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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Tamara Davison

Who is James Watt? Brewdog CEO criticised for slashing London wages

Brewdog CEO James Watt has made headlines this week after he decided to stop paying his staff the real living wage.

From April, new staff will receive £11.44 per hour, while those in London will remain on £11.95 an hour, with both rates are considered below the real living wage.

Watt explained that the company had to make some "hard decisions" to improve the business's profitability.

He said: “Even with [a] strong performance over Christmas, as a wider business there is no hiding from the fact that in 2023, we made a trading loss, and despite many efforts in the past 12 months to reduce our spending, we still need to find more ways to get this business back to profitability and the financial stability that is needed.

“Inevitably, this does mean making some hard decisions.”

The announcement has been met with frustration on social media as well as from Unite, the union for bar workers.

"We are already working with our @BrewDog members across the country to collectively challenge this awful decision and force the senior management of the company to do the right thing by the workers who have made them millions," the union said on social media.

It's not the first time Brewdog or James Watt has made headlines. In recent years, Watt has had to pay out thousands for misleading marketing, and was also branded a "toxic" employer by staff.

So here's everything we need to know about the brewing company's CEO.

BrewDog founder and boss James Watt (BrewDog/PA)

Who is James Watt?

Hailing from Aberdeenshire, Watt studied law and economics at Edinburgh University and even had a stint as a trainee solicitor before deciding to turn his fortunes around.

Within two weeks, he reportedly quit the job he'd been studying for for four years and switched to being a professional fisherman. Gaining his deepsea captain's licence, Watt spent his early twenties working in the water – and experimenting with a homemade beer in his garage.

Having joined forces with his friend Martin Dickie, the pair decided to venture into the world of beer brewing and, in 2007, Brewdog was born.

Reflecting on how the brand's name came about, Watt told "my Dad had just got a puppy and it was bounding about and it was like dog and dog beer and brew dog came up. It translates well internationally."

In just 17 years, Watt took BrewDog from a garage-brewing experiment to one of the UK's most iconic alcohol brewers.

By 2014, he'd been named Great British Entrepreneur of the Year and was considered an expert in all things beer-related. He would later go on to receive an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours List.

(James Glossop / The Times)

BrewDog's influence as an alcoholic powerhouse continued to grow exponentially in the years to follow. By 2019, James was the CEO of a 2,000-strong workforce in 100 bars worldwide.

According to the BrewDog website, Watt also showed a lot of interest in sustainability, investing in 9,308 acre plot of land in the Scottish Highlands and supporting a reforestation project.

As well as being at the helm of BrewDog, Watt's personal life has also been the topic of headlines in more recent years.

He brought a private prosecution against former girlfriend Emili Ziem, accusing his ex of fraud, but she was acquitted of all charges and was ordered to pay £600,000 in damages.

Watt then started dating Made In Chelsea's Georgia Toffolo in 2023. The couple have been pictured on lavish holidays, with the reality star previously saying she hopes he's "the one".

He's now reportedly worth around  £262million.

BrewDog controversies

Watt and his beer company haven't been short of controversy in recent years.

Some of the earliest incidents included a number of clashes with The Portman Group, which accused BrewDog of being "grossly irresponsible" for naming some of its products, as well as the high alcohol levels in some of its products.

In 2011, BrewDog also took on the country's strict measure laws by hiring a person with dwarfism to stage the "world's smallest protest" to push for the approval of two-third pint measures.

In 2015, a video of James and his co-founder dressed up as women resulted in the launch of a petition that alleged they were "mocking trans women, sex workers and homeless people".

Watt dismissed the allegations, saying at the time: "The video we created was to launch the CrowdCube aspect of Equity for Punks and was made in the spirit of fun and sending ourselves up – it’s a shame that some people have taken offence where none was intended."

More recently, Watt came under fire in 2021 after 100 BrewDog staff signed an open letter that said, "The single biggest shared experience of former staff is a residual feeling of fear."

The same year, the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) accused BrewDog of being "misleading" in response to its gold beer can campaign. The BrewDog boss later had to pay out £470,000 to the winners who found the gold cans after it emerged they were gold-plated instead of solid gold.

A year later, the brand had its B Corp status revoked – a certification awarded to companies that show an ethical commitment to the environment and staff.

In 2022, Watt was accused of abusing his power. Allegations were made against Watt by a number of female workers in the US, who alleged that they felt "uncomfortable" and "powerless" when around the CEO. He has denied the allegations.

In the latest blow to BrewDog, Watt has been criticised this week for announcing plans to pay his staff below the living wage.

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