How Does It Feel To Sell?

Illustration: "Wodge of cash."

Maybe in 20 years time we’ll be able to sit down with Camden Town Brewery’s Jasper Cuppaidge and get him to tell us how it felt to sell to AB-InBev.

By then, we’ll also know whether the deal worked out as per the utopian vision of the public statements

We’ll be getting more capital to expand programmes like barrel-aging. You only have to look at Goose Island barrel-aging programme and you’ll see more innovation, more brands and even better beer.

…or as per the bell-tolling of the doubters, such as Keith Flett:

My guess would be that aside from accountants looking for the usual synergies they’ll leave Camden Town alone for the time being until someone not involved in the current deal appears at AB-InBev and wonders why the acquisition was made and what should be done with it.

But, for the moment, we have to look at the experience of other brewers, and entrepreneurs in other sectors, to get an idea of what might be going on behind the handshakes and the cheery press releases.

1. More Mixed Feelings

In 1988 David Bruce sold his chain of Firkin brewpubs for £8m. (That’s about £20m in today’s money.) It had always been his goal to be a millionaire by 40 which, even after paying off various bills, he more than achieved. But the cash in his pockets and the free time he’d acquired didn’t stop him fretting about what Allied-Domecq were doing to his brand. Appalled by their reckless over-stretching of the gimmick, and by its rapid plunge down-market, he even considered buying it back. He has never said ‘Selling up was the worse decision of my life’ or anything like that but, clearly, it came with some pain, and wealth certainly didn’t cure him of the itch to start and run businesses. As of 2015, has still failed to retire, despite repeated declarations of his intention to do so.

2. When the PR Varnish Cracks

Dick Cantwell, one of the co-founders of Seattle’s Elysian Brewing, said what he was duty bound to say during the announcement of the takeover by AB but then left the firm a few days later. He revealed that he had voted against the deal and has since been frank about his outright distress at his struggle with the idea of working for AB, despite their best efforts to find a role for him given his importance as the public face of the company:

There were a lot of pretty exciting possibilities for someone in my position if I were a different person… I just can’t turn my stripes.

Hardly anyone else has ever broken ranks like this while events are still effectively unfolding, perhaps because they are usually restricted from doing so by carefully drawn up contracts —  was he not?

3. In Other Industries

It doesn’t take much searching to find stories like that of Tony Goodman who sold his computer game studio Ensemble to Microsoft in 2001, as reported by Brendan Sinclair for Games Industry in 2013:

“When I sold the second Ensemble to Microsoft, the downside didn’t appear until sometime later when we found it difficult to develop the games we wanted to do because it didn’t fit in with the Microsoft portfolio,” Goodman said. “And maybe there was some regret years later about how far I could have taken the company if I hadn’t sold out.”

Goodman said Microsoft talked a good game at the time of the acquisition. Even if the company had a certain reputation for its tactics in pushing Windows, Goodman said Microsoft’s operating system division and gaming divisions felt like very different entities at the time.

“It felt more like ‘selling out to the man’ after I’d done it,” Goodman said. “I had myself convinced I wasn’t selling out to the man at the time.”

Which leads neatly on to…

4. Kidding Themselves?

One of Dick Cantwell’s co-founders at Elysian, Joe Bisacca, continues to run the company under AB and, according to that same excellent article by Allecia Vermillion

He’s enthusiastic, not defensive, when speaking of the sale; he sprinkles congenial sentences with light curse words for regular-guy emphasis. He may show up to work in a new Maserati, but he relishes his self-appointed role as his staff’s protector from corporate drudgery.

So, he has somehow convinced himself that he is still ‘sticking it to the man’, or at least preventing ‘the man’ from sticking it to his team? That’ll be an interesting story to come back to in a couple of years.

Looking again at another industry, here’s what sounds to us like a fairly desperate attempt at self-justification by Craig Sams, co-founder of Green & Black’s, the ethical chocolate company, when challenged over its 2005 sale to Cadbury:

When we sold to Cadbury, the happiest people were our cocoa farmers because they’d had this relationship with a company who they knew had had shaky times and now they were in bed with the world’s biggest confectionery company, who had agreed to honour all our agreements and could do so in a much more precise, professional way… That was my emotional satisfaction if you like, not the fact that we were an upstart company kicking Cadbury in the shins – although I guess there was an element of that.

And of course there are lots of stories of people who don’t regret selling up in the slightest but it’s impossible to tell how many are entirely sincere — Richard Reed, for example, is still paid by Coca Cola to advise on the running of Innocent, the smoothie company he co-founded, so it’s unlikely that, if there’s dirt to dish, it’ll be dished for many years to come.

3 thoughts on “How Does It Feel To Sell?”

  1. we’ll all have forgotten about it in 20 years time unless you’re planning a follow up…though I do still my disappointment when reading in What’s Brewing about the shennanigans that closed Morrels in the late 90s.

  2. I have no issue with people selling their companies; after all it’s their business and I would probably do the same if I was in their shoes and someone made me the right offer.

    However, as I commented on Mark Dredge’s blog, I have personal experience of being on the receiving end of several company takeovers, and can tell you they never end well. The company responsible for the buyout will invariably want to get some, and ideally all, of its investment back, and this will generally take the form of cost-cutting, rationalisation, plant closures and redundancies. Not all these events will happen, and they don’t always occur straight away, but the long term outlook is often not good, especially where the workforce is concerned.

  3. Very interesting angle. It’s odd this phase of restructuring. Folk come out with all their prejudices, angst and assumptions. One beer writer celebrates the victory of the single heroic entrepreneur as seems a consistent theme in the writing. Another speaks of betrayal as if they equate the falsehood with that of Judas. It’s a bit sad that they infuse something so simple with such emotional depth.

    Reasonably good beer is early to make for a pittance. As are reasonably good bread, carrots, cream cheese and music. Time makes each good enough to share. Me, I can’t be bothered what the given person who sells or, more tragically, the one – unspoken of even now – who was passed up thinks. The pattern is worth tracing as you do but there are a thousand more, a million more who dream of making money in the alcohol trade one way or another. They come and go. Much more interesting to pay attention to the beer their staff actually make.

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