Lion’s buyout of Four Pillars could prove an important milestone in an industry sector that is hungry for capital to fulfil its ambitions.
Lion this week moved to 100 per cent ownership of Four Pillars, having acquired a 50 per cent stake in 2019.
In the intervening years, Four Pillars’ annual sales volumes have more than doubled from 500,000 bottles to 1.2 million bottles projected to be sold in 2023.
This meteoric growth – in spite of tumultuous market conditions – surely demonstrates the potential upside of Australian craft spirits sector to the drinks industry and the investment community alike.
In that sense there are strong parallels with Lion’s 2012 acquisition of Little Creatures, which had ripple effects for the entire craft beer sector.
“One of the things that benefited a lot of players with the sale of Little Creatures, was the recognition that these sort of breweries had value,” co-founder Howard Cearns told Drinks Adventures in its 2019 podcast documentary on Stone & Wood.
“Suddenly therefore, capital was more readily available, not just to Stone & Wood but to others.”
Renowned business figure Mark Bouris recently identified access to capital as one of the biggest challenges currently confronting craft spirits producers.
Bouris was an early shareholder in failed 2000s beer startup Barons, which he reflected was “totally underfunded”.
“You need really patient capital,” he told the Drinks Adventure podcast.
“There was no baseline and no proxy for what you could do to attract a venture capitalist.”
‘The Little Creatures of craft spirits’
Equities analysts Allan Franklin and Jacob Ballard predicted in 2021 that Four Pillars may provide such a case study.
“In our view, Four Pillars could be the Matilda Bay or Little Creatures of the craft spirits market,” they wrote in a 2021 report for Canaccord Genuity.
“In other words, not a one-off acquisition, but the trailblazer for a prospective increase in sector M&A activity.
“We consider this a reasonable proxy for what is achievable on strong execution.”
Further proving the business case is Diageo’s 2022 acquisition of Mr Black Spirits through its Distil Ventures accelerator.
“It seems the world’s large alcohol companies would prefer to take the lower-risk approach to their entry to the craft beverage market,” wrote Franklin and Ballard.
“Instead of creating new brands from scratch, we believe they tend to sit and wait for entrepreneurs to create a brand that has proven market acceptance, at which point they will come knocking with an offer of which is usually too attractive to refuse.”
Four Corners Global Spirits
Four Pillars will operate together with Lion’s distribution business Vanguard Luxury Brands as a stand-alone spirits division called Four Corners Global Spirits, to be headed up by former Beam Suntory executive Ed Stening.
Four Pillars co-founders Cameron Mackenzie and Matt Jones will remain in their current capacities, while Stuart Gregor will remain only in the short-term before taking an extended sabbatical.
“We look forward to supporting the continued growth of this remarkable brand, working with Cam and Matt to help drive our future plans,” said Lion CEO Sam Fischer.
“Alongside continued investment behind our core beer business, we see premium spirits as a real opportunity for future growth.”