New chairwoman for beer firm BrewDog in sexism storm

Storm brewing: BrewDog has hired Blythe Jack

Britain’s largest craft brewer BrewDog has parachuted in a woman to be the first chair of its board as it tries to draw a line under allegations of sexism and a ‘culture of fear’ at the firm. 

The company – touted as a £1.85billion candidate to float on the stock market – has hired Blythe Jack, managing director of TSG Consumer Partners, The Mail on Sunday can reveal. 

The private equity veteran has specialised in investing in consumer brands in her 11 years at TSG, a US private equity firm that has held a 23 per cent stake in BrewDog since 2017, for which it paid $264million (£185million). She was made a director at the brewer when TSG took its stake. 

In an internal email to staff addressing allegations of ‘sexism, harassment, bullying, and violence’, BrewDog co-founder James Watt said: ‘We have appointed our first ever chairperson to lead our board. That will be Blythe Jack and we are delighted she will be leading our business at board level. This is effective immediately.’

Jack was formerly managing director at Rosewood Capital, where she orchestrated investment into brands including sportswear giant Under Armour and motorboat maker Cobalt Boats. Her appointment at the Scottish brewer and bar chain, known for its Punk IPA brand, may fuel speculation that it is readying itself for a float. But the prospect of a flotation has been overshadowed by allegations made by former employees last week. 

Following growing signs of a #MeToo movement in the craft beer trade in the US and UK, a group of former employees called Punks With Purpose claimed there was a ‘culture of fear’ at the brewer with a ‘toxic attitude’ to junior staff. In an open letter, they also claimed there was a ‘cult of personality’ around founders James Watt and Martin Dickie and a ‘significant number’ of former staff had ‘suffered mental illness as a result of working at BrewDog’. The group said: ‘Put bluntly, the single biggest shared experience of former staff is a residual feeling of fear.’ 

Singling out Watt, they said: ‘It is with you that the responsibility for this rotten culture lies.’ Watt apologised and vowed to ‘reach out to our entire team past and present to learn more’.

Watt has also faced allegations on social media about his own conduct. In the letter to staff, he said: ‘Whilst I am no [sic] in anyway perfect, it has been difficult to read things about myself, which are simply not grounded in fact. We are taking immediate legal advice on the matter and will decide how to proceed.’ 

Separately, Siobhan Hewison, a beer writer from Edinburgh who goes by the name of British Beer Girl, has been sharing allegations sent to her – largely by women – on ‘harassment, prejudice and discrimination’, which have mentioned BrewDog and other breweries. 

In the letter, seen by The Mail on Sunday, Watt said: ‘Over the last few weeks, stories have been shared from across the beer world about practices and behaviours that have no place in our industry, or in our lives. Sexism, harassment, bullying, and violence are all behaviours that are abhorrent and completely unacceptable, and I want to thank those individuals who have come forward to share their story.’ 

He said it was ‘very clear that we as a company have a lot of work to do in improving our culture’. 

Hangover: BrewDog’s founders Martin Dickie, left, and James Watt

Hangover: BrewDog’s founders Martin Dickie, left, and James Watt

The appointment of a woman as BrewDog’s first chair will be seen as an attempt to address some of the criticisms. But Jack’s status as an existing BrewDog director and her role at one of its top investors will raise questions over her independence. Watt, whose job title is ‘Captain’, said BrewDog had also appointed an independent beer industry diversity specialist, consultant Ren Navarro, and plans to appoint its first mental health and wellbeing ambassador. 

BrewDog is conducting an anonymous staff survey of its culture and will commission an independent review of its culture and HR practices. It was founded in 2007 and has grown its business supplying pubs and supermarkets, and building a chain of bars, with 92 sites. The company also has four hotels after opening ‘the world’s first craft beer hotel’ in Ohio in 2018. The brewer has a reputation for edgy marketing and PR stunts, including chartering a branded helicopter to drop taxidermied cats on London and selling beers called Barnard Castle Eye Test after the Dominic Cummings controversy last year.

Its latest accounts show turnover grew to £214.9million in the year to December 31, 2019, from £171.6million the year before. Profits swung to £1.1million from a £576,000 loss the year before.

Since then, growth in online sales in the pandemic has helped offset the closure of bars and hotels. BrewDog is estimated to be worth £1.85billion, with Watt’s 24 per cent share worth £440million and Dickie’s 20 per cent stake £370million. 

The pair have repeatedly raised money through crowdfunding for the business dubbed ‘Equity for Punks’. In October, the firm raised £7.5million in what it said would be its last round of crowdfunding before an IPO.