Alumni profile - William Lees-Jones

We talk to alumnus William Lees-Jones, Managing Director of family brewer JW Lees, about the pub trade.

Being the Managing Director of a brewery company would be a dream for many. What is the best thing about your job?

With people drinking less and the ban on smoking in pubs in the UK (which has closed many of them), we have been facing many challenges in the brewing and pub industry. It has been great to build the family business despite these challenges so that it is much stronger now than when I became managing director. It's great to be able to drink a pint of ale or go into a pub and say 'we did that'.

You are working in a 185 year old family business. Did you ever consider a career elsewhere?

I used to run an advertising agency in London and it is in fact a family rule in our business that no family member can join the family business until they have spent at least five years after the end of their formal education working somewhere else. I spent a couple of years longer than that, and it was only when I was offered a job at a client of ours that I even thought about joining the family business. I did not previously have a very high opinion of family members going to work for their families

What influence has your time at Henley had on your career to date?

It seems like such a long time ago that I was at Henley for a month but that time was very important for me. It was April 1994 and I was on General Management Programme 10. Looking at a picture of our class now I can vividly remember the class and syndicate group content owing to the intensity of the experience. It was a great introduction to General Management which is something that I have now been doing for nearly 20 years.

The global beer brewing market is dominated by huge multinational companies, created as a result of mergers. How does a family business survive and thrive in this market?

Family businesses compete whenever a longer term view can be a competitive business advantage. JW Lees is built on the foundation of a property portfolio which happens to be almost exclusively pubs. By leveraging our retail business we become better brewers with licensed brewing agreements with Carlsberg in particular who in turn help us to raise the bar. We run a very simple business and basically invest in high quality pubs while divesting of ones that are less good. 185 years of family ownership and simplicity helps us to be competitive.

Many players in the drinks industry are concerned about the effect of UK government proposals to introduce minimum alcohol pricing. Does JW Lees support this measure?

JW Lees supports minimum unit pricing of alcohol. Supermarkets in particular have used alcohol to build footfall selling alcohol too cheaply and in some cases below cost. This has led to pub closures at a time when pubs were already reeling after the ban on smoking.

If you had the power to change three things that would help your business, what would they be?

The availability of some great pubs that we could buy like we did with Punch Taverns in 2009 when we were able to add 10 fabulous sites as Punch needed cash. Some great new colleagues to come and work for JW Lees to run the aforementioned pubs since a great pub is nothing without a great leader to run it. And a regulatory environment whereby the government actually did what it says that it's going to do by getting rid of some unnecessary red tape as well as getting its act together on tax so that we are playing on an even playing field with international companies who choose not to pay tax in the UK.

As consumers are tightening their belts, supermarkets are becoming increasingly dominant players. How do brewers compete?

We are lucky enough not to rely on supermarkets too much in our business, hence why our business is all about focusing on our pubs. We have some brands like The Governor that we brew with Marco Pierre White and Manchester Pale Ale which benefit from supermarket distribution but we can only compete by bringing out new beers that are competitively priced that consumers want to drink. Pubs must compete by creating a reason to visit since people can find great value and stay at home.

The role of the local pub as a community hub has been diminishing in recent years. What will the British pub look like in twenty years?

I am not sure that I agree with that statement. JW Lees was awarded first prize in the Publican Awards last year for being the 'Community Pub Operator of the Year'. Pubs are all about community but 20 years ago there was not much else going on - mobile phones were quite new, laptops were quite big and Tim Berners Lee had only just invented the internet. These days there are plenty of pubs that are more the heart of their community than 20 years ago with free Wi-Fi, tea and coffee being served, families welcome, a place to meet for people who work from home, longer licensing hours, no smoking … the list goes on. BUT boozers selling cheap beer are closing left, right and centre since they cannot compete with supermarket pricing.

Have you seen any notable demographic shifts in beer drinkers over the last few years?

Younger people are starting to drink cask beers which is good. Women are increasingly drinking beer and it is becoming more acceptable to drink in smaller measures rather than pints. I think that the 2/3rd pint glass will be good for beer drinking but it has yet to catch on.

What is your favourite beer?

JW Lees Cask Bitter which is the beer that makes us famous and the benchmark by which we are judged by our customers. Whenever I'm away travelling I can't wait to get home for a pint of Manchester's finest, JW Lees Cask Bitter.


William Lees-Jones is Managing Director of JW Lees, a sixth-generation family business which employs just over 1,100 people as well as letting a further 130 tied pubs to self-employed tenants. William joined advertising agency Crosland Gallop in 1987 as a Trainee Account Executive before moving to Maslin Rees Fitton as an Account Director in 1990, and then Client Services Director in 1993. William then returned to the North West to join JW Lees in 1994 where he was appointed Sales & Marketing Director in 1996. He became Joint Managing Director in 2000 and Managing Director in 2003.