Left Handed Giant shows why hiring for attitude over aptitude really does work
Left Handed Giant started as an experiment in the back room of a Bristol bar in 2014.
The business was founded as a collaboration between managing director Bruce Gray, general manager Jack Granger and home-brewer Rich Poole. When it came to operating a brewery, the three had a complementary skillset: Bruce with front-end operations, Jack with bars and Rick with brewing.
“When we started, we set off on a journey to see what we were capable of. There was no real commercial experience behind us. We looked at what we could create and what sort of demand there could be. There was more luck than judgement,” Bruce said.
The proof of demand came over the next few years. In 2018, Left Handed Giant launched an equity crowdfunding campaign that reached its £450,000 target in less than 40 minutes. The campaign eventually raised more than £1m.
Since its initial back room experiments, Left Handed Giant has grown into one of England’s most popular breweries and produces around 400,000 litres of beer annually.
We've outlined the key areas that have played a role in its success so far:
- Performance management
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Our behind the scenes look at Left Handed Giant is part of a number of other deep-dive profiles we have. Make sure you have a look the others:
Peer networks inspired Left Handed Giant to make big decisions
Taking leaps in business is always daunting. Whether it’s launching a big project or investing in a new site, there’s always a substantial element of risk involved.
When Left Handed Giant first started looking at brewpub locations, the site it came across presented a huge challenge. The 10,000 square foot building dated back to 1788, but had been derelict for over a decade.
Situated on a river in the centre of Bristol, a bridge to connect the building to a nearby walkway hadn’t been built yet. It made no sense to take on the site.
“If we’d looked at it from a really analytical perspective and asked, ‘should we take the step?’ The answer would have been no. We weren’t in a position financially and didn’t have the team size to take that step,” Bruce said.
But, as he explained, sometimes you have to make decisions based on instinct and motivations and figure out the details afterwards. To take strides forward, business owners have to embrace the risk.
“The building was unique and wasn’t going to come on the market again. Either we could put our weight behind it and back it and jump over bridges when we came to them, or we could leave it alone,” he said.
“I felt confident that Bristol would buy into and support the premise. When we went and looked at it too, I remember thinking that it could be one of the most visually impactful breweries in the world.”
Using peer networks to build confidence
Even if you’re sure that customers will buy into what you’re trying to do, it can still be difficult to make that final commitment. The solution? Surround yourself with ambitious, driven people.
Bruce credits Wylam Brewery director Dave Stone with inspiring Left Handed Giant to commit to the brewpub. In 2016, Stone finished a project to turn Newcastle’s derelict Palace of Arts building into a fully operational brewery.
“I went up there for his opening night. I was staggered by his ambition and foresight to see this building and view it as what it could be, rather than what it was,” Bruce said.
“At the time, I was scared to commit to the Bristol site. But I thought, ‘if they can turn a building of that stature into a beautiful brewery space then we should at least give it a try’. Their actions really inspired us.”
The relationship has built up from time spent at festivals and travelling to each other’s breweries. The founders often discuss how they’re running things, managing costs and ensuring they’ve got enough profit to have a long-term business.
Rather than seeing other business owners as competition, Bruce recommends trying to build a network. It’s beneficial to share problems and encourage each other to keep moving forward. This progression, he explains, only encourages acceleration across the whole industry.
Other businesses chose not to leap
After two years of work, the brewpub opened to a huge amount of buzz in June 2019.
Since opening, Bruce has found out that other breweries had looked at the space but decided that it was too big of a project.
“Those brewers walk in now and think, ‘f***, what we could have had here’. But they analysed it and chose not to leap. Having executed the project, I think you’ll struggle to go anywhere in the world and find a brewpub that looks so impactful and impressive.”
While Bruce emphasises that decisions you make for your business need to be educated, he values the emotional response too. Once you decide to do something, do whatever you need to do to fulfil that commitment, whether it’s having continued faith in your project or finding the funding you need.
Hiring for personality over technical skill
What qualities do you look for in a new hire? At Left Handed Giant, enthusiasm is valued more than technical abilities.
Biting the bullet with difficult conversations can boost overall performance
How do you improve staff performance across your entire business? For brewery Left Handed Giant, the key is to encourage employees to move out of their comfort zone – and be honest if a new hire isn’t working.
Building a high-performing workforce starts with your interviews. Once you’ve hired people who are skilled, driven and enthusiastic, you give your business the best chance of success. Unfortunately, it won’t always work out.
“We’ve always put a great deal of effort and energy into interviews. But it’s easy to throw people into a management structure, train them up and forget about them,” MD Bruce Gray explained.
“You’re never going to get it right every time – in fact, you’re probably going to get it wrong most of the time. So, it’s important to be able to communicate your expectations quickly and honestly to give them a fighting chance of staying.”
Don’t avoid awkward conversations
If it’s required, Bruce doesn’t shy away from awkward conversations. Being prepared to have difficult talks with your staff is key if you want to keep performance levels high.
“People don’t want to hear they’re losing their job, they want to do what’s required. If you’re avoiding a conversation, put your head down and deal with it. The foundation of a great team is to be able to give people honest feedback,” he said.
As Bruce explained, if you allow people to remain who aren’t living up to expectations, you drag down the overall expected level of performance. Other staff members who work hard will look across and think, “why am I putting all that effort in?”
It’s important to give people the chance to change and improve, but don’t ignore the issues if they aren’t going away. Bruce urges other business owners to react quickly to bad hiring decisions.
“Give them everything you can, but remember that people who work hard in your business should be rewarded. It undermines other people’s performance by allowing employees to stay in the business if they aren’t performing to the same standard,” he said.
“Hiring and firing are brutal, but it’s unfortunately part of business. Sometimes you have to have those difficult conversations.”
Give employees ownership
Improving your overall performance isn’t just about identifying the employees who aren’t meeting standards. Bruce is a strong advocate of giving staff members autonomy and ownership of their roles.
There’s a “cheesy” Richard Branson quote that he tries to live by: “Find good people and set them free.”
Many business owners will work in different jobs across the business, either out of necessity or to build a fundamental knowledge of the ins and outs of each position. But once you hire for a role, be confident that you can step back from the frontline.
At Left Handed Giant, Bruce has worked in almost every role, from driving kegs of beer across town to managing the sales desk. Now, his main purpose as a leader is to help staff to improve.
“The job of a leader isn’t to micromanage people. Instead, you should be constantly looking at the team and nudging them out of their comfort zone. Look at how to innovate and improve, rather than stepping in and telling someone who’s great at their job how to be great at their job,” Bruce said.
“If you give people new, exciting tasks, you give them a reason to be passionate about work. That nudges them forward. As a result, the whole company nudges forward.”
Embedding values in the business
Bruce Gray shares how community plays a key role in the brewery and why one of his main values is "people over profit".
Empowering your team through delegation
Before starting his own craft beer projects, Bruce worked as Brewdog’s operations director. It gave him valuable experience of opening and running a bar, as well as managing a big team. One of his biggest challenges was learning to delegate.
“I was working in a job where I managed around 100 people. There were a lot of painful lessons learnt, but thankfully it was under someone else’s payroll,” he said.
Bruce remembers working 100-hour weeks in the early days – he tried to do everything and didn’t have the skills or confidence to delegate. He credits his boss with working with him and helping him gain confidence, so that he didn’t burn out.
Now, he’s emphatic about the benefits that delegation can have for leaders.
“When you have a team of people you can rely on and delegate things to, you suddenly discover what a change in gear that gives the whole company. I stopped being a bottleneck. Instead, I was suddenly just a conductor at the front of the choir. People were doing their own things within their own skill set and I was making sure they were staying on course.
“Delegate and provide the right support. If you give people opportunities and education, they can become so much more than they’ve been allowed to be. People can come in at one level, but given the opportunity and education, they can turn into so much more.”
LHG operates with leadership in mind
Customer feedback helps to keep the concept fresh
Customer feedback is a critical part of any business. Left Handed Giant uses it to make sure its product and brand feels fresh and modern.
“Getting feedback from customers allows us to be right on the end of the so-called pointy edge – right at the modern moment,” Bruce said.
To demonstrate how important it can be to embrace change, he reflects on the extent the beer scene has changed in the last decade. In 2010, there were only a handful of craft beer bars across the country. Now, he describes the growth in places like Manchester, Leeds, Edinburgh and Sheffield as “staggering”.
With thousands of breweries opening up and increased consumer interest in independently-produced beer, bars have had to look past the traditional offering.
“When you look at the bars that are shutting down, I’d suggest it’s the ones that are stuck in their old ways – still selling the same old thing. When I go to different cities in the UK, the new bars are all independent and product-focused. They’re the ones that are growing and thriving,” he said.
Building a visual brand
In a competitive market like craft beer, being able to stand out on a shelf matters more than ever. Left Handed Giant creative manager James Yeo walks us through his design process.
The next steps: A “mature” approach to growth
There’s a tendency for businesses to equate success with size – the more sites and staff members you have, the better you’re doing. Independent brewery Left Handed Giant has a different mindset.
When Left Handed Giant started in the back room of a bar, the team focused on quality and innovation. It’s the same approach of working on a small scale and analysing each batch that homebrewers normally take.
Last year, Left Handed Giant opened their flagship, 10,000 square foot “brewpub” in the centre of Bristol. It marks five years of growth for the business, but MD Bruce Gray has different ambitions for the future.
“In the first five years, you naturally have to grow from a small operation. But, there should be a time where you overcome that immature motivation and move onto a mature direction. How good is the company? How good is the team environment?” he said.
“You can invest in quality control, innovation of new products and education of staff, rather than focusing on being 100 per cent bigger every year.”
Quality over quantity
Left Handed Giant’s main aim is to do more with the same ingredients. It isn’t costly or time consuming but still helps to drive the product forward.
The improvements can be something as simple as how the beer is poured. By educating staff about the position of the glass or how each beer comes through the tap, the product it provides is consistently high quality.
To create the best taste and experience for customers, the long-term goal is to sell 100 per cent of Left Handed Giant beer through its own taps. But Bruce is clear that the growth plan doesn’t involve brewing more beer.
“So many breweries in the last ten years have fallen into the pattern of just wanting to grow. They judge themselves every year on how much bigger they are than last year. But the only way to sell that beer is to sell it further away, which further disconnects people from the product and further degenerates the quality of that product.
“Our brewing facility is as big as it will ever be. We want to open up some great independent venues and sell more beer through the taps we own. Ultimately, this is an element of growth we can pursue without just making more beer.”
Pursuing growth for growth’s sake
Bruce recognises that it can be difficult for business owners to deviate from the typical growth model. Everyone has different ambitions for their business, but he hopes that sharing Left Handed Giant’s story will remind people that there are different paths available.
“When you look around, you’re going to be told that to not grow is to stagnate. It’s difficult to listen to successful business owners and think differently,” he said.
“Different people are motivated by different things. All we can do is communicate what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. It’s not necessarily the right way for everyone, but it might inspire and influence another business owner to think, ‘why am I trying to pursue growth for growth’s sake?’.”
Bruce describes Left Handed Giant’s new brewpub as a visual statement of intent to customers and peers about where their motivations lie.
“Rather than investing in a huge brewery and factory, we’ve created a space that brings our customers to us. We can talk to customers across the bar and connect with them.
“We want small brewers to walk into the building and think, ‘f***, this is the future’. If we can influence one person, that would make us happy.”
What we learned from Left Handed Giant
Left Handed Giant’s Bruce Gray is a great example of how a clear vision and ambitious mindset can help a business capitalise on opportunities others have missed.
His experience of managing large teams in a previous role led him to the stark realisation that leaders are often a huge bottleneck; now he continually challenges his staff to step outside of their comfort zone and take on new roles throughout the brewery.
As Bruce put it, when you give staff a reason to be passionate about work, it nudges both them and the company forward.
Here are some of the lessons we learned from Left Handed Giant:
- Sometimes you have to make decisions based on instinct over analysis if you want to take strides forward
- Peer networks are an effective way to keep you ambitious and driven
- Delaying difficult conversations with staff can harm overall motivation
- Honest feedback provides the foundation for a great team
- Delegation takes leaders from a bottleneck to a conductor at the front of a choir
- Don’t pursue growth for growth’s sake – work towards goals that are meaningful to you
location: South West (England)
business size: 10-49 People
business type: Hospitality & tourism
Questions to ask yourself
Bruce built up a network by attending industry events and visiting other businesses. Having a network of peers has been beneficial when it comes to sharing problems and motivating each other to keep moving forward.
Looking at your team and nudging them out of their comfort zone can help people progress into new, exciting roles.
Bruce warns against getting stuck in old ways. Getting customer feedback regularly has helped Left Handed Giant stay up to date with consumer preferences.