The recession may have claimed some of the drinks industry’s spirit, but that won’t stop Tom McCusker from putting some fizz into the newly formed Tennent’s NI.
An amalgamation of C&C Northern Ireland, Anheuser-Busch Inbev (ABI) and Quinn’s Rehill McKeown, Tennent’s NI went live at the weekend with its first deliveries to the Northern Ireland licensed trade.
Mr McCusker, who started his career at the Bass Brewery on the Glen Road in west Belfast in 1978, has been tasked with heading up the drinks giant whose brands include Tennent’s, Magners, Budweiser, Becks and Stella Artois.
Tennent’s NI, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Dublin-based C&C Group, is in the process of setting up a new Northern Ireland headquarters at Hawthorn
House, off the Boucher Road.
The managing director of Tennent’s NI explained: “I was involved in the selling of the Anheuser-Busch (AB) assets in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic to the C&C Group. On completion of that transaction C&C asked me to take over the Northern Ireland business. I formally took over as managing director of the Northern Ireland business in October 2009. For the previous four/five years I was managing director of Anheuser-Busch Inbev (ABI) business on the island of Ireland.
“When the opportunity came up to take over this exciting new Northern Ireland business and relocate back to Northern Ireland I jumped at the chance.”
The £180m acquisition of AB Scotland, Northern Ireland and Republic was cleared by the Competition Authority in August last year, allowing Mr McCusker to get down to work in October.
“When I took over it was a case of understanding the businesses, coming up with a business model, which we did quite quickly, and as soon as we got Christmas over we moved into full integration of the businesses, going live on April 24.
“We are really only starting off on the path now. We have put the business model together, we’ve a team now which is a combination of C&C, ex ABI and Quinn’s Rehill McKeown.
“We have put in new structures, we have appointed people from both businesses into the new structures, we have designed a totally new business model. My short term goal is to establish that business and to work very quickly towards our first aspiration, which is to become the preferred supplier to the Northern Ireland licensed trade.”
Not one to rest on his laurels, Mr McCusker has already set Tennent’s NI with a number of challenges including taking Tennent’s back to the coveted number one slot in draught lager.
“We hold the number one position in cider with Magners in both channels and all packs. We currently hold the number three position in lager with Tennent’s.
“At one stage, two or three years ago, Tennent’s held draught leadership of the lager sector. Magners is a brand that is really well established over the last 10 years, it has clear market leadership, it has a tremendous through-the-line campaign and lots of sponsorships, lots of media, and my other short term goal is to do exactly the same with Tennent’s as the Magners brand team has done with Magners over the years,” he said. “I want to take Tennent’s back to where we want it to be, which is really the number one lager brand. I think it’s no secret over the last three or four years the Northern Ireland part of the Anheuser Busch business really suffered from lack of investment in brands and frontline structures. This is a great opportunity now to put that right.”
And that will be no mean feat considering the issues facing the licensed trade, and in particular, the beer category.
Mr McCusker explained: “Beer is still by far the biggest sector and lager is a huge part of that. In reality, overall volumes are down. The market in Northern Ireland is smaller than it was several years ago. Beer has probably declined over the last two/three years somewhere in the region of 9/10% a year in on-trade.
“Some of that has been picked up in the growth of take-home and some of it has gone to cider and some of it has gone to wine and other categories. It’s to do with lifestyle, more pull on the consumer spend. Lots more people have two holidays a year, people are running cars, paying mortgages and most people now have flatscreen TVs, Sky and DVDs and have carry-outs at home. It’s a mixture of economy plus lifestyle change.”
Despite Mr McCusker’s longstanding association with Tennent’s, he is also passionate about Magners, which has revolutionised the cider industry.
“I think the very first alcoholic drink I ever had was a pint of Tennent’s in the Rock Bar in west Belfast. Yes I have spent 30 years being associated with the Tennent’s brand but it was Bass Ireland in, I think, 1999, who actually launched Magners Cider in the on-trade, so I have been associated with Magners Cider for over 10 years. We were the exclusive on-trade distributor for Magners on behalf of the C&C Group. I was part of the negotiating team that did that deal, my sales team were the team that actually took Magners draught to number one in Northern Ireland. Yes, Tennent’s has a particularly dear association to me but Magners is way up there too.”
Continuing, he said: “Our flagship brands are Magners and Tennent’s. We own those two brands and we have huge plans to build them, but we will want to leverage the strength of having those two big brands so Magners and Tennent’s we will lead with.”
Now that Tennent’s NI has gone live, Mr McCusker is relishing what lies ahead for the company.
“For the first time since the acquisition of the business by C&C, we will coming to work on Monday morning thinking about building our brands, thinking profit, contributing to the group’s bottom line and building our team. One of the positive things is that we have been able to build a team from scratch. We have selected the best people for the roles. We have very substantial resources to build our brands, to do commercial deals supporting trade, combined with a top class team from both businesses; it’s a very, very powerful mix.’’
“The C&C Group is an extremely ambitious business and we are a business that is about building brands and creating shareholder value and that will come from a mix of what we are currently doing. Will this business acquire more businesses or more brands over the coming years? That is a very safe bet,” he added.