Black Sheep Brewery: adapting through constant change


Discover how this brewery has innovated through an uncertain and ever-changing business environment.

21 Sep 2021, 5 min read

Pubs and restaurants closed. Furloughed staff. Ever changing restrictions. Business for the hospitality industry during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic was looking more and more bleak. 

For North Yorkshire-based Black Sheep Brewery (BSB), the uncertainty was the most challenging aspect. What were the available routes to market? What options did they have for diversification? What were the commercial challenges? How could they make sure those who were not furloughed could work remotely without, in some cases, the technology in place? 

Closing up shop was not an option for BSB. As a production company that brews beer, which is a fresh product, the immediate challenge was how to collect barrels of unsold beer from their customers across the UK. 

While this step was necessary, the financial implications were large. 

BSB needed an alternative method to sell their beer and regardless of the overall uncertainty, it was up to newly appointed chief executive Charlene Lyons, taking her role in January 2020, to lead the way. 

Learning to adapt when change is forced upon you 

BSB decided to adapt with more than one approach. With pubs closed, they needed another way to fulfil customer demand. First, they developed an e-commerce platform. 

“It wasn’t a sophisticated e-shop,” Lyons notes. “We literally just started listing products and selling them.” 

Innovation didn’t stop there as the team realised, to sell online, there needed to be a hook and online shoppers had different expectations than BSB’s other customers. 

Then they started a ‘Brew to You’ service for customers to call up, order beer in bulk and have it delivered to their doorstep.  

However, while this range of diversification was coming about, so was a lack of people resource. BSB had furloughed 80% of their staff and the contractors for their million-pound packaging line project had left the site, so it was an all-hands-on deck situation in order to keep the operation running.  

“We had salespeople doing deliveries and new starters that couldn’t be furloughed, that were doing whatever they could to support and help. It was a real team success story,” Lyons says. 

“Normally when you’re diversifying and creating new strategic objectives, you spend a lot of time putting them into business plans, doing financial forecasting, commercial viability studies, doing risk analysis. We didn’t have time to do any of that.”

We saw an opportunity and thought, ‘we’re going to go for it!’

— Charlene Lyons , Chief Executive, Black Sheep Brewery

Supporting staff on a difficult journey 

This ‘let’s go for it!’ mindset wasn’t always sustainable throughout a pandemic however, with no clear end in sight. Morale dipped at times with staff on site and furloughed staff, as many felt uncertain about what the future would look like. 

The key was communication and in an effort to keep staff engaged, BSB sent little gifts, arranged Zoom team quiz nights, sent regular emails to ensure their people were aware of what was going on and in general, the managers made sure talking was a priority.  

Lyons also personally ensured she spoke to her employees directly, and BSB used this to facilitate a piece of work on their values, listening to feedback from all staff about what was important to them and what the business stood, and continues to stand, for.  

“People are the single most important part of our business,” Lyons says. “We shared everything and spoke about strategy during lockdown two, having found the time to focus on re-strategising and making sure that we were focused on the future, rather than just worrying about the past.” 

The balancing act between innovation and the status quo 

As organisations begin to re-open, one of the next steps involves working out how to balance the innovations implemented throughout COVID-19 with a return to office strategy. 

BSB’s e-commerce platform and Brew to You service wouldn’t have come about last year without the pandemic and now these innovations are features of their company that they don’t want to lose. 

“We’re still trying to find that balance and happy medium. We’re still trying to understand what the norm of our e-commerce business looks like,” Lyons says. 

“It’s about observing, analysing and enabling and making sure that we are doing whatever we can to push hard across all sales channels.” 

And with these additional sales channels comes a need to upskill and recruit staff. After all, with new areas of the business comes the need for new skills. 

Taking a future-focused approach to leadership 

Don’t be afraid to fail, communicate and listen to staff, ensure you have your staff’s full support and make sure they are part of the journey and the solution. Make bold choices and understand that sometimes these choices will go your way, but sometimes they won’t. These are Lyons’ key takeaways and takeaways that have served BSB well. They couldn’t have achieved significant ecommerce growth and successful innovations in one of the toughest periods of the 21st century without them. 

“However busy or difficult times are, always spend and focus your time on looking forward,” Lyons says.  

“As a leader, your team, your company and your shareholders are looking at you to lead the way. You’ve got to find the time to be able to ensure you’re leading with purpose.” 


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