Brewdog's James Watt: Why I gave away £100m to my staff

When we announced we were giving away nearly £100 million of my own shares in Brewdog, the response was overwhelming. At our Ellon headquarters and brewery people were stunned when they heard the news. A day later, we had an avalanche of job applications.

What we’ve done is no small beer, if you’ll forgive the pun. Under our new blueprint, there are potentially life-changing amounts of money on offer for our 750 salaried staff if they stick with us – probably around £120,000 or maybe even more if we hit our targets.

Meanwhile for nearly 1,500 bar and hospitality workers, our new 50% profit share scheme could be worth up to £5,000 a year on top of their regular wages.

But why do it?

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Quite simply, because in the 15 years since we brewed our first batch as two men and a dog, we’ve always been willing to experiment and do things differently. We didn’t want to change that now just because we’re a £1.8 billion business.

For the next 15 years, we needed to shake things up again. Even before the pandemic shut our doors, bar work in general hasn’t had a good reputation, with low-paid, transient staff.  We wanted to tear that up and do nothing less than build an entirely new model of hospitality business. We’re now on the way to doing that.

Full disclosure: the last year hasn’t been easy. Since a handful of former staff called us out last summer, we’ve taken a hard look at ourselves – reshaping the culture of the business from top to bottom, improving pay and hiring more staff in the areas we were under pressure.

Even though both Brewdog and myself personally have been the subject of some monstrous lies and distortions, I’ve put my hands up where I could have done better.

The business may be bigger, but at heart I’m still just an entrepreneur who’s really into beer. Nobody starts a beer company because they’re really into management. Call it growing pains, if you like.

At Ellon we have put that behind us and are looking firmly forward. By doing what we’ve done with the blueprint, BrewDog has put our people at the centre of that vision: at the end of the journey that we’re on, our biggest single group of shareholders will be our salaried staff and our equity punk investors, owning a quarter of the business between them.

Using the profit share scheme, we also wanted to make our bar staff think more like bar owners. That is good for them, our customers, and the wider business.

"Nobody starts a beer company because they’re really into management."

We’re in the foothills of a radical people-first revolution, but the immediate effects were plain to see.

We’re hiring fast at the moment and have been getting around eight applications a day for jobs across the business but in the 24 hours following the publication of our blueprint, we had inquiries from more than 120 people wanting to work for us, a 15-fold increase.

In a post-Covid climate of staff shortages where there are 171,000 vacancies among food and hospitality firms alone, that is an unbelievable result. After hearing about our plans, the people who we do end up hiring are more likely to stick around as well. That’s a real bonus when you’re managing a business, as endless recruitment eats into the time you could be using better elsewhere.

To be clear, this is an experiment. It’s a bold move and we’re not 100% sure how it will influence the business in practice. We’ll be looking at things like our rate of staff turnover and sickness rates as well as changes in customer behaviour and the profits of our venues to see what impact the blueprint has had.

We hope to be able to publish some data on it at some point. But we want to be an industry leader and set an example for others to follow.   

We also needed to ask ourselves a deeper question about why people come to work in the first place. You’ve got to want to come to work, and that means you have to believe in what you are doing.

Giving our workers buy-in and a stake in the company’s future success is a major part of that. But just as important – if not more - is being a good global citizen.

That’s why we’re in the process of investing almost £50 million putting climate at the centre of our business. This covers everything from the carbon footprint of the menus in our bars to turning Ellon into a carbon-negative brewery, thanks to a system which generates green gas from waste in the brewing process.

In time, we’d like to actually return gas to the national grid. Given the current soaring gas prices, it’s also good business for us, as well as being good for the planet.

The bigger picture is that the sustainability ethos runs through us like a stick of rock, because, quite frankly, it’s the right thing to do. Our staff and customers would expect nothing less.

With our blueprint we’re taking our entire industry into the future, building a planet-friendly, people-first beer company fit for the 21st century. I’m betting big on our crew because BrewDog would be nothing without them. I challenge others to follow our lead.


James Watt is co-founder of Brewdog