All ale the retiring hero

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S&N’s chief looks back on his 25-year career which includes bringing Beck’s to Britain

HE brought Beck’s to Britain and developed a cult following in the United States for Newcastle Brown Ale.

And that’s just two hallmarks Richard Keith can look back on as he prepares to retire after almost 25 years with Scottish & Newcastle, Europe’s second-biggest brewer.

The former lawyer’s CV also states he had a major hand in creating one of the most memorable advertising jingles the beer industry has ever seen - "McEwan’s is the Best Buy".

Mr Keith, 53, will step down as managing director of S&N International, the Edinburgh-based beer giant’s export arm, at the end of the month. And he sees his retiral as the chance to change the pace of his life.

"This is a chance to do something different. I’ve been to 40 countries and enjoyed international development and certainly I plan to maintain the connections I’ve nurtured in China."

The leap from legal eagle with Edinburgh law firm Morton Fraser Milligan to beer guru came as a result of the need for a "challenge", says Mr Keith.

So he joined S&N as a marketing assistant in 1977.

Mr Keith, who is the author of A Guide to Scots Law - the lowdown on Scottish law for consumers - describes the move as a "culture shock".

He says: "Moving to S&N was a breath of fresh air. I was a junior brand assistant, the lowest of the low.

"I like to think I was independent and resourceful," he says, adding that he’d probably have been something of an "oddity" in the world of law.

With his reputation spreading, Mr Keith was poached by rival Allied Breweries in 1980. But his tenure there didn’t last long. After only a year he was lured back to S&N with the title of product development manager with the firm’s marketing department, a position from which he brought Beck’s, the premium German beer, into the S&N fold under licence.

At the time, S&N was a fairly minor player in terms of today’s global beer groups, many of whom, like S&N, have dipped their toes into the wider leisure industry only to retreat again into their core beer businesses. But S&N had dreams of expansion, and those plans started with a relaunch of McEwan’s.

"What significantly helped it march into England and beyond was the first two-minute TV commercial for the beer," says Mr Keith. That took place during the break in a screening of one of Scotland’s 1986 World Cup football matches in Mexico and ran under the banner McEwan’s - Alive and Kicking.

Before long, Mr Keith was brand manager for McEwan’s, a position that enabled him to cement his reputation for innovation.

He is credited with inventing the concept of "guerrilla marketing," a technique that has enabled brand managers with small budgets to take on vastly superior competitors and win.

Mr Keith’s first demonstration of the art took place at Murrayfield during a Calcutta Cup match in the early 1980s, where he arranged for several girls to invade the pitch flaunting placards advertising McEwan’s lager.

While the invasion was effective, it was scowled upon by some of his superiors.

In the weeks that followed Mr Keith’s main goal was to avoid running into S&N’s chief executive Sir Alick Rankin at the firm’s head office at Abbey Brewery, Holyrood.

Andrew Stevenson, S&N’s current director of strategy and retail, describes Mr Keith as "ahead of his time".

"The group did not follow up his proposal to invest in isotonic drinks, which have since become an important element in the soft drinks market," he says.

As his time with S&N flew by, Mr Keith continued to rise up the ladder and by 1985 had become product marketing director.

By the late 1980s, he was a director of Welcome Inns, S&N’s pub company in Scotland, and as such was behind the development of pubs such as the King’s Wark on Leith’s waterfront and the Merlin in Morningside Road.

However, it was his 1988 appointment as managing director of S&N International that was to see the group gain greater international prominence, as well as boosting sales of its beer to a new audiences.

Mr Stevenson says: "I had a look back at the archives to see what kind of business Richard took over. "Our biggest export market was the NAAFI. The British armed forces are good customers, but it’s hardly evidence of building international brands." He says that once the NAAFI and duty-free sales were stripped out of the equation, "the real exports to overseas markets were only 35,000 hectolitres", with McEwan’s Export, Younger’s Tartan and Newcastle Brown Ale the biggest brands.

The statistics show Canada was running at less than 12,000 hectolitres, the US 5000 (half of which was Newcastle Brown) and Italy at 3000. "Fourteen years later we are forecast to have volume of 1.6 million hectolitres this year," says Mr Stevenson.

"Even more impressive, our true overseas exports, which formed a tiny part of the business in 1988, have grown 28-fold, from 35,000 to a million hectolitres - a compound annual growth of 27 per cent per annum for 14 years."

But the jewel in the crown which Mr Stevenson credits Mr Keith with was his building of demand for Newcastle Brown Ale in the US. Demand for the drink has grown 135-fold from 2600 hectolitres in 1988 to 350,000 today - that’s a compound annual growth of 42 per cent each year over 14 years.

" Such was the success of the international division under Mr Keith’s leadership that it earned the Queen’s Award for Export Achievement in 1988.

Mr Stevenson says much of his colleague’s development of the business has come despite the available of huge budgets for the division. "Guerrilla marketing has been the strategy," he explains.

Recalling more colourful times with Mr Keith, Mr Stevenson says: "We’ll remember him for teaching passengers of All China Airways to sing McEwan’s Is the Best Buy, , for wearing the kilt in every part of the globe.

" He has sold beer to Chinese warlords and entertained prime ministers.

"Richard has never seen the importance of a market by its size, rather by its potential," Mr Stevenson says - and with tongue firmly in cheek, adds: "Thus, he has lavished care on the parts of the business which, as he says, will pay our pensions."