Tuesday, 24 September 2019

Brewery profits in wartime

I was quite surprised to discover that WW I, despite all the restrictions placed on brewing, was actually good news for most UK breweries.

The years immediately leading up to the war had been particularly tough. A fall in the value of pubs had a dramatic impact on many breweries' assets and led to a marking down of the value of their share capital. Profits were low and few breweries were able to maintain their usual level of dividends. The war changed all of that.

Brewery profits soared even as the quantity of beer produced fell. The net result was that most breweries were in a few more secure financial state in 1919 than they had been in 1914.

But what about WW II? Was that equally good for brewery profits? It seems like it was, based on this report on Benksins financil results in 1943.

"Brewery Profit Record
The full accounts of Benskins Watford Brewery, Ltd., show that net profits increased by £5739 to £263,221, after providing for Debenture interest, directors' fees, and taxation, the last named amounting to £188,604, against £165,244 in the previous year. The maintenance of the dividend at 18.5 per cent has been previously reported. Mr W. H. Briggs, the chairman, congratulates the stockholders on a successful year despite the difficulty of war conditions. Government orders and regulations controlling the use of brewing materials, fuel, petrol, transport maintenance, and labour had continued, he said, to test the capabilities of their depleted but nevertheless experienced staff. The gross profit earned was a record although the increase in taxation affected the net profit. He estimated that taxes and duties had increased by £1,500,000, compared with the last pre-war year although only six months of the last increase in duty had accrued when the accounts were made up. While the Company's properties had been kept in reasonable repair many repairs had to be deferred. After the war heavy expenditure would be needed to make up excessive wear and tear during the war in plant and transport vehicles and on the structure of the brewery and mailings. For this  provision was being made. The accounts show that £40,000 has been set aside from profits for repairs and contingencies, bringing the total reserve for this up to £158,122. A further £25,000 is placed to reserve for improvements to properties, bringing it up to £231,805. Altogether reserves total £1,151,000, while liquid assets at £1,309,810 are £318,072 in excess of liabilities. The £1 stock units are valued at 84s."
The Scotsman - Saturday 04 December 1943, page 3.

What isn't mentioned here is how in some ways the war reduced brewers' costs. Beer zoning, for example.  This was a scheme whereby brewers only delivered to their tied houses which were close to the brewery. More distant houses were supplied by breweries closer by. Which must have reduced breweries' transport costs.

Of course, during the war brewers could easily sell every drop of beer the made. And having some staff away serving in the armed forces reduced labour costs, although that must have presented its own challenges.

Towards the end of the article it mentions one of the big traps: the impossibility of improving, or even in some cases maintaining, buildings and equipment. Less foresighted brewers than Benskins who didn't put away money to pay for outstanding maintenace after the end of the war, were left in precarious financial position.

That's one of the factors behind the rash of mergers and takeovers in the 1950s. Some brewers hadn't invested anything in their plant for more than a decade. At a certain point they would need to replace large bits of their brewing kit for which they simply didn't have the money. The solution was to sell up.

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