BrewDog boss says some allegations against firm 'blown out of proportion'

James Watt was accused of acting inappropriately towards staff and creating a 'culture of fear' and a 'toxic environment' at the brewing giant.

The boss of Scottish beer giant BrewDog says he accepts mistakes have been made but insists some allegations against him and his company have been blown out of proportion.

In an interview with STV News, James Watt said the brewing giant has addressed challenges and is now “in a good place”.

It comes as the Ellon-based brewer announced plans to treble its worldwide offering of pubs and restaurants by the end of the decade.

BrewDog are one of the success stories of craft beer. In the 15 years since bursting onto the scene – the Ellon-based company has become the 14th most valuable beer brand in the world, ranking ahead of traditional giants such as Carlsberg.

But the journey has not been without controversy. In recent years, the company and co-founder Watt have dealt with negative headlines and serious allegations.

From accusations of presiding over a “culture of fear” in an open letter signed by staff, to allegedly promoting a toxic work environment.

And a standards agency ruled in December last year that one of the company’s adverts was misleading.

“I think there’s a small amount of criticism of us that is potentially justified,” Watt told STV News.

“Have we got everything right? Absolutely not. Have we made mistakes in the past? Yes, absolutely we have.

“But I think the same is true for any company and I think because we’ve always been quite high-profile, a lot of these have been taken way out of context or blown way out of proportion, and there’s a lot of things that are not true in the mix and all kind of blended together.

“But regardless, we take it, we take the feedback, use it as a catalyst to get better and keep building the business.”

Watt, the company’s CEO, announced last year he would hand over nearly a fifth of his stake in the craft beer firm, representing 3.7 million shares or a 5% shareholding in BrewDog, to salaried employees to mark the group’s 15-year anniversary.

It came after the group was accused by former workers last summer of having a “culture of fear” within the business, with “toxic attitudes” towards junior staff.

A group of 60 employees published an open letter alleging the business was built upon a “cult of personality” around its founders, Watt and Martin Dickie, with “growth at all costs” the overarching focus of the company.

They claimed a “significant number” of ex-employees suffered “mental illness” as a result of working at the group and were left “burnt out, afraid and miserable”.

Watt said: “We’ve always been so high-profile as a company, there’s always been so much noise around what we do, I think it’s fair to say that a lot of things you see in the media are simply not true or blown way out of proportion.

“We can only focus on what we can control so we want to focus on making the best beer that we possibly can, we want to focus on doing all we can from a sustainability perspective and we want to focus on the amazing people in our company

“It’s been challenging. We’ve been doing this for 16 years now but we count time in dog years, so almost 100 dog years and we have had insane highs, we have had lows, we have faced challenges, we have done difficult things, we have done amazing things, we have built a fantastic company.

“It’s never supposed to be easy, it’s never supposed to be straightforward and I think our approach has always been ‘let’s take the difficult things, let’s take the challenging things, let’s take the tough things and use them as a catalyst, as an opportunity to get better’.

“And I think that’s what we have done time and time again.

“I think we’ve been such a high-growth company from day one, a high growth environment is definitely not for everyone and it’s fair to say that we haven’t always got everything right.

“We’ve now got almost 4,000 team members and I think it’s impossible to find any business with almost 4,000 team members where you’re not going to get a few people who are, for whatever reason, not going to be happy.”

BrewDog announced this week it plans to triple the size of its bars and hotels business to around 300 venues by 2030.

The company launched its first bar site in Aberdeen in 2008 and now has more than 100 venues, including sites in Las Vegas, Berlin and Brisbane.

Its latest growth ambitions will see the business open new bars in the UK, India, Italy, Netherlands, Australia, USA and Thailand this year, with plans for sites in China and South Korea further down the line.

The group will also target new hotel openings in the UK as part of the plan.

Watt says the impact of Brexit has – at least in some way – influenced the company’s strategy of focusing on expansion to new international markets.

He said: “Brexit has definitely made it very, very tough for our business, so we’re very proud to be from the north-east of Scotland and the beer we make here, we ship all over Europe – we ship it to France, Italy, Holland, Spain – and that has become much more difficult post-Brexit.

“The costs are way higher, the logistics are way more complicated, there is so much more bureaucracy involved and what it means is we are now less competitive in these markets. We’re not making beer in Germany because it’s difficult to buy in Germany from here.

“We’ve got bars in Europe, it’s difficult to supply those, so Brexit has essentially handicapped UK businesses.

“Scottish businesses who export to Europe and the UK itself is not a massive market, so you need to scale your business to be able to sell to these international countries, and for me it’s been a disaster for our economy, for our businesses, for the welfare of our people, that it’s now so much more difficult to do business with our neighbours in Europe.

“I think if Brexit hadn’t happened, we would have been able to create significantly more jobs in the north-east of Scotland and we would have looked to invest more in the UK, as opposed to overseas.

“With Brexit, that simply doesn’t make sense. With the knock-on impact to the UK economy, that doesn’t make sense.”

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