yorkshire brewing.
From the town of Masham on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales, Rob Theakston’s family has been brewing ales since 1827 but the company for which he brews is still a relative newcomer on the block.
In 1992, his father Paul split with the long-established brewery which bears his famous name, following its takeover by giant Scottish and Newcastle and founded the aptly-named Black Sheep.
He would go on to build the Black Sheep name into one of the brewing industries most respected brands until his retirement last year.
Rob, who has been managing director since 2012, has been in charge during one of the most exciting and challenging times for the industry in its lengthy history.
You soak it all up and when you look outside you realise that there are a lot worse things to do than brewing. But you have to run it right.Rob Theakston
The explosion of craft brewing has rocked many breweries back on their heels.
However, by adapting with the times and keeping true to the essence of what the brewery was founded, Rob is set to take Black Sheep into an exciting new chapter.
Speaking to The Yorkshire Post over a coffee in the newly-refurbished visitor centre in Masham, you could be forgiven on occasion for thinking Rob is talking about a newly incorporated craft brewery.
He talks about the recent launch of a milkshake flavoured IPA beer, something I naïvely suggest many lovers of Black Sheep traditional bitter would find to be heresy.
However he strongly disagrees.
“What we try and do, and what I have always said, is that it is about balance,” he said.
“I don’t want to alienate the guys that this business is built on. They are the people that have been with us on the journey.
“Ultimately, I do not want to chuck out the baby with the bath water. We focus on things like best bitters, they are still there and are a key part of the engine room of what we do.
“Then we can add in these new things and keep things such that it doesn’t completely skew it one way or another.
“Nobody has an extremist view. We want a situation where everyone thinks what we do is very good. We want to play a long-term game and move the dials that engages everyone.”
It is all a far cry from how Black Sheep was set up. The brewery now produces its own lager. It is currently in the process of establishing its down packaging line and is eyeing up new retail outlets.
Rob himself has am ambition of having 20 Black Sheep pubs around the region and says he wants the brand to “own Yorkshire”.
It is all in his view the best strategy for keeping the brewery relevant for the modern marketplace.
“My father running it the way he did. And that thing worked. That was what the market wanted.
“Craft beer as it is, did not exist then, certainly on the level that it does now.
“Certainly in the last 15 years it has just exploded. Yes, we could have been sharper to those particular decisions earlier but you do what was right in those particular moments. But the direction of travel now is very exciting.
“When you have the opportunity to do different things, it naturally brings with it excitement because you can get stuck into and make it work, and off of the back of a really great brand.”
Rob’s family’s involvement with Black Sheep remains strong. His brother Joe is sales and marketing director at the brewery.
However, unlike other family businesses, Black Sheep is a plc with shareholder accountability. It all makes for a very interesting climate which Rob has to operate in.
“I always think this particular business is a funny one in the sense that we are a plc.
“But it was built by my father and on that family principle, and that really adds to the business and its people. They respect that and it is vitally important.
“You are forced to be straight down the middle and do the right things at the right time.”
Rob got involved with the brewery after attending college and says the business was embedded “under my skin” from a very early age.
“You see what you do for the community,” he said.
“It is not just ourselves, there are a number of businesses in Masham that commit to the community. We employ 100 people here, they are all local, we have multiple family members within the business.
“You soak it all up and when you look outside you realise that there are a lot worse things to do than brewing. But you have to run it right.”
Black Sheep acquired York Brewery in December of last year, saving 40 jobs in the process and Rob says that he cannot rule out further additions to the flock in the future.
The popularity of Black Sheep’s core brands have proven on occasion to be a mixed blessing for the business.
Rob recounts occasions when they have visited pubs to try and entice them to take on their beer only to be told that it can’t because it proves so popular that other beers in the pub go neglected.
Equally, the brand’s heritage can, he admits, put off trendy bars who see it as a heritage product.
“The amount of times we go into a bar and they say we are from Black Sheep and they say ‘this is a craft bar, you are too old’. We were only started in 1992, we are not that old!
“Then you hand over the beer and they recognise that it is really good. And then at the same time you can go down to the Dog and Duck and you can still get a pint of Black Sheep.”
Massive vindication came for Rob and his team at the last two Craft Beer Rising events he attended, in which some of the leading names in the sector approached them to say how much they rated their newer offerings.
“That was very much from us setting our guys loose and saying ‘go for it, no holds barred, we want you to create and do your own thing’.”
In 2019, it would appear that the Black Sheep term which the firm wears is an ethos very much alive and well.