Managing director of Miller Brands UK Gary Haigh talks about bouncing back from a double disaster in Poland, how he cannot abide the beer-duty escalator, minimum pricing, and why we should blame him for the soggy spring. If you want someone to blame for this year’s sodden spring and summer, Gary Haigh, managing director of Miller Brands UK, is your man, writes Robyn Black. “We call it the spring curse,” he admits. “In 2010, during my first full year as MD in Poland, there was the presidential plane crash in April [when President Lech Kaczynski was killed when a plane hit trees in Russia], and the whole nation went into mourning for the best part of two weeks, then in May there was flooding and a state of emergency was declared across two-thirds of the country. “Fast forward to my first spring as MD in the UK and we had the wettest April and June since records began.” It’s ironic really, as a quick glance at his CV would suggest that Haigh is usually one of the lucky sorts and more often than not finds himself in the right place at the right time. Following stints with Fairy Liquid and Pampers at Procter & Gamble in the late ’80s, he worked on Pepsi in Hungary just as the whole of Eastern Europe was opening up and Western brands and the soft-drinks market were, in his own words, “growing like billyo”. He then ran Smirnoff Ice at Diageo in the brand’s heyday when “everything was going right” and was also marketing director for Guinness, when the brand was booming, making the iconic surfer, swimmer and snail-racing ads between 1998 and 2001. So, is it a case of good timing or does he have the Midas touch? “Sometimes, you can be the beneficiary of some really good work that has gone before. We all know that when you catch a brand at a tough time it takes a lot of time and energy, usually a few years, to get the trajectory sorted out. “So, timing has something to do with it — it’s never fun to go into a job and just be fighting fires all the time.” He concedes that, even if the timing is right, the individual still has a lot to do with the outcome, “because I don’t believe, even if everything is primed, that you can then do the wrong things and get away with it. But as long as you do the right things you can get a bit of a following wind”. This is something he is currently experiencing in his first year at Miller Brands, the UK arm of global-brewing giant SABMiller, after taking the helm from previous incumbent Nick Miller in October last year. He has inherited a portfolio of mostly premium imported beers that fit well with one of the few sectors of the pub market that is thriving — top-end, food-led, more premium outlets — and that fits right into the current trend for food and drink brands with heritage and provenance. “With this job, there’s a lot of good work that has already gone on, especially on the Peroni brand, so I am inheriting a brand and a business with momentum and we now have to make sure we do the right things and give it a bit of topspin.” Controversially, this has included a strategy of pulling Peroni, and fellow brand Pilsner Urquell, out of hundreds of outlets where the company felt they were not performing. “There are two strands to this strategy. With Peroni, where it is sold on draught, we work very closely with the outlet owner to see whether, at the price we re-commend, they can get the rate of sale that enables the product to be served fresh. “It is one way of making sure we don’t put it into pubs where it won’t work for us or for the retailer. I think that it has helped us not to over-extend ourselves. We are very thoughtful about our Peroni draught distribution. “With Pilsner Urquell it was a slightly different approach. We had a look at the pubs the brand was in on draught and gave ourselves a target in terms of kegs and pints sold per week and said any pub that isn’t hitting that level, we’ll take it out.” This has resulted in a loss of “more than 200” pubs for the brand, but Haigh claims the resulting volume loss has not been that significant as the pubs weren’t selling that much anyway and the remaining pubs are selling more, benefiting from increased support from the Miller Brands team. It has also resulted in creating gaps for another of the company’s brands — Kozel, a 4% ABV Czech lager. “We do suggest it as an alternative, as it is a slightly different brand. It’s got a lower retail price, quite attractive margins and, if that’s something people are interested in, obviously we are delighted to sell it.” These three are joined in the portfolio by: the Polish brands Lech and Tyskie; St Stefanus, a range of Belgian Abbey ales; and Miller Genuine Draft, an American lager that is aimed at 18 to 24-year-olds. “That brand competes in quite a different market to our other brands,” Haigh admits. “It’s in what we call ‘every-day premium lagers’ and is value-for-money.” It is also almost unheard of in England and Wales, though it is the number one on-trade bottled beer in Scotland and number two in Ireland. “It’s got a strong position in those markets and that’s a lot of volume to turn your back on, so we’ll be maintaining it, but don’t expect to see it in the rest of the UK.” In terms of future growth, Haigh says ale is not something he is looking at, nor cider, nor indeed is he looking to add any new drinks to the line-up anytime soon. “It’s now about making the business more profitable than to go chasing volume, be that new brands or chasing a lot of distribution. It’s about getting more revenue and more profit from the existing business.” One of his biggest challenges is going to be negotiating the on-going effects of the beer-duty escalator and the overhanging threat of minimum pricing. Of the former, he says that the Government is, “getting away with murder”. “I think it’s an outrage that successive UK governments have got the public to acquiesce in the crime of the century. “I think the industry is doing what it can to tackle it but the Government seems hell-bent. We managed to get more than 100,000 signatures on the petition against the beer-duty escalator, but it was hard work, harder than badgers or pasties, which tells you something about the way people have been browbeaten into accepting the constant taxation of one of life’s small pleasures.” And of the latter, he says it is the “number-one issue because it’ll be the thin end of the wedge”. Haigh believes that, not only is minimum pricing unproven in terms of alcohol-harm reduction, it will also have a dangerously negative effect on the on-trade. “If the drinks consumers are having at home before going out become more expensive, that’s less money in their pockets when they are in the pub. There seems to be a big portion of the pub trade that thinks simply reducing the price differential between the off and on-trades will help the on-trade. I fear that isn’t the case and I don’t like the fact the Government is saying it will help pubs either, because it’s a specious argument.” It’s just a shame he can’t blame politicians for the rain, too.