Husky Scot David McDowall impresses audience at The Pub Conference

It’s rare that you get an apology from a top chief executive speaking to an audience of keen observers from their own industry. But that’s what we received from David McDowall, chief executive of the Stonegate Group, when he addressed The Pub Conference 2024 at the Ham Yard Hotel in London last week.

The pub boss was sorry for being “slightly husky” due to two weeks of “shouting at mediocre Scotland performances” at Euro 2024. But he made no apology for how Stonegate was “obsessed” with sport, highlighting the huge sales uplift during the recent England v Denmark football match.

He said: “One of our biggest competitors is clearly my 50-inch screen in the front room, so we talk often about our sporting experience hopefully striving to make it feel as though you’re almost in the event stand and feel like part of the occasion. When we get that right I think it’s one of our superpowers.”

David’s native Scotland team could certainly have done with a sprinkling of ‘superpower’, but they crashed out of Euro 2024 bottom of their group with only one point from three games. Sad, not good to see a home nation crash out. Particularly when so well supported.

The boss of one of the country’s biggest pub groups had been talking about his meteoric rise from “bar to boardroom”. David, who joined Stonegate from BrewDog 18 months ago, said he turned to the pub trade after realising university wasn’t for him.

David McDowall.

He said: “My first job was working part-time behind the bar in a pub when I was 18 and a couple of weeks old in the centre of Glasgow. University didn’t work out that brilliantly for me, so my career has been pretty much every rung on the ladder. So, I am hugely passionate about the meaningful impact we can have on lives and careers in the sector.

“And probably the biggest reason that I joined Stonegate was that when I started to speak to people in the business, I could see that the ‘bar to boardroom culture’ wasn’t just a catchphrase. There are hundreds and hundreds of brilliant examples around the business of that happening.”

David said he had really enjoyed “getting stuck into” helping to run the Stonegate Group, which includes several venues on Westside.

“First and foremost, I think that despite the fact it’s been a tough, challenging and volatile market to trade in for all of us, I am really proud at how positively the team have thrown themselves at the evolution of this business.”

As a result of work on innovation and evolution of their business models, the company had produced really strong figures, which was “starting to give everyone real faith and belief that despite everything that’s been thrown at us, we have found momentum.”

David said that when he joined Stonegate he was excited to discover an ability to move at pace despite their scale.

“Stonegate continues to be forward-thinking as a business that continually asks ‘what’s next?’ And I see us achieving lots of cool stuff from an innovation perspective, which we’re starting to see the impact of.”

Talking of ‘what’s next?’, when I spoke to David afterwards I asked him if Stonegate’s pubs on Westside might be interested in hosting regular weather updates on Birmingham TV. I’m exploring this new feature as part of Westside BID’s association with the TV channel.

Mike Olley (right) meets David McDowall at The Pub Conference.

David certainly seemed to nod to that idea, and so the result could be viewers watching “the weather brought to you from The Brasshouse” one week, and then the following week it could be “we’re expecting more sunshine here at the Slug & Lettuce”.

David McDowall, the hero we didn’t know we needed, might just turn out to be the only man capable of making pubs and the weather forecast equally thrilling. Cheers to you, David!


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