Clearly Drinks – North East Spirit

Clearly Drinks was an SME with a great culture but lacking well-defined standards. Then it became Mick Howard’s job to introduce corporate methodology while preserving the company’s character.

“We’ve got people who’ve been here man and boy, our longest-serving member of staff is in his 43rd year with the company,” explains Mick Howard, the CEO of Clearly Drinks. “95% of the workforce comes from the immediate area and it’s important to maintain that North East spirit. The people are warm, open, down to earth and resilient, and that’s what this business is built on regardless of what name is on the front of the building.”

If that sounds like a wonderful place to work, you may be right, but when Howard first arrived at the company in 2018, he was out of his element.
“My background was very much corporate so to walk into a business high in that spirit and enthusiasm but with limited structure was extremely challenging,” he admits. “I’ve run businesses looking after 25 countries and 35 factories with budgets exceeding 30 million euros, and coming from that into a regional SME was a big change.”

And yet Clearly Drinks is a business that, in one form or another, has been going for 135 years. The company was born in the North-Eastern town of Sunderland, when a local entrepreneur and herbalist, James Fenwick, formulated a drink and sold it to the locals.

The business grew and eventually moved into a more-suitable facility in 1910, an old bakery called Villa Bakery, becoming “Villa Drinks” until the 1980s, when it moved on to a bigger facility. As the firm entered the ‘80s and ‘90s they invested in new technology to try and keep up with the market, but that was very challenging. From there the company changed hands a number of times over 20 years, becoming a general contract bottler. They went on to buy the brand ‘Perfectly Clear’ seven years ago on the back of another drinks company, and that helped them refocus the company towards a branded proposition. That rebrand led to the sale of the business in 2017 through a management buyout led by NorthEdge. That’s when Howard got involved in the business.

Setting the Standard

He found a company of enthusiastic, dedicated workers, but he also found the company’s structure, processes and culture needed institutionalising.
“It’s interesting because it’s about having the foundational practices. A lot of what was being done wasn’t clearly described or standardised, and you can’t drive improvement without a standard,” Howard explains. “It wasn’t that people were doing anything particularly wrong but without that standard, it was hard to see your starting point for improvement. A goal is just a dream without a plan.”

From the beginning, Howard’s objective was clear.
“My brief was to start to professionalise the business and realise its true potential, driving the business forward strategically,” he recalls. “So that triggered a huge amount of transformation in the business. It was pretty entrepreneurial for a large period of time, so my job was to professionalise the company, focusing on our people first and foremost.”
Processes, professionalisation and ultimately the people were Howard’s main priorities, particularly with regard to the right employee value proposition.

Keeping the Baby and Throwing Out the Bathwater
But while Howard was keen to bring the standardisation and professionalism to Clearly that’d he learned in the corporate environment, he was also keen not to lose that unique Clearly culture that made the company such a special place to be.
“I don’t think there’s one single way of getting it right but there’s a lot you can get wrong,” Howard insists. “It’s about bringing change management to life through communication, education and support. You have to get everyone in the room.”

The company had between 76 and 80 employees (it has now grown to 110) and Howard brought everyone in, team by team and as individuals, taking them through what to expect.
“I asked them what’s the burning platform and what’s the opportunity here in terms of where we can take the business,” Howard says. “We helped people understand what to expect personally, some of which will be frustrating and fearful because that’s human nature, but we helped them through that and showed them what success looks like coming out the end and being confident in the intention of that program of change.”
“Support” was key to Howard’s approach, and he made sure to take employees through the positive attributes of the business, and point out that the people and culture of the company were key to that.
“All I want to do is arm them with the right skills, knowledge and capability to drive that forward, and that sounds cheesy, but it was absolutely true,” he says. “The first thing employees need to know is what the change is. It’s about sharing a vision, not scaring them with management buzz words.”

Through the Other SidePerfectly clear new range 500ml
The company’s transformation has been dramatic, and at some points even painful, but Howard is clearly excited about what comes next.
“We have got an extremely exciting future ahead of us. In 2018, when I joined the company, through to the early stages of 2019 we pulled together our transformation and value creation plan. That process of change was gut-wrenching for many, but we’ve come through the other end, and the reason we’re coming back up now is we have a clearly defined strategy, a great business plan and long-range forecast behind that,” Howard says. “We have people from across the business involved in defining that plan. Because you can’t just have a manager deciding on the business plan in an office, you need to involve your team from the offset. Our performance this year has been outstanding and we’re ready to break all the records we’ve ever seen. We’re continuing to drive and generate revenue but ultimately on the bottom line it’s about driving value and driving sustainable value for stakeholders, including our employees.”

This doesn’t just mean paying the staff a wage, but also offering a staff healthcare package, contributing more than expected into staff pensions, and even holding family days. But while Clearly Drinks is a business that gives a great deal back to its staff and its investors, Howard can’t deny he’s got a lot out of it as well.
“After 30 years in the industry I’m still more excited today than I have been in a long time,” he says. “Being able to come into a smaller business and really shape it, it’s rejuvenated my whole appetite and passion for the work.”

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