Martyn Fisher learns how a dedication to beer has rocketed a wholesaler to new heights.
There cannot be many business leaders in the FMCG wholesale channel who hold a degree in astrophysics. But Rob Eastwood is one of them.
Today, Eastwood heads up mission control as the managing director of wholesaler Small Beer. But the route to his current position and his contentment with leading his team of “beer geeks” has had its share of ups and downs.
The Lincolnshire-based company is anything but insignificant. It prides itself on being Britain’s leading cask and craft beer wholesaler, delivering to on-trade outlets across Lincolnshire, the East Midlands, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Yorkshire and the North-East.
Yet, it was founded as an off-licence in 1980 when in the space of a few days, Eastwood’s parents Judith and Tony sold their house and bought a greengrocer’s in Lincoln that came with a cellar.
Although many new businesses fall at the first hurdle, Small Beer soared: “It turned out to be the right place at the right time – people queued out of the door to get hold of some of the beers they had,” says Eastwood. “My grandparents thought they were misguided for starting the business, but the fact was, you could not really get good-quality beer in those days.”
Small Beer eventually began trading as a wholesaler and moved to a new site in 1988. It rode the crest of the cask beer wave in the 1990s, gaining customers in new counties in the process. But it was not all plain sailing.
Eastwood notes: “In the mid-1990s, composite wholesalers started buying out regional wholesalers. We had offers, but did not sell. Instead, we battened down the hatches.”
It was the correct decision and the reputation of Small Beer continued to grow, more so once it joined trade bodies National Drink Distributors (NDD) and The Society of Vintners.
However, Eastwood says that come the early 2000s, his parents were starting to give serious thought to exiting the business.
Eastwood had never intended to follow them into Small Beer. After graduating, he began a career in hospitality, before joining Lincolnshire brewery George Bateman. His about-turn came in somewhat unexpected circumstances.
“I saw the light in 2008 when I was with a friend on a gondola that suddenly stopped, leaving time to chat,” says Eastwood. “After talking it through, I decided it was time to join the family business.”
After joining Small Beer later that year, Eastwood embarked the company on a period of transformation, starting with improving Small Beer’s limited IT system.
“It was a really fun time, and I am so proud looking back to have been part of it,” he notes. “We were operating in a shoebox of a site, with absolutely no space at all. And that is when it really became time for me to develop ‘my’ Small Beer.”
This resulted in the opening of a new, state-of-the-art 55,000 sq ft site in 2013. “It had more space than we could ever need – or so I thought back then,” Eastwood observes. But by his own admission, Eastwood started to feel “flat” following the completion of this project.
He adds: “I was unsure how I wanted to go forward with the business, now that such a big project had been completed, and I started to coast.”
Eastwood began to analyse Small Beer’s weaknesses. He concluded that the business was disjointed and fragmented.
“I had not thought through the impact on our staff as a result of the changes with the move,” Eastwood admits. “I realised that I had to lead and take more people with me.
“When I joined the business, I wrote down a list of things that I wanted to achieve. To this day, I still have it. But by this point, I had lost my focus and it was in a drawer somewhere, untouched. I realised that I needed to return to it.”
Eastwood drew a diagram of values he wanted to see embodied by all staff members in the business. Chief among these was the idea of family: “Family is at the heart of everything we do at Small Beer,” Eastwood says.
But championing the product range and the expertise that goes with it also underpins Small Beer’s mission.
“Beer is the point of difference we have over our competitors – in particular, our range of cask and craft beers,” Eastwood says. “But our knowledge and passion also makes us stand out from the crowd. We are a team of beer geeks – you must be to work here. You have to be so passionate about the product and the business and love it so much that it makes you want to get out of bed each morning.”
Eastwood’s drive and enthusiasm have since come flooding back. Membership of the Today’s Group buying group – which Small Beer joined in 2014 following the collapse of NDD – has also helped. He notes: “The membership has given us focus and opportunity in areas that we could not get to.”
Going forward, Eastwood believes the success of the business depends on continuing to grow the five main pillars of Small Beer – cask beer, craft beer, traditional cider, and high-end spirits and wine – while staying independent of branded products. “It is about range and value within these pillars,” he stresses.
Eastwood, whose wife Karen is the commercial director of the business, pinpoints margin as being Small Beer’s biggest challenge going forward.
The success of pubs and bars – for many of which survival has been an issue in recent times – is vital to Small Beer’s progression, too.
Eastwood is clear how wholesalers can help such customers: “Focus on making pub and bar operators money at every turn,” he says. “This does not mean just reducing prices all the time. It means offering the right brand mix, constant reviews of the poorer-selling brands, training, service and so on. Always remember that if your customers are successful, you will be, too.”
Eastwood’s top tips
- Have a point of difference. Our draft beer range is ours. What is yours?
- Make a plan to exploit your point of difference.
- Look after your work family and work it hard – you will not regret it
- Knowledge and passion combined is really powerful
- Become a beer geek – it can change your life