Sam McMeekin (1996, B) is a self-professed generalist. He enjoyed a large range of pursuits at Radley, before moving to the States for a broad American degree programme. He knew he wanted to work in finance, but struggled to get an appointment in the types of broad project management roles that interested him.
Looking for an opportunity to get involved in all aspects of a business – research, design, manufacture, branding, marketing, finance, people management – Sam decided to start his own business with a friend. Gipsy Hill Brewery is now one of London’s biggest independent breweries, and is leading the way with its employee ownership programme, and aim to create the world’s first carbon negative beer.
What was your time at Radley like?
I remember it being great! During my childhood, my family and I lived in Singapore, and coming to the UK, being so far away from home, school meant a lot in my life. Radley felt like home a little bit as well. I had best friends there who were groomsmen at my wedding, and I’m still close to now. I loved all the sports – rowing, cricket, golf, squash. I loved music, and I was even in a few plays. The broad set of experiences, beyond just the academic, helps to wake up your brain.
What did you do once you left?
I went to university in America, on the west coast, Stanford University. Back then, there weren’t many people doing that sort of thing from UK schools, and the infrastructure at Radley wasn’t really able to help me with my application. I’m sure it’s different now. I had support from my family, though, so I didn’t let that stop me. I was one of only four English people at Stanford. It was interesting to be a minority, and taught me to be confident and open-minded. The first year at university in America was really broad – you study humanities, languages, science. When it came to choosing a major in my second year, I took Economics. I wanted to learn about finance, but some parts of the course were not my strong suit, and so I switched to English Literature in my third year, keeping Economics as a minor. You gain a degree by completing units, and these can be very varied – I earned credits by completing a unit in beach volleyball!
How did you begin your career in finance, and how did it evolve?
I knew I wanted to get a job in finance, but I didn’t have a good understanding of the different areas – investment banking, investment management, private equity, etc. At a Stanford career day I found an amazing investment management company that had a graduate scheme targeting liberal arts students. It was an incredibly rigorous interviewing process, I did more than thirty interviews across various countries to get the job. I was based in Los Angeles initially, then later Geneva, Singapore, and London. I worked on a number of projects across different parts of the company for three years. I was a great experience and an exciting time. Unfortunately, I had a wonderful project lined up, working for a microfinance company, but the financial crash in 2008 put an end to that. I had to figure out how to make the move into microfinance without the backing of a global institution. I found an NGO based in Senegal, and spent a year working with a small microfinance fund that invest in local businesses and entrepreneurs. After this I started an MBA with the London Business School. I convinced them to come out and interview me in West Africa, which wasn’t easy, but was definitely worth it – standing out from the competition is always important.
Have you always wanted to start your own business? What did your friends and family think?
As part of the MBA I had an internship in Equatorial Guinea, and afterwards I stuck with the company, based in London. I was looking forward to further opportunities abroad, but ultimately the company changed their overseas plans. I was gaining some serious analytical rigour, and picking up useful skills, but it didn’t feel right. Growing businesses from scratch appealed to me, and I was fascinated by greenfield projects where seed funding is provided to build a new organisation. I began interviewing for a variety of roles, but I was a bit too junior for the ones that were most interesting. I’d never been responsible for managing a team, a budget. No one was going to let me run their business, so I needed to make my own. In 2013 I started thinking about what I could build. I was considering everything – all options were on the table. I wanted something involving manufacturing, something scalable. I landed on brewing, and teamed up with a friend of a friend, and ended up founding Gypsy Hill.
What did your friends and family think?
My dad encouraged me to create a business plan and financial models, and I did a lot of research. I built a case, which helped me convince myself that this was the right thing to do. No one said “You’re an idiot”. I wish more people had! That would have useful, because it was really tough, and it still is. I didn’t know enough entrepreneurs, and those conversations would have been helpful.
Describe your brewery business. How quickly did it grow, and how do you feel things are going so far?
The financial model that I wrote didn’t reflect the reality of the early years of the business. Overall, the growth was there, but it was not a gradual growth. There were so many setbacks – manufacturing, operational – and periods of stagnation followed by lots of sales. We had to learn everything really quickly. Most start-ups don’t make it past the first year, and we had to work incredibly hard to make sure we bucked that trend.
What makes your business different to others in the sector?
It’s easy to make mediocre products, and pump all your money into marketing. But it was clear to me that the route to growth and building a good brand and a USP as a brewery was to make the best beer that we could. We didn’t make it easy for ourselves – we wanted to be the best. I used my experience to model scenarios. I became a scientist. I became obsessed by the intricacies of the brewing process. Initially, we perfected a small number of beers, before experimenting with new recipes. We are also an employee-owned company, which is rare – I believe there is only one other brewery with an employee ownership programme.
What is the process for coming up with a new beer?
The first special beer we made was exciting – trying something brand new. We started making more and more specials, mostly because experimentation was a great way to learn our craft. By the end of 2019 we were brewing 16 beers. We learned so much about suppliers and methods. We’ve worked with almost every existing hop varieties, and now we are looking at innovation on the processing side of brewing.
How did you fare during the pandemic?
The last couple of years have been brutal. For any brewery, your main customer is pubs, and obviously they were closed for long stretches of time. We were able to sell plenty of beer canned, but at the end of the day, breweries need pubs. It’s been difficult in other ways too – looking after a team during the pandemic. Anyone who has been the CO of a business in the last three years, whether or not the pandemic has been good or bad for them, has had a hell of a ride.
What’s next? Are you considering markets abroad?
We’ve just finished a successful round of crowd funding. That will go towards capital investment, machinery and equipment, and also branding and marketing. The pandemic and Brexit have set us back about a year and a half in terms of our business plan. Exporting is difficult now, so there are still challenges ahead. Next year we aim to underscore our position as one of London’s biggest independent breweries. My goal is to scale the business, continue to make it sustainable, financially and environmentally.
What do you think the future holds for your business?
Beer is an age old product, as old as time, nearly. It has changed, but not as much as you might think. There will be changes to manufacture in the future, but it’s really just moving the needle around – process tweaks. These changes are still helpful, though. Techniques to reduce the level of oxygen in beer, even slightly, can increase shelf life by a month. Slight increases in efficiency means better productivity and turnover. Where I think the biggest changes lie will be with our suppliers, who are doing cutting-edge work on, for example, isolating yeast strains. Collaboration with our supply chain is where the most interesting developments lie. At the moment we are working with a company to regeneratively grow barley. By sowing the barley mixed alongside other crops in a single field, a number of ecological benefits can be seen – increased biodiversity, improved soil health, increased carbon sequestering. The result is carbon negative barley. With some changes to our manufacturing, we might be able to make the world’s first carbon negative beer. Customers care about quality and cost most of all, but sustainability is increasingly important to them too.
What advice would you give to others wanting to start a business?
The opportunities that I’ve had are often due to my generalist mindset, not because I’m a specialist. There are great options for experts, but a breadth of education and experiences is also very valuable. If someone told me they wanted to start a brewery, I’d tell them to go and work in one, at least for a year or two. Getting some experience is really important. Throwing yourself into a sector is dangerous if you don’t know anything about it, no matter how much passion you have. Before I started my MBA, I worked for a summer building marquees for a friend’s company, just to stay grounded. I didn’t flip burgers after I left Radley, I went straight into working for a multinational company. But I’ve peppered my life with a variety of other jobs. This is invaluable, and helps you understand the perspectives of other people. While you are young, take those opportunities to do different things. There’s always something to learn. Do what you want, and not what other people want you to do.
I’m a father of four, and I have a wonderful wife. My final piece of advice would be: don’t build a family and a business at the same time. However, if you want either of those, don’t wait for either! Building a family is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever done, and building the business is the same.
Check out the Gipsy Hill Brewing Company website.