Sean Looney has travelled the world and has arrived at a career in craft beer. His is a complex brew.
Business. It’s not personal; never emotional it’s just business. While that’s pretty much the way big business is perceived by the world, when, Sean Looney set up his microbrewery London suburb, East Sheen last year, his motivation was fundamentally fuelled by emotion: “This is a labour of love for me, something I would be interested in anyway. So I’m kind of living the dream. Definitely don’t see myself becoming a multi-billionaire. No sir Philip Green in the making, that’s for sure.”
When The Mint talked to Looney about his business there was little of market share or margins or transaction opportunities in our conversation. In fact he rejects the notion that he might be looking to emulate a trend among microbreweries in selling on to one of the major players.
“More and more in beer now, people are starting breweries or pub chains with the sole intention of having them bought out. I like the idea that beer is almost this counterculture movement against big beer.”
But microbrewing is big. And growing.
The UK’s Society of Independent Brewers has more than 800 members. Independent estimates have some 1700 microbrewers in the UK and anticipate 20% growth in the coming year.
In a recent article in Enterprise magazine, founder and former president of the Brewers Association in the US, Charlie Papazian, characterised the business outlook of the microbrewer: “We’re a new kind of capitalism with a different perspective on the end game,” he says. “We’ve found a way to be in business and enjoy it. A lot of people are flabbergasted by the camaraderie, the sharing among competitors. We’re more passionate than opportunistic.”
Papazian paints a close likeness of Looney’s outlook on business.
“I wouldn’t consider myself the archetypal business owner, insofar as, economics has never really been something that’s interested me, unless it’s got something to do with the economy as a whole.”
Looney has experienced the impact of the economic downturn not only in Britain but earlier when as a 21 year old in 2007 he left home in South Africa to live in Ireland.
“I moved to Ireland just as the recession hit there. I was this wet-behind-the-ears 22-year-old, trying to find a job. And there was nothing for me, you know? Well-educated, well-spoken, got great skills – I have a degree in graphic design – and I couldn’t get a job. Nobody wanted to hire anybody at the time.”
Manchester-born Looney’s travels have taken him from that city to Ireland via growing up in South Africa. But it was in Norway about four years ago that he found himself “getting involved in beer.
“I think I was sort of over the idea of beer as something that you just went out to use as a means to a very sloppy end,” he says. He elaborates: “I became interested in the idea of how we could appreciate beer in the same way as you might appreciate wine. I kind of liked that there was definitely this push in Scandinavia to try and elevate beer to a different level.”
From his dawning in Norway, Looney has decanted to west London suburb, East Sheen, and at the end of last year set up his microbrewery and shop front making and selling largely “American style” beers. “In a way, it’s a creative endeavour, beer which I think resonated with me.”
But money features too and he has concerns. He is concerned about Brexit and its impact on imported beer ingredients. “I think Brexit’s probably going to affect us down the road. I know a lot of breweries are having to raise their prices. With the exchange rate going the way it did after Brexit I think a lot of stuff will become expensive in terms of importing.
“I don’t know if an extra pound on a bottle of beer is going to push people away from craft beer or whether we have matured enough as an industry to withstand what the effects of Brexit might be on the industry.”
While his brewery grows its own hops in England and has its own strands of yeast, many of the beers he sells use American or Australasian hops. “Maybe that creates a window now for hop farmers in the UK to experiment a bit more.”
Meanwhile, four months into his business venture Looney says the microbrewery game is “ a very, very competitive market.” And a vital part of success in that market is through gaining trust and honing good relationships with his suppliers. Looney describes how securing the trust of wholesalers and other suppliers is a means to gaining a competitive advantage.
“You build up trust and you hope that maybe you become a preferred customer over time. So maybe they call you up and say ‘we’re going to have this beer next week, we’ve only got a very limited amount of it, and we can arrange to get you some of it.’ ”
How does he gain trust? “It’s simple things. Pay your invoice on time,” Looney says. “From the start, I said I’m going to run the business in a responsible way, pay my invoices when I get them, kind of just stay on top of things and build my relationships with people that way.”
Looney believes devotion to his product and his appreciation of competing products can coexist with his striving for a place in the market. It’s perhaps a reflection of the interdependence and shared vulnerability people and businesses have in the craft beer market. Arguably in any market where the players are intrinsically small, the mores of individuals are likely to play a significant part.
And Looney’s preferences aren’t commonplace. Places at the northern and southern ends of the Earth and some in between, have been home for Looney. His globetrotting was largely in pursuit of challenge, he says. Growing up in an “upper middle class” home in South Africa was idyllic but too comfortable. He remains “besotted.” with Norway but again it was “too easy.” And having made travel a central part of his life, he tells The Mint the thing above any that gets up his nose is… public transport.
Perhaps because, rather than despite, his extraordinary objection to ease and being a transport-hating globetrotter Looney has forged a career in a growing modern industry. Given the mix of competitive and collaborative ingredients in the world of craft beer production and retail his contradictions are possibly perfect qualifications.