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Fri 26th Jun 2015 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: Sector information flow, championing beer, fear of the night, and food and beverage, saviour of the high street
Authors: Paul Charity, Mike Benner, Paul Chase and Glyn Davies

Divergent information flow by Paul Charity

It seems to me that our sector is seeing two divergent trends when it comes to the provision of trading information. Broadly speaking, larger quoted companies seem to be moving away from providing too much information, too regularly. Emerging smaller companies seem keener to publicise their progress.

One of Britain’s largest investment groups recently backed moves to end quarterly reporting for quoted companies, arguing that the updates provide little value for companies that operate in long-term business cycles. Legal & General Investment Management, one of Europe’s largest asset managers, said companies should take advantage of rules introduced by regulators last November that make quarterly reporting voluntary. In a letter to FTSE 350 company boards, Mark Zinkula, LGIM chief executive, said: “We support the recent regulatory change that removes the requirement for companies to disclose financial reports on a quarterly basis. While each company is unique, we understand that providing the market with quarterly updates adds little value for companies that are operating in long-term business cycles.” One top 20 investor in Diageo said: “This is a very good thing. We do not want companies obsessing over the short-term ups and downs of profits and sales. They need to have a clear long-term strategy in place, then profits and sales will follow.”

Ending quarterly reporting received support a few weeks back from a surprising source – sector investor Luke Johnson. He argued that quarterly reporting puts too much pressure on management to hit short-term targets at the expense of medium-term progress. Hard to imagine, in reality, Luke saying to his management teams that he wanted to have less reporting on trading progress so they can focus on the long-term gains.

McDonald’s moves away from monthly reporting next month in favour of quarterly reporting. True, the company is the last major company in the sector reporting like-for-likes with such regularity. No doubt the monthly regime was adopted when the company’s like-for-like gains were proof of its growing market domination. Right now, the monthly like-for-likes serve as a reminder of the serious challenges the company faces – and add to the enormous pressure on management.

Famously, JD Wetherspoon founder Tim Martin asked Deutsche Bank analyst Geof Collyer how the company could improve transparency – Collyer suggested quarterly reporting. Now Wetherspoon, like many of its large quoted peers, is struggling to grow like-for-likes, quarterly reporting might seem like a less good idea.

Broadly speaking, the past decade has seen quoted companies less keen to come under journalistic scrutiny. There was a stage when Punch, Mitchells & Butlers, Greene King, Marston’s, and JD Wetherspoon held press conferences on results day. Only Wetherspoon now still hosts journalists – and, to be fair, produces the most transparent results allowing direct comparison of key performance indicators across the past decade. (In fact, Wetherspoon is also an oddity in tending to stress the worst parts of its performance to make political points.)

The phalanx of unquoted emerging companies is moving in the opposite direction. Many are keen to publicise their progress and publish their results in a pro-active fashion, keen to stay in charge of their own narratives as they move along their life-cycles. The keenness to publicise their own figures is fostered by their own success – often, they are achieving like-for-like (and other) growth that larger quoted companies can only dream of in the current competitive climate.

The internet has improved visibility across the unquoted sector, too. There was a time, within living memory, when a physical visit to Companies House, taking at least half a day, would be needed to access a company’s annual results. Now Companies House sends electronic alerts when a company has filed its results – and they can be downloaded in about ten minutes flat. The most conservative parts of the unquoted sector have moved to greater transparency. I remember an executive of a well-known family brewer pleading with me not to publish its results. Now, the same company, a decade on, happily posts its results to me.

There is a danger amid the welcome trend of unquoted companies supplying information when it comes to attracting smaller shareholders. A number are taking advantage of new finance-raising routes to attract smaller equity investors. One example is BrewDog, which has taken the route of becoming its own crowdfunding platform. No amateur when it comes to communication, would-be shareholders would have struggled to discover BrewDog’s self-decided value when the company published its most recent fund-raiding prospectus. Right now, BrewDog is happy to report, on its website, detailed information on individual shareholder referrals and numbers of investors in individual countries. But unlike other crowdfunding platforms, there’s no live figure for current committed investment. Shareholders rely on BrewDog updating them when it feels like it. And those who read the latest prospectus might have thought their money would cover the cost of its ambitious US brewery. Now, it seems, a separate equity fund-raise will take place for the US business. It all seems a bit fast and loose and may well lead to stricter rules on unquoted company disclosure.
Paul Charity is managing director of Propel Info

Cask, craft or local? It’s time to speak with one voice by Mike Benner

We all know that we are in the wondrous grip of a beer revolution. During my twenty one years in the British beer industry I can’t remember a time when we had it so good in terms of consumer interest in our national drink. But what are the drivers behind that revolution and what might come next?

I’m sure CAMRA would claim that real ale has been the key driver behind the renewed success of beer. The various companies who regard themselves as craft brewers would no doubt claim it is the American influence and that craft (inclusive of cask ale or just craft keg) is the leading factor. SIBA, might once have claimed that it is the promotion of and access to local beers that have driven increased interest in beer. The truth is that they are all right. Or, at least, I think they are.

There’s little doubt that real ale has enjoyed a sustained period of positive performance, whether by declining less than the rest of the beer market, or growing in volume and/or draft terms. The Cask Report, now in its seventh year, has provided the market with credible insight into the fortunes of cask ale and only last week Cask Matters revealed that real ale, particularly premium cask, is in growth. The success of CAMRA over the last ten years or so is a major factor in this; membership has doubled in little more than a decade and 170,000 people can’t be that wrong!

Likewise the craft movement has pumped some arguably much needed excitement and innovation into British beer. It’s created new avenues and opportunities that everyone is now trying to get a taste of. The influence of heavily hopped US-style beers has created a whole new level for beer and that is a very welcome development in every way – and in every format – cask, keg, cans and bottles.

Consumers love local. Every survey will tell you that; it is the single most important trend in food and drink according to the 2014 Top Ten Trends Report. In recent years it has been seen as ethical and meaningful to consumers besieged by recession and austerity leading to a rejection of global brands and the embracing of all things close to the comfort of home. It’s created a huge opportunity for the 1,400 or so brewers now filling their mash tuns. It’s created a whole new industry where small is good and provenance is demanded by engaged and affluent consumers.

As an industry, we have finally started working effectively together, albeit incompletely. Look for example at the excellent joined-up campaign involving SIBA, CAMRA and the BBPA to secure no less than three cuts in beer duty (many said it would never happen and many were wrong). Look at the global brewer-led ‘There’s a Beer for That’ campaign funded to the tune of £10 million and supported by many brewers, retailers and other groups including SIBA.

The need to speak with one clear voice is a driving force behind SIBA’s new vision to deliver the future of British beer and become the voice of British brewing. In so doing, we are not looking to exclude, but rather to include as many brewers as possible in SIBA, by providing practical business and commercial benefits and coherent campaigning and promotional activity, that no one else can match and to collaborate with other groups as much as possible.

Despite the many good things going on in beer, the beer market is changing. The impact of the market rent only legislation has yet to be seen in terms of market access and while there will be many positives, there are likely to be some problems and challenges too. The shift to drinking at home is a fact and the off-trade will grow more as the on-trade experience is increasingly driven by quality over quantity.

The truth is that many factors determine the behaviour and decisions of consumers; we are a complicated bunch. Despite this and my views and those of others, I have yet to see a coherent body of evidence setting out what the real drivers are behind British beer. Is it about local, real, craft, British provenance, styles, choice, ingredients, small brewers, independent credentials, flavour or format. The likelihood is that it is a complex mix of most or all of them.

It is for that reason that SIBA is leading a new project to find the truth behind British beer. We hope to reveal the findings early in 2016 and run a conference to discuss them at BeerX, our major event, in Sheffield next March. The beer industry has never been more exciting and SIBA will provide the insight to take it even further and work with others to give the industry the common voice it needs and deserves.
Mike Benner is managing director of SIBA, the society of independent brewers

The fear of the night by Paul Chase

An excellent report titled ‘Forward into the Night’ has just been published by Professor Frank Furedi, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent. Furedi takes the view that Western societies have become obsessed with risk. This is amply illustrated in this latest report where Furedi criticises what he calls a “misguided campaign against the consumption of alcohol.” He points out that most of the statistics on alcohol use – consumption per head, binge drinking, young peoples’ drinking, alcohol-related crime – are moving decisively in the right direction, and yet public perception and official reactions to alcohol use are based on the false premise that all these indicators are getting decidedly worse!

Furedi has done a lot of research on the way in which fear characterises public debate on a whole range of topics – from alcohol use to diet and other aspects of modern lifestyles. All this gets swept up in a paranoid consideration of ‘risk factors’ along with official advice to eliminate them all from your life, with the implicit assumption that if you do you’ll live forever. Furedi claims that there is something about the night-time economy (NTE) that taps into an inchoate fear of the dark. And yet it is plain, he says, that the UK is shifting socially and culturally towards the night time. This trend is not limited to London, but to other major British cities like Glasgow, Newcastle, Liverpool and Manchester, and it is also a global phenomenon as other global cities embrace a growing 24-hour city culture.

Furedi quotes the Department for Communities and Local Government’s estimate that the NTE accounts for between ten and 16% of employment in town centres. Furthermore it supports the wider economy, job creation and regeneration. The NTE:

• Is worth a total of £66 billion a year
• Accounts for 6% of GDP, and
• Employs 1.3 million people

So why are we seeing the growth of regulation and a culture of moral panic that is threatening the potential of the NTE? Furedi argues that there is an entrenched cultural and political fear of the night, based around presumptions that crime, anti-social behaviour and alcohol-related violence go hand-in-hand with night-time activities.

Well, is regulation stifling the development of the NTE? On Monday I attended a meeting of stakeholders with the Better Regulation Delivery Office. We were discussing how we could reduce red tape and get sensible and proportionate conditions on premises licences. We heard horror stories about how some local licensing authorities are burdening premises licences with onerous conditions and controls that would have George Orwell turning in his grave.

I won’t name names, but one pub operator cited a licensing authority in London that had placed 141 conditions on their premises licence, which ran to 48 pages. One of those conditions stipulated that the DPS of the premises must know all the conditions on the licence! Presumably if a police officer rocked-up at the premises and demanded the DPS recite the conditions he would only need to forget one of them to be in breach of that condition. Another premises had a condition that stipulated there must be no stripping off of clothes and no nudity or semi-nudity. Was this a bar? A nightclub? No, it was a hotel where every room in the hotel was covered by the premises licence as you could buy alcohol from them. So, would guests be expected to shower and sleep fully dressed? Can you imagine the discussion between the operator and the licensing committee when that one was upheld? On one level this is hilarious, but it reminds me of a quip that Muhammad Ali used when he was interviewed by Michael Parkinson: “Michael, if I had a lower IQ I might be able to enjoy this!”

To be fair, there were some excellent representatives from local authorities at this meeting who were as horrified as I was by this nonsense, but it does give you a flavour of what happens when an overly risk-averse attitude becomes the default mind-set. And national government is as culpable as local government when it comes to burdensome regulation that seeks to put a brake on success. EMROs and the Late Night Levy come to mind.

I think there is sometimes a total disconnect between the ‘Big Picture’ and the myopically small ‘Small Picture’. On the one hand we have a hugely successful NTE that exemplifies the best in entrepreneurial talent and which has thrived despite the recession and the outrageous levels of alcohol duty and taxation; on the other hand there is a licensing system where regulators are obsessed with bottle skips being emptied late at night, boisterous young people enjoying themselves, a paranoid desire to record everything on CCTV or biometric entry systems, and to equip door supervisors with alco-blow machines and metal detectors so that the entry process to a late-night bar resembles that of an airport.

This is how ‘fear of the night’ prevents us as a sector from going ‘Forward into the Night’.
Paul Chase is director of CPL Training and a leading commentator on on-trade health and alcohol policy

Food and beverage, saviour of the high street by Glynn Davies

If you sell food and drink as a bar or restaurant operator then I reckon you are living a pretty charmed life compared to the other businesses that sit alongside you on the high street and in the shopping malls around the UK.

Yes, everybody has their challenges in business today but it’s fair to say that leisure and hospitality has not been facing the same harsh realities as store-based retailers operating in 2015 as the internet continues to have a massive impact. The fundamental difference in the two sectors is clearly the fact you cannot eat and drink online but you can buy pretty much anything over the internet that can be found in physical shops.Traditional retailers therefore continue to have a torrid time coming to terms with operating multi-channel businesses when many of them are sitting on far too many shops.

In contrast, it could be argued that leisure firms are benefiting from the rise of the internet and the woes it has befallen on retail because many high street landlords and shopping centre operators are now turning to leisure to fuel visitor growth as consumers increasingly use such environments not for buying loads of stuff but for the experience. It is becoming de rigueur to do a bit of ‘showrooming’ in the stores, have a bite to eat, and then go home to buy the goods online for home delivery or Click & Collect.

This is a trend that has been going on for some time but is becoming more pronounced. At the forthcoming retail property expo and jamboree, MAPIC in Cannes, there will be three times the space given over to leisure concepts than last year, as mall developers continue to increase the square footage they are giving over to food and drink operators. The future success of shopping centres is now intrinsically linked to leisure. This is a fact that the more progressive operators like Westfield have known for some time but everybody is now fully paid up members of this club. Intu – that operates 18 centres – is fully onboard and even has a head of digital who recognises leisure is now the key driver of footfall and that the company is going to give more space to the category.

It’s a similar story on the high street where there could be as much as one million square feet of retail space converted to leisure during the rest of this year if the trends we’ve seen to the end of May continue through to the year-end. Even where there isn’t a straight swap from retail to leisure the percentage of food and drink on the high street is still rising dramatically as traditional retailers and brand owners inject more leisure into their existing outlets. We’ve clearly seen examples of the supermarkets adding restaurants and it is happening across the whole spectrum of retail. Only this past week fashion brand Burberry has added a restaurant, Thomas’s, to its Regent Street store.

For many retailers it seems that redemption from the tyranny of the internet comes in the form of coffee. It’s almost as if any new retail concept comes with its attendant in-store coffee bar. No wonder the beverage continues to enjoy levels of growth that many commentators had predicted would come to an end some years ago.

The latest iteration of the coffee-bar-meets-retailer is the tie-up between House of Fraser and Caffe Nero in Cambridge where the ground floor is a coffee bar with tablet devices showcasing the retailer’s offer. On the first floor there are House of Fraser branded till points for customer collection of goods, product displays, terminals for buying in-store, and a fitting room.

Such is the increased blurring of the traditional boundaries between leisure and retail that we are in exciting times for the development of new concepts that could involve a lot more joint-ventures. When you throw in the growing opportunities on the high street and the increased requirements of the shopping centre owners then the leisure industry looks to be in a relatively comfortable position – certainly when you compare it to retail.

For retailers food and drink is becoming something of a lifeline, whereas for the leisure operators it’s rather conveniently their bread and butter.
Glynn Davies is a freelance journalist and a leading commentator on retail trends 

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