The Greenalls Group PLC History


Public Company
Founded: 1762
Employees: 13,000
Revenues: £1.1 billion (US $1.8 billion)
Stock Exchanges: London
SICs: 5813 Drinking Places; 5921 Liquor Stores; 7011 Hotels & Motels; 5812 Eating Places

Company Perspectives:

Our businesses are focused on specific market segments and range from pubs and pub restaurants with budget-priced accommodation through to first class leisure venues and quality hotels, specialist off-licenses, wholesaling and white spirit manufacturing. We continue to pursue our strategy of building a powerful, innovative company whose retail brands and concepts are positioned in growth areas and in key locations across the country. We constantly strive to provide our customers with exceptional choice, quality and value in an increasingly sophisticated and demanding marketplace. We are committed to developing the skills of our employees, tapping in to their expertise in order to maximise the value of our businesses and generate progressive returns for our shareholders.

Company History:

Operated for more than two centuries as a regional brewer and distiller, The Greenalls Group PLC has in the space of just a few years gone from what Management Today called "just another middle-ranking family brewer stuck in the provinces" to a £1 billion collection of more than 900 pubs, 175 restaurants, and hundreds of package wine and liquor shops. Its De Vere chain of 20 hotels includes the famous Grand in Brighton. The company's transformation has been credited in large part to Peter Greenall, latest in a line of Greenalls that stretches back to 1762. Peter was elected chief executive of the publicly traded group in 1997. It had been more than a quarter-century since a Greenall had held that office.

Mid-18th Century Origins

Patriarch Thomas Greenall learned the brewing trade from his wife's family in the 1750s and founded his own brewery in northwestern England at St. Helens in 1762. Brewing was a highly competitive business, with rivals ranging from the lone homebrewer to inns and pubs that brewed their own ales to wholesale brew masters like Greenall. Though the founder dabbled in nail making, coal mining, and yarn spinning throughout the late 18th century, brewing remained the family's core interest. By the turn of the century, Thomas had brought sons Edward, William, and Peter into the business. The Greenalls began to purchase their own pubs and inns as early as 1800, helping to accelerate a gradual elimination of their competition. In Britain, it was customary for bars owned by breweries to carry only the beers brewed by the parent company. For nearly two centuries, these "tied houses" were a profitable segment of Greenall's business.

In 1788, Greenall formed a separate partnership with William Orrett and Thomas Lyon to purchase the Saracen's Head Brewery in nearby Wilderspool. Business was so good that within just three years the three partners undertook a £4,400 expansion of the operation.

The family business interests endured a rapid succession of generations in the first two decades of the 19th century. In 1805, both Thomas Greenall and William Orrett died. By 1817, the passing of William and Peter Greenall left only Edward to operate the growing St. Helens brewery. Just a year later, Thomas Lyon died. His nephew and heir, also Thomas, was interested in the Wilderspool brewery only as an investment. In 1818, 60-year-old Edward assigned eldest son Thomas to manage the family's half interest in Wilderspool and charged younger son Peter with management of the family brewery at St. Helens.

While Peter pursued politics, eventually winning election to Parliament, Thomas proved to be the brewer of his generation. By this time, the family businesses had grown to the point that the Greenalls served as chairmen, guiding the overall direction of the company but leaving daily management concerns to other top executives. Throughout this period, ownership of the pubs and inns through which Greenall's porters, sparkling ales, and bitters were dispensed was a key to maintaining a strong competitive position.

Consolidation of Family Holdings in Mid-19th Century

When both Peter and Thomas died in the late 1840s, their younger brother, Parliamentarian Gilbert Greenall, inherited the family's St. Helens and Wilderspool holdings. Gilbert appointed his nephew, John Whitley, to manage the Wilderspool brewery in 1853 and set out himself to rebuild, retool, and enlarge the St. Helens operation mid-decade.

Longtime silent partner Thomas Lyon died in 1859 and his estate sold his stake in the Wilderspool brewery to Gilbert Greenall, making the Greenall family the sole owners of both the St. Helens and the Wilderspool operations. Gilbert marked the occasion by changing the unified firm's name to Greenall & Company. Not long thereafter, Greenalls eliminated its last major local competitor by acquiring the Dentons Green Brewery in St. Helens. In 1880, Gilbert (who was made a baronet in 1876 by Queen Victoria) merged the St. Helens and Wilderspool breweries as Greenall Whitley & Company Limited and installed himself as the corporation's first chairman. Though operating under the same corporate umbrella, the two houses retained their separate identities and brands. By 1882, Greenall's annual sales volume totaled nearly 90,000 barrels of beer and the company owned about 200 pubs.

Sir Gilbert guided the expansion and modernization of the Wilderspool brewery as well as a flurry of acquisitions in the waning years of the 19th century. His four-year, £6,750 modernization program brought in state-of-the-art brewing and bottling equipment, upgraded the company's railway access, and expanded the operation's office space. Acquisitions included the Halewood, Richardson's, and Spring breweries, bringing with them more than two dozen pubs. A rapid series of untimely deaths accelerated the family's succession plans when in the space of just two years both Sir Gilbert and his second-in-command, Peter Whitley, died, propelling the chairman's son, also Gilbert, into the leadership of two growing breweries at the young age of 27.

The new chairman suffered a trial by fire in the first two decades of the 20th century. He began the transition from horse-drawn transportation to gasoline-driven vehicles as early as 1908, adopting some of the first vehicles of their type. World War I brought extreme deprivation to the United Kingdom. Rationing of all foods--including brewing ingredients--and manpower shortages made this period a difficult one for Greenall Whitley, but the company emerged from the conflict unscathed.

Greenall Whitley resumed its acquisition strategy in the period between the World Wars, purchasing nine pubs in 1919 alone. Four years later, the brewery diversified into wine and liquors through the acquisition of Gilbert & John Greenall Limited, a distillery owned by another branch of the family. Though the business remained concentrated in the northwest region of Britain, acquisitions gave Greenall Whitley a growing share of the area's breweries and pubs in the early 1930s. The purchase of three operations in as many years added nearly 90 ale houses and inns to the company roster.

After four decades as chairman, Lord Gilbert Greenall (who had been given the hereditary title First Baron Daresbury of Walton by King George V in 1927) died in 1938, passing leadership of Greenall Whitley to his son Edward. In his nine years of service to the company, Edward made a special effort to restore and preserve the company's historic pubs, as well as maintain high standards of quality in the breweries.

Initial Public Offering in 1952

The post-World War II era brought many changes to Greenall Whitley and the brewing industry overall. In 1947, Edward Greenall was forced by ill health to accede the chairmanship at the age of 45. Since his son was too young to take on the role, the task fell to John D. Whitley, who had served on the board of directors since 1938 and as managing director since 1942. Though a member of the extended family, Whitley became the first non-Greenall to lead the company in its 186-year history. The new chairman guided Greenall Whitley through a period of brewing industry consolidation that saw the company emerge as one of Great Britain's leading regional brewers and pub owners. In 1952, the brewery made an initial public offering of its stock to raise money to fund its acquisition strategy. Though shares in Greenall Whitley have traded publicly since then, the Greenall family retained a tight hold on voting control.

From 1949 to 1961, Greenall Whitley bolstered its position in its ten-county region of northwestern Britain through the acquisition of four local breweries, more than 200 pubs, and a distillery/wine cellar. By 1961, the company boasted more than 1,200 pubs. Larger inns and catering facilities were reorganized as the Compass Hotels division. Having marketed its brews, historically, under separate labels, the company began to consolidate its disparate brands in the late 1950s, unifying label designs and point of sale displays. The new line included Old Chester Ale, Bull's Eye brown ale, Sterling stout, and Champion Pale Ale and was backed by Greenall Whitley's first corporate advertising campaign. Sponsorships of regional dart, fishing, and racing tournaments helped keep the Greenall Whitley name in front of the beer-drinking public.

The company endured another traumatic succession in the late 1960s, when chairman John D. Whitley died in 1967 at the relatively young age of 56. He was succeeded by Clarence Hughes Moors, who served just two years before his career was cut short by a deadly accident. Edward Greenall, who was described in a 1996 Management Today article as "a passionate brewer but not a man who wanted to run the company on a day-to-day basis," assumed the chairmanship for just two years before turning the job over to his 38-year-old attorney, Christopher J.B. Hatton.

The 1970s witnessed a dramatic consolidation of Greenall Whitley's operations. All but one of the company's breweries--even the family's founding site at St. Helens--were shuttered, centralizing all production at Warrington by the end of the decade. The company appeared to be gearing up to mount a challenge to the leading national brands, but a combination of factors--not least of which was the return of a Greenall to the executive offices--would alter that course.

Early 1990s Transformation

Though Greenall Whitley was led by J.D. Pritchard-Barrett from 1980 to 1992 and Andrew Thomas from 1992 to 1997, young Peter Greenall emerged to steal the limelight. Having attended Eton, Cambridge, and the London Business School, Greenall joined the family firm's finance and planning division in 1980 at the age of 27. He earned a seat on the board of directors in 1984 and served as managing director of Greenalls Brewery from 1988 to 1990 before being appointed chairman of Greenalls Inns.

As Greenall made his ascent through the ranks, several factors converged on Britain's brewing industry. Overcapacity in the face of consumption that declined one percent per year from 1979 to 1996 made it hard for regional brewers like Greenall Whitley to compete with large national brands like Bass and Courage. Furthermore, beer drinkers were consuming a smaller proportion of their brew in pubs than they had in the past, down from 91 percent in 1976 to less than 75 percent by 1994. The final blow came in 1989, when Britain's Monopolies and Mergers Commission handed down its "Beer Orders," regulations intended to weaken the bonds between brewers and pubs. The new law ruled that brewers either had to sell or "untie" half of any pubs they owned over a 2,000-unit limit. If they decided to maintain more than 2,000 bars, they would have to offer at least one competitor's brew.

By the time the law went into effect in 1992, several middling brewers like Greenall Whitley had already seen the writing on the wall. The company's board of directors had in fact been considering an exit from the brewing business but foresaw predictable resistance from the Greenall family, which still held a controlling stake. Appointed managing director of the group in 1992, Peter Greenall has been cast as a major deciding factor. According to Andrew Davidson's 1996 profile of Greenall for Management Today, he convinced his father, former chairman Edward, that instead of trying to go head-to-head against the national brews, the company should liquidate its brewery to concentrate on the retail end of the business.

The decision to close down his family's own 230-year-old brewing business and put hundreds of loyal employees out of work was neither easy nor popular, but in hindsight, it was wise. Renamed The Greenalls Group in 1991, the company set out to rejuvenate hundreds of its best-performing locations with a particular focus on making them more appealing to women and families. In stark contrast to the tiny, dark, male-oriented ale houses that had come to typify a British neighborhood bar, refurbished outlets were often much larger and more extravagantly decorated, featuring video-walls, kiddie play areas, and a more diverse range of food and drink.

Pubs were Greenalls' most compelling business and the one that got the most press in the early 1990s, but the company participated in other sectors as well. In 1996 the pub division, Greenalls Inns, contributed about 28 percent of sales and more than 40 percent of operating profit. The Greenalls Hotels & Leisure division, which operated 175 restaurants and 66 hotels ranging from budget to four-star, chipped in slightly more than 11 percent of revenues and 12.7 percent of operating profit. Greenalls Franchise & Wholesaling, Wine Cellar, and Distilling segments accounted for less than ten percent each of revenues.

Though the family relinquished its voting control over Greenalls in the early years of the decade, fears that it was vulnerable to takeover proved unfounded. In fact, Greenalls acquired two of its most important competitors, Devenish and Boddington--both brewers-turned-bar owners&mdashø become Britain's largest independent chain of pubs and restaurants mid-decade. Sales more than doubled from £494.7 million in 1992 to break the £1 billion mark in 1996, and pretax net increased from £57 million to £148.7 million. In recognition of his key contribution to the company's successful transformation, 47-year-old Peter Greenall (who inherited the title Lord Daresbury upon his father's death in 1996) was promoted to group chief executive early in 1997.

Principal Divisions: Pubs & Restaurants; Hotels & Leisure; Franchise & Wholesaling; Cellars.

Further Reading:

  • Aspinwall, Mark, "Overregulated Beer of the Realm," Journal of Commerce and Commercial, March 10, 1993, p. 6A.
  • Bidlake, Suzanne, "Northern Pub Retailer Looks for an Inn South," Marketing, July 18, 1991, p. 5.
  • Cope, Nigel, "Bitter Battles in the Beer Business," Accountancy, May 1993, pp. 32-35.
  • Davidson, Andrew, "Peter Greenall," Management Today, February 1996, pp. 40-43.
  • "Down the Hatch: British Brewing," The Economist, August 3, 1996, pp. 56-57.
  • "From the Boozer to the Brand Palace?," The Economist, May 13, 1995, p. 62.
  • Harvey, Randy, "Family-Style Fare on Tap as the Traditional British Pub Evolves," Los Angeles Times, June 14, 1996, p. D6.
  • "The Last Days of the Beerage," The Economist, May 20, 1989, pp. 69-70.
  • Nikko Securities Co., (Europe) Ltd., "Greenalls Group--Company Report," The Investext Group, July 1, 1996.
  • "The Price of a Pint: Britain's Brewing Industry," The Economist, October 26, 1991, p. 84.
  • "Pub Games," The Economist, October 21, 1995, p. 71.
  • Slater, J. Norman, A Brewer's Tale, Warrington, England: Greenall Whitley and Co., Ltd., 1980.
  • "They Told You So," The Economist, August 31, 1991, pp. 49-50.
  • "What's Your Pleasure?," The Economist, December 21, 1996, pp. 83-84.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 21. St. James Press, 1998.