From a humble beginning selling beer into London’s bustling pubs, to masterminding the rebrand of what would become the UK’s bestselling premium lager, and most recently, leading a small South London Brewery to a £120m acquisition by SAB Miller Brands…
Drinks industry stalwart, Nick Miller has hopped up the ranks of the ever-evolving beer sector, amassing over 35 years’ experience and shaping a range of world-class brands along the way.
MacGregor Black recently sat down with the current Non-Exec Director at Young’s PLC, and author of ‘In The Meantime: Lessons and Learning from a Career in Beer’, to discuss all things drinks and what it takes to brew a successful career in such a competitive industry.
MacGregor Black: So, Nick, you’ve certainly had an interesting career in the beer industry. For those of us who are yet to read your debut book, ‘In The Meantime’, tell us where it all began.
Nick: I left school when I was 18 after failing all my A-levels, and ended up working down a mine for around 6 months as a Laborer. That was a real education… I wasn’t very career focused then, but that experience did teach me what I didn’t want to do with my life!
After that, I spent some time as a shoe shop manager before I joined Bass in 1986 as a Free-Trade Salesman, selling their beer into pubs, working men’s clubs, bingo halls and restaurants; anywhere that had an alcohol license, really. That was my first step into the drinks industry. Three years after that, when I was 24, Bass asked me to manage 18 of their North London pubs.
The change from selling beer to retailing in pubs was a great learning experience as it facilitated seeing both sides of the coin.
When I was a free-trade salesman, my perspective was of representing a branded company selling its products to someone who is planning to sell it on to someone else, so it was very much business to business sales. When I became the receiver of the product and I managed an actual outlet, I got a much greater understanding of what the consumer wanted as I was actually experiencing their needs and requirements in a face-to-face ‘relationship’. These experiences shaped my future selling perspective, I knew that when selling a product or service I had to ensure that both consumer and customer needs were fulfilled.
I also learned a lot from the people around me, people who had really lived life. I was a country lad, living just outside Burton on Trent so I was pretty ‘green’. When it came to working in London, it was a totally different world and I had to grow up pretty quickly. The whole experience made me more streetwise…
MacGregor Black: During your successful career with Bass, you were headhunted by our CEO & Founder, Jon McNeish, with an exciting opportunity to join SAB Miller Brands UK. Can you tell us a little about the challenge of steering the little known beer brand, Peroni, onto the path to becoming the fastest growing beer brand the industry during the late 80’s ?
Nick: Well, the first step was creating a brand position that people could connect to both emotionally and from a needs basis. Where you position your brand is key, a product has got to give the customer reasons to believe in it and the attributes of that product will determine how the customer feels about it. We started with the brand name, calling it Peroni, instead of ‘Nastro Azzurro’ because it was easier to say at the bar and it rolled off the tongue better. That was quite fundamental to re-positioning our brand.
Then, because the aim was to create a premium product, we built the whole brand around a high-end Italian proposition, which was crucial because Italian products are often perceived as premium. As you know, there’s many Italian iconic brands covering all sorts of consumer categories – luxury Italian fashion, quality leather products and world-famous chefs, so Peroni being an Italian brand actually gave us a fantastic starting position to creating a premium brand.
After that, lots of research was commissioned to find out if the customer and consumer would actually buy the product. We were always measuring the desirability of the brand and were constantly hosting consumer feedback groups. There’s a handy scale you can use to measure how your brand is doing that I’ve included in the book. there was a lot of ‘marketing science’ that was employed to ensure we built a brand that resonated with both direct customer (the retailer) and the consumer.
“I’m a big believer in ‘you’re only as good as those around you’, and I couldn’t have done it all without the amazing, highly skilled people that I got the pleasure of working with.”
MacGregor Black: Successfully shifting an existing brand into the premium category certainly comes with its own unique challenges. One of those being the balance a marketer must strike between maintaining a product’s exclusivity and managing its perception, in line with increasing consumption and sales.
Nick: Yes, that’s exactly it. You have got to be really careful how you market a premium product because if you make it too available, you can dilute your exclusivity. We marketed our product on a word-of-mouth basis. We targeted the main UK cities including, London, Newcastle, Glasgow, Bristol, Liverpool, Birmingham, and Edinburgh, and focused our marketing activity there. After that, we would let our customers do the rest, as most of our ‘opinion formers’ would invariably travel into those cities for nights out and they’d then talk about the brand when they got back home.
We also focused on convincing retailers that we weren’t going to discount the product in the off trade. This meant they could keep a premium price point on the product. We avoided the ‘big box discount’ route that other premium lagers had followed and tried to ensure that demand stayed ahead of availability.
MacGregor Black: All of which clearly worked given Peroni’s success!
Nick: It was a total team effort. I’m a big believer in ‘you’re only as good as those around you’, and I couldn’t’ have done it all without the amazing, highly skilled people that I got the pleasure of working with. That was a big reason for wanting to put together the book, to shoutout and thank all those who had helped me along in my career. We wouldn’t have had the success we did at Peroni, or Meantime, without the people who passionately worked together to make it a success. I was the lucky one to lead them.
MacGregor Black: You mentioned your time at Meantime Brewing Company, a totally different environment from Peroni… What were the most notable differences you found moving from a large corporate setting, into a small start-up environment?
Nick: There was a massive cultural difference. You operate in a ‘glamorous ‘bubble’ in a big PLC company like Peroni. There are people to bring you coffee, chauffeurs, assistants, analysts, and most notably a treasury department to look after your banking needs. Meantime was like working in a shed compared to that! It was freezing, my laptop was ancient, and I used a decorating table as my desk for a while before we got things going. There were no secretaries, so I had to revisit a lot of the work I’d forgotten over the last 30 years. As you grow in your career, you start passing on a lot of responsibilities to others, so when I started at Meantime, I understood how to run a business, but I didn’t realise how much I’d have to re-learn. That was a big challenge.
MacGregor Black: And what would you say are the biggest personal challenges that the CEO of an SME will face?
Nick: Just don’t get ahead of yourself…
Don’t get me wrong, I’m passionate, fun, and I try to never take myself too seriously. If you do that you can get ahead of yourself. I get excited, of course, but not over excited, which was a big part of staying grounded at Meantime. I also never got despondent, and I tried to operate within an emotional framework that didn’t go to the extremes. When something went badly, (which they did, and I certainly ballsed things up a few times over the years), whilst it upset me at the time, those moments became good learning experiences that I could fall back on. If you ‘get ahead of yourself’ you often miss learning experiences.
Basically, you want to avoid flat lining, you should absolutely get excited, or even upset, you’ve got to have some passion in life, but you mustn’t let it overspill. Sometimes life is two steps forward and one step back, it’s about trying to navigate that perspective.
MacGregor Black: It’s fantastic that you have been able to carve out such a successful career for yourself, if you hadn’t been approached by our CEO for the role with SAB Miller, where do you think your career would’ve taken you?
Nick: that’s a really good question! I’ve not thought about that much… but I loved my time at SAB Miller. I would have stayed for a while longer, maybe even moved abroad if it wasn’t for the opportunity with Meantime. I’d love to know if I could have had the same success in a different country.
I’ve also always had an appetite for risk, so I’d also like to think that I still would have taken the entrepreneurial plunge in another small company.
If I was to rewind back and start again, I’d look at working in finance or tech. Those industries just keep growing and growing. However, if I’m honest, I don’t think I have the personality for those types of businesses. I like people focused companies so would probably still ended up with working with some sort of consumer brand.
MacGregor Black: In just a few short years, we’ve seen UK & European drinking culture evolve drastically. We find one of the biggest catalysts for change has been the recent shift in conscious consumerism, with more people focusing on the products they consume, what’s in them, how sustainable they are etc. which all feeds back to the positioning of a brand in the market.
Nick: Absolutely, in 2022 we noticed a decrease in alcohol consumption within the 18-24 age group, which the sudden boom in health-conscious consumerism has definitely influenced.
MacGregor Black: As the recent Gin boom begins to level out, our dedicated Drinks practice have been increasingly busy supporting several of our Rum and Craft Beer producing clients, following the increased consumer demand during the past year. What has caught your eyes most in the Drinks Industry during 2022?
Nick: Hmm, there’s been quite a few actually…
Craft beer has seen some serious innovation, with brands like, BrewDog and Beavertown dominating the off and on-trade respectively. This was also the first year that flavored gin overtook normal gin sales, which was unusual, and both sparkling wine and champagne have also done really well recently. Oh, and watch out for English sparkling wines – they’re very good!
All in all, 2022 was a pretty hard year for everyone. Covid, the cost-of-living crisis, rail strikes and inflation have all impacted the hospitality industry. I’m hopeful that 2023 will be more productive.
MacGregor Black: And looking ahead to 2023 there seems to be a blend of hesitation and excitement in the market, as often comes with economic uncertainty. What are your predictions for this year?
Nick: I think it will all depend on how the cost-of-living crisis pans out, but I’m hoping we see more innovation in the industry. I believe the shift in health-conscious consumerism we discussed will continue and we’ll definitely see a surge in more health drinks this year. More people are trying seltzers recently, I think we’ll see some seltzer brands break into the mainstream in 2023.
MacGregor Black: And finally, Nick, following a glittering career and the release of your debut book, ‘In The Meantime: Lessons and Learning from a Career in Beer’ what does the next chapter hold for you?
Nick: Well, I’m currently working with Youngs PLC as a non-exec Director and I’ll probably continue to dabble in certain things from afar (on the advisory side that is).To be honest, moving from operating to advising has been challenging… Whilst I don’t really have the appetite to do 70 hours a week anymore, I sometimes find it hard being a consultant because I just want to go and do it, you know, “get stuck in! “
If you would like to speak with our specialist team of Drinks Consultants, contact us on 0191 691 1949 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org