When Sydney craft brewer Young Henrys lost nearly 80 staff and a major part of its business overnight with the nationwide shutdown of hotels and restaurants due to COVID-19, the four directors decided to personally take over operations and start making hand sanitiser as one way to keep the business afloat. Here’s how they are tackling governance and other issues during the crisis.

    It’s been a long time since Young Henrys director Richard Adamson has operated a still, but in order to keep his successful craft brewery ticking over during the crisis, he decided to get hands on and just do it.

    Faced with the sudden loss of its draught beer business located in Newtown in Sydney, the brewer founder decided to start making desperately needed hand sanitiser for charities in response to the crisis. “I am an NED but I've actually been coming in and operating the still,” Adamson told the AICD in an interview. “So that’s about as hands-on as you can get. I was originally head brewer and I've got a qualification in distilling as well. But getting back on the stills has been interesting…. I am obviously a bit rusty.”

    With the onset of COVID-19, “it's all hands on deck. So all the directors are intimately involved with the operation of the business at this point.”

    After looking up World Health Organisation guidelines for making sanitiser, production started in late March and now the brewer is supplying the product to the Chris O’Brien Lifehouse cancer centre at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, the charity Do Good and the general public through the Young Henry’s website.

    “We'll be making a hand sanitiser with Do Good that they can sell. Their charity's around supporting women that are victims of domestic violence, which I think is important.”

    Luckily, Young Henrys’ packaged beer is made offsite, so production and sales of that product have not been affected. “We're still selling a fair bit of packaged beer, so what we’re doing is not so much about saving the business. But it's really about getting some jobs for our staff, and also just heeding the call, I think, for what is essentially something that's a frontline fight against the virus.”

    Daily board meetings

    Daily board meetings are being held between the four Young Henry’s directors now and the main issue which is being addressed is trying to secure the JobKeeper allowance for most of the staff who were stood down in March.

    “About 90 per cent of our 80 staff unfortunately had to be stood down, so obviously the JobKeeper allowance will be great if we can access that.” Most staff are Australian residents, so Adamson is hoping that will work in their favour. “We've got a few people back in to run the distilling and start putting it into bottles, etcetera, but when we ramp up to the full production, hopefully we can bring most of the brewing crew back in, which would be good.”

    Young Henrys is looking at about making 1,000 litres of hand sanitiser a week at the moment, which is only about 5 per cent of what the business was earning before at its Newtown draught beer site, but hopes to “ramp that up”.

    Using director networks

    The other three directors - Oscar McMahon, Dan Hampton and Adam Wilson - have also swung into action on coordinating efforts and purchasing, managing suppliers, using their own personal networks to get assistance and staff communications.

    “I think it's just about everyone talking to each other as much as possible and making group decisions, getting the best advice as you can from experts in the field, and then acting on those. But fortunately, we've got pretty good networks between the four of us.”

    They have reached out to contacts and gained advice on employment law. “Also, in my role as executive director, there's a lot of public relations - I'm on the board of the Independent Brewers Association. So (on that board) we're in touch with the various government agencies constantly, and we're always asking for as much help as we can get. So just as new measures are rolled out, I am getting a better understanding and communicating that to our members. Which means that I'm in a good position to also pass that advice that on to our directors at Young Henry's, as well,” says Adamson.

    What does the future hold?

    Because Young Henrys wants to retain as many staff as possible in the future, communication is important. The business uses various online groups to stay in touch with staff including Gmail, WhatsApp, Google Hangouts and Facebook Messaging. “At this point in time, it's probably best to over-communicate than leave people dangling.”

    “It's also been about adjusting to the new times and managing our suppliers, because it's all about trying to slow down the business and maintain cash, without hurting as many people as much as you can. So it's a tricky one,” says Adamson.

    “And then you've got to have a mind on the future, in terms of how do we gear up again once the restrictions are lifted? We are confident we can bring the team back together on the other side of this. Our people are too good to lose.”

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