Corporate communications

How Greene King is addressing its slavery roots

A strong heritage can bring unexpected benefits to an organisation but what happens if the history makes uncomfortable reading?

How does a 222-year-old company operating today deal with a history that is inextricably linked with the slave trade? For Greene King, the response has been to create a partnership with Liverpool’s International Slavery Museum and to launch new initiatives that address race and diversity within the company, including renaming four pubs.

While Greene King had already been considering how it should address its history, a Daily Telegraph article revealing that its founder Benjamin Greene had received compensation when slavery was abolished in 1833, which appeared in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement in June 2020, accelerated the process.

Greene’s unsavoury business interests were not a surprise to the board. They were covered in a corporate history published in 1983, but chief executive Nick Mackenzie publicly denounced the actions of its founder as ‘inexcusable’ and promised to update the company’s website to acknowledge the part Greene had played in the slave trade.

Greene King was founded in 1799 in Bury St Edmunds by Benjamin Greene, who later acquired and inherited sugar plantations in Montserrat and St Kitts in the West Indies. He also managed several estates on behalf of friends. The eldest of his 13 children Benjamin Buck Greene, who later became governor of the Bank of England, was sent to St Kitts to run these properties; by his return in 1836, the Greene family was managing 18 estates which together produced one third of the island’s sugar exports.

But Greene Sr was also a vocal supporter of slavery, acquiring the Bury and Suffolk Herald to represent the interest of plantation owners in the West Indies. He claimed £3,934 in 1836 for the freeing of 231 slaves, the equivalent of around £450,000 today. (To put this in context, Greene’s plantations generated net profits of more than £10,000 per year.)

The Telegraph drew its information from a database created by University College London, which traced the recipients of more than £20 million awarded by the UK government in the 1830s to compensate slave owners. While more than 3,000 absentee slave owners were identified, just a handful had identifiable links with businesses trading today.

‘There were literally a handful of companies on the list that people would recognise, which meant we became the focus,’ explains Greg Sage, corporate affairs director at Greene King. ‘Our founder didn’t just have links to the slave trade, but he also campaigned against the abolition of slavery so there was a story to tell in addition to the amount of compensation that he received.’

The article prompted the question of reparations, but Sage explains: ‘It is not just about writing a cheque and giving it to charity. It is about actually thinking what you can do in the business to champion race diversity, and particularly around helping Black people and communities.

‘As a sector, we are very white and male-heavy and that is why we had been doing work on other areas of diversity, like gender and LGBT, as part of a broader cultural transformational journey that we are on.’

Our founder didn’t just have links to the slave trade; he also campaigned against the abolition of slavery so there was a story to tell in addition to the amount of compensation that he received

Greene King was also keen not to make a knee jerk reaction, but instead to build a cohesive strategy that included financing initiatives to encourage people from Black, Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds to join the business and addressing any other related issues. ‘What Benjamin Greene did is totally inexcusable. But your history is your history and there is nothing you can do to change that. All you can do is influence what you can do today and what you do tomorrow.’

There were some early moves, including the five-year extension of Greene King’s existing partnership with The Prince’s Trust which saw the brewery increase its financial support by 30 per cent, designated to support people from Black, Asian and ethnic backgrounds into work programmes.

The partnership aims to lift the percentage of young people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds joining Greene King from 24 per cent to 40 per cent by 2025. It will also deliver mentoring and training programmes to develop the skills of potential future leaders.

In October 2020, Greene King also announced a partnership with Liverpool’s International Slavery Museum on educational and transformative initiatives for its employees, as well as working together to analyse the history of Benjamin Greene. It also sponsored the museum’s Black History Month programme.

‘When we were building our strategy, we wanted to make sure that we were doing work about championing race and diversity both at entry level and senior management level. We are a lot more diverse at team level by the nature of our estate, but it’s in senior management positions where we have more to do,’ adds Sage. ‘But we also wanted to address the issue of slavery and make a contribution to educate and tell people about it.’

Greene King also tackled the issue of pub names in its estate. ‘We have three pubs called The Black Boy and one called the Blacks Head. It’s always been something that we’ve thought about and debated, but it has come to prominence again through the Black Lives Matter focus,’ explains Sage. ‘We’ve thought long and hard about whether to change these.’

Indeed, the town council of Wirksworth in the Peak District had already been in contact with Greene King about its local, the Blacks Head.

The name The Black Boy hanging above the door has connotations of racism, which causes people to think about it

The origins of these names are ambiguous. There are several pubs called The Black Boy in the UK, which some historians link to Charles II who had long, black hair and was nicknamed the Black Boy. Others have associations with child chimney sweeps, which brings into the discussion the issue of child labour and some historians believe the name has its origins in colonialism. As each of the four pubs are at least 200 years old – the Black Boy in Bury St Edmunds dates back to at last the 1700s – Greene King cannot be sure of the exact reasoning for their names.

‘But the ambiguity, we concluded, was a reason to change them,’ explains Sage. ‘We talked to team members and customers and the fact is that the name The Black Boy hanging above the door has connotations of racism, which causes people to think about it. Customers told us, particularly those from ethnic minority backgrounds, that it did put them off going in. On the basis that you want your premises to be welcoming to everybody and a broad church, we decided the right thing to do was to change the names.’

Each of the affected pubs are tenanted, but their landlords agreed with the decision. Greene King is supporting them with the related costs and planning permissions. ‘It’s not just an instant take down the old sign and put a new one up,’ says Sage.

Rather than conjure up a new name in a branding agency, Greene King delved into its archives, checking out each pub’s deeds, to find out as much as possible about their heritage to ensure that any name was both relevant and appropriate for the next chapter in their history.

It also consulted with local community groups, history groups and town councils and used their input to draw up a shortlist from its suggestions. ‘In Bury St Edmunds, where we’re based, there’s a group in support of Black Lives Matter that we didn’t know existed. They got in touch and came up with a name which we put on the shortlist, although it didn’t win the public vote,’ explains Sage. The consultation also allowed Greene King to engage with customers who were not supportive of the proposed changes.

The shortlisted names were promoted via local media, and the public voted on their favourites via Facebook. More than 7,000 votes were cast. Almost 2,000 people offered their views on the Blacks Head in Wirksworth, which will be renamed The Quarryman to reflect the area’s history of limestone quarrying and lead mining.

Changing the pubs’ names brought the issue of Greene King’s past back into the spotlight. ‘Every so often the Guardian or Telegraph ring and say You said you were going to make investments, what are you doing? Our work with the Prince’s Trust and International Slavery Museum allowed us to show that we were making steps, but we won’t be rushed and dictated by the media’s timescales,’ says Sage.

We’ve set out an ambition to become an anti-racist organisation which is easy to say but hard to do

Behind the scenes, Greene King has finessed its strategy as part of a wider inclusivity and diversity policy. It worked with external specialists C&E Advisory to lead discussions with its 40,000-strong workforce and external stakeholders on the issue.

‘It was an area where, as a board of largely white, middle aged men and women, we didn’t feel that we had a detailed knowledge and understanding of the issue and how best to tackle it,’ explained Sage. ‘We worked with C&E to help us navigate this issue, but also as an independent party to talk to our people because part of the work was looking at racism or potential racism within the organisation, whether intended or unintended.’

There were two ‘full-day sessions with everybody sat around a table – socially distanced’ where the board discussed the issue and decided the scope of Greene King’s ambitions in this area. ‘We talked about where we want to pitch this. Where does it sit on the spectrum? Are we just going after race diversity or are we pursuing an agenda of broader diversity?’ explains Sage.

‘We’ve set out an ambition to become an anti-racist organisation which is easy to say but hard to do. But we are now on that journey. We had to pause some of the work [when 99 per cent of our workforce were furloughed] but the CEO is driving this personally. We’ve got good foundations in place and we’re going to push on in earnest.’