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Meet the MD: Mark Roberts of Beer Hawk

Taking an interesting approach from Beer Hawk's creation to make themselves 'redundant' every six months, Mark Roberts explains how he and his co-founder have grown the company to an 80-strong team that inspire customers to find their next favourite beer. 

What is it the company does?

Beer Hawk offers a highly curated range of over 1,000 of the best craft and speciality beers from around the world, offered as a “pick n’ mix” selection, discovery cases, a monthly beer subscription club and a large selection of beery gifts. We are on a mission to inspire our customers to find their next favourite beer.

Describe your role in no more than 100 words

My co-founder and I still run the business. My role is leading the marketing, commercial and technical teams across Beer Hawk. As we do practically everything in-house, the huge variety never allows me to get bored! We have an incredibly talented team, so often my role is to set our direction, make sure we’re being true to our brand, and then get out of the way! I then get to spend most of my time on recruiting people who fit with our company values, on solving problems that require a new approach, and on spreading the word about Beer Hawk.

Give us a brief timeline of your career so far – where did you start, how did you move on?

I started my career on the graduate scheme for Procter & Gamble in various sales and marketing roles. I found my passion for innovation and joined a small consulting company helping large FMCG companies (such as Coca-Cola and Kimberly Clark) innovate and deliver better commercial plans.

When a “challenger bank” wanted to recruit a head of innovation, I jumped at the opportunity to understand a different sector. Unfortunately, this was 2007 and just ahead of the financial crisis! Very quickly, my role moved to focus on retention and existing customers, and before long I was head of customer marketing for the general insurance business at Lloyds Banking Group.

I got the opportunity to become marketing director at Laithwaites Wine, which was a fantastic opportunity to learn all about a successful direct to consumer business. When we found out that we were expecting our first child, we decided that the commute (from Harrogate to Reading!) needed to stop, and so I took the plunge and started Beer Hawk. Many people told me that setting up a business at the same time as starting a family is crazy…? It was certainly full-on, but we enjoyed the flexibility it gave, and I honestly loved every minute! 

My role has changed so much in the last seven years at Beer Hawk. Starting out with just the two of us in a tiny office, we were doing everything from website development, to packing boxes, answering customer queries, accounting and raising seed capital. We had a principle of trying to make ourselves “redundant” from the work we were doing every six months. That meant we had to find someone better to do it, and then flow to the next big thing before the cycle repeated. This has given me a deep understanding of all the functions within Beer Hawk, which I think is so important when you are running a business.

What do you believe makes a great leader?

I truly think great leaders are able to inspire their teams to go beyond the norms of what is considered possible and achieve significant success in an authentic way. A great leader must also remain calm and focused at times when everything seems to be going wrong and enable the team to stay focused on the mission.

What has been your biggest challenge in your current position?

My biggest challenge at Beer Hawk has been to make sure that our unique culture continued to thrive. Our team has grown from just two to over 80 people in the space of seven years, and when our business was acquired by a large multinational company it was vital to ensure our company culture continued.

Such fast growth and exceptional change resulted in enormous complexity. We had significantly more people involved in decisions, more products in different categories, more sales channels to operate in, and more customer groups than ever before. We were running the risk of allowing this complexity to slow down our decision-making and time that it took to get things done.

My role has been to help keep us focused on our mission (which is to inspire each of our customers to discover their next favourite beer), on our big priorities, and on our four unique company values that bind our team together. These are: 1) We’re down to earth, 2) We always make it better, 3) We get on with it, and 4) We give a shit!

Taking the time to remind everyone of what really matters, and therefore what doesn’t, has been a huge challenge. Our values have really helped us cut through this, which is why we’d prefer to slow down our growth rate and wait longer to recruit the right people rather than make any compromises on our values at all.

How do you alleviate the stress that comes with your job?

I’m lucky enough to be someone who can switch on and off very quickly. Switching off from work when I get home is very easy when I have a young family and three kids come charging to the door to meet me. Incidentally, my oldest was born in the same month that Beer Hawk was founded… what were we thinking?!

In any spare time that I do get, I love to play tennis, get outside into the countryside for a decent walk, and then relax in front of Netflix with one of my favourite beers!

When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I used to play a lot of tennis when I was little and had dreams of making it as a player on the Tour so I could travel the world and play the sport that I loved. Reality struck home quite hard at about 15 when I realised that I was well off the pace!

I think that’s when I realised that I’d love to have my own business at some point. I remember many Saturdays as a (very) young kid being around my dad’s paper merchant business, and just enjoying spending time with the staff there. I was struck by how everyone from the office to the warehouse seemed to be very connected to a small business. That feeling has always stayed with me, and I hope I’ve brought some of that into what Beer Hawk is today.

Any pet hates in the workplace? What do you do about them?

Why on earth does anyone think it’s acceptable to send an email or instant message to me when I’m sat less than 10 metres away?! I’d much prefer to have a quick conversation, so I refuse to respond to the email and walk over to bother them instead!

Where do you see the company in five years’ time?

The craft beer market is growing so quickly, that there are so many opportunities for our business to grow. We will stay true to our company mission of inspiring our customers to discover their next favourite beer. I think this will involve a more personalised approach enabled by better technology, a significant increase in our omni-channel bars across the UK, and then an expansion into other nearby European countries… Brexit dependent, of course! 

What advice would you give to an aspiring business leader?

Firstly, to be crystal clear on what you want to achieve, but arguably more importantly - why you want to achieve it. When it gets tough, it will be your “why” that gets you through emotionally, but your “what” that keeps everyone focused on where the business is heading.

Secondly, to be very self-aware of your strengths as a leader, and also where your blind spots are. In my opinion, it’s critical to recruit a team that have complementary strengths, so you can focus on what you’re really good at… but then allow the other leaders within the business the freedom to bring their own skills and talents to the party.

What do you wish someone had told you when you started out?

80% of success is turning up. You can’t build a business if you don’t start it, and it won’t grow unless you act.

Neina Sheldon
Article by Neina Sheldon
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