As part of the new Hero Award category at the Retailers’ Retailer Awards, MCA is profiling five senior managers who have gone above and beyond when steering their business through the pandemic over the past 12 months.

SUZANNE BAKER PIC

Effectively managing relationships with a huge and diverse supply chain throughout a merger which saw Stonegate become the UK’s largest pub company would be no small task at the best of times. Factor in that Stonegate’s acquisition of Ei group happened around two weeks before the first lockdown in March last year and you can at least imagine the scale of the challenges that faced Suzanne Baker, commercial and property director at Stonegate.

“I had an enormous synergy target going into lockdown for the supply and negotiation side of the acquisition,” explains Baker. “My role was to bring all the suppliers together – and we have thousands of suppliers. Going into lockdown the big area I had to navigate was keep those supplier relationships going, and then starting to negotiate with them – it was the first time I’ve had to do it over Teams!,” she explains.

One of the biggest challenges with negotiating payment plans with suppliers at a time when Stonegate didn’t have any pubs open. “We had to base plans on our normal capex and the investment we’d normally put into pubs that we buy, but not really knowing whether we’d be able to realise that plan,” she says. On top of that when the pubs were able to reopen, all the old beer – from 4,500 pubs – had to be disposed of, which involved Baker having to deal with the “difficult” water authorities.

Baker was also trying to manage and motivate an expanded team, some of whom she’d never met. “I have still got people on furlough that I have never met – it is just bizarre,” she says. “Communication has been massive and I think the way we have managed to keep the teams together.”

And her team then doubled in size, from 70 to around 135 staff, when a colleague very sadly passed away in May last year and Baker had to take over the whole of the property department. However handling the people side of things is an area that Baker is particularly proud of. “It was a difficult set of circumstances. Not only was I deeply saddened by the passing of my colleague but I then to pick up people who had worked with him for 15 years, and also manage new people, and keep them motivated; but I had lovely feedback from people,” she explains.

Baker’s role over the past 12 months has also included getting back out to the pubs – when she could – to visit some of the new investments, and to work on the merger programme with Ei. “We put it on pause at first, but then we just had to get on with it, so in the late summer we went through what we called ‘joining forces’ and brought the two businesses together and we are now pushing forward as Stonegate Group. That was also quite a tough period as unfortunately we had to make some redundancies,” explains Baker.

But her unflappable nature and ability to take all these challenges in her stride are what led her to be nominated as Hero of the Year by Maureen Heffernan, MD at Leisure PR, which represents Stonegate Group. “With those huge responsibilities come compassion, energy, enthusiasm and a genuine love for hospitality and those that work within it,” says Heffernan.

“Looking at the size and scale of her role and what she does in that environment, with private equity behind you, and the fast pace of the business is something I’ve always admired,” she adds. “She quietly goes about her business, but to see her orchestrate and manage the challenges presented across that huge supply chain and seeing her responsibilities increase significantly during what is one of the most difficult periods in hospitality, while continuing to earn the respect of existing and new team members and colleagues is admirable,” she adds. “I also think she is fantastic role model for women in the industry and is a hero worth recognising.”

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