Interview with Richard Blackledge: How brew company owner is breathing life into Sheffield’s pubs

Kane Yeardley at True North Brewery at the back of the Forum in Sheffield
Kane Yeardley at True North Brewery at the back of the Forum in Sheffield
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A common thread connects 10 of Sheffield’s best-loved pubs and bars.

From the newly-revamped Forum in the city centre to The York in Broomhill and The Broadfield on Abbeydale Road, Kane Yeardley runs them all through his firm, True North Brew Co.

Kane Yeardley at True North Brewery at the back of the Forum in Sheffield

Kane Yeardley at True North Brewery at the back of the Forum in Sheffield

And the company is expanding, too. The Waggon and Horses at Millhouses is now part of the group, plans to transform Walkley Library into a shared venue with a café bar are progressing and the possibility of buying The Plough at Sandygate is being closely monitored.

“We’re lucky that a lot of people are passionate about delivering good service and a great environment for people to go out,” says Kane.

“That’s the theme – we like to get it right with the food and the drinks, the music, the temperature, the lighting. It sounds simple but it’s not easy.”

The entrepreneur, who was born in Burncross and grew up in High Green, learned the value of hard work at an early age.

Kane’s father Colin was an engineer for an insurance firm, and his mother Elsie was an area manager at a sales company. As a schoolboy at Ecclesfield Comprehensive he was never without a part-time job, completing a milk round every morning and working on a farm – Hunshelf Hall at Green Moor – at weekends.

“I was always saving up for my air rifle or my bike,” says Kane, aged 55, who has a younger brother, Ashley.

“I worked all through the year – clearing out all the barns, drystone walling, potato picking, and we’d be lambing at Easter. I loved it. I could drive a tractor aged 11.

“I’d love to have my own farm one day but that’s a bit of a pipe dream.”

Later Kane went to Leicester de Montfort University to study surveying, then set up a poster company, GB Eye, at Kelham Island with business partner Andrew Chester.

“We were one of the early adopters to get in at Kelham. I loved it. We were international, knew what was on trend and what was working, and what films were coming up. For example, we got the rights to Trainspotting, and came up with the idea of doing the ‘Choose life’ quote as a poster, which was very popular.

“We had a friend who knew Danny Boyle, which helped get the deal. We had hundreds of licences. We were the first ones to get the rights to Oasis, and then Star Wars, which was a big thing.

“But towards the end, it was costing a lot of money for the licences and getting very risky.”

After growing the company for 20 years, the pair split the business in 2001, with Kane taking the venues side of the operation. By this point the Forum, Kane’s first venture comprising a bar and small shops, had been up and running for eight years.

“There was a shortage of sites for people to set up in small businesses. I’d seen it happen with Affleck’s Palace in Manchester, and in London with a lot of the buildings being converted into small units.

“I was 30 at the time. It nearly killed me – it was a big, old building, and old buildings have a lot of problems. And when you’re young and you’re not a proper builder they’re a nightmare. That was a lot of hard work.”

He says it pleases him that the Forum, which reopened last week following a £250,000 refit, has survived.

Kane’s 17-year-old daughter Alexandra, who is at a tennis academy in the south of France, regularly meets people abroad familiar with the place.

“She always asks ‘Do you know Sheffield? Do you know the Forum?’ And they say ‘Oh yeah, we know the Forum’. It’s quite iconic.”

True North’s expansion has gathered pace in recent years. The Old House on Devonshire Street, the Crown and Anchor in Barnsley, the British Oak, Mosborough, the Blue Stoops in Dronfield and last year the Riverside in Kelham Island have all come under the company’s wing.

Last year the firm, which has 400 staff, reported a turnover of more than £10 million. “I’ve always had a strong policy of reinvesting everything the company does,” explains Kane.

“You only need so much to live on, it’s a lot more fun putting the money back in and opening sites. It’s great to breathe life back into an old building or pub and see it working again.”

Amassing personal wealth is not what drives him, he adds. “We’ve got quite a lot of loans. But the banks do like us because we keep to what we say, we’re good at our budgets and we’re quite sensible. We save up before we do anything.”

He brushes off the observation that he is one of Sheffield’s wealthier businessmen.

“It would appear so, because we own quite a few freeholds. But there are a lot of people in Sheffield who have businesses and are old established families that are quite wealthy. I don’t consider myself as being in that category at all.”

Kane plans to refine the True North philosophy across more pubs and bars in future, while keeping a close eye on the details. “I can go round and be saying ‘Guys, the lights are too bright, the music’s too loud, there’s no toilet rolls, come on!’ Or there’s a table full of glasses that’s not been cleared yet.”

The company employs a ‘new layer of people to get work done’ in-house, from graphic designers and illustrators to an interiors expert, in new offices above the Old House. “We’ve just opened the Blue Stoops and did over 10,000 meals in December, and we didn’t have many complaints, which is incredible really. I’m very pleased with that. It was quite risky because it was a big, listed building that needed a lot of work - in the end it was nearly a £700,000 investment. So that was a bit scary. Normally we try to keep to about £350,000 for a refit.”

‘Sheffield is about to turn a corner’

True North Brew Co’s scheme at Walkley Library is still active, but is now dependent on a heritage grant after the budget spiralled.

“Originally it was going to be ‘There’s the building, let’s see if we can split it in half’. Well, the library needs a lot more space,” says Kane Yeardley.

But he would ‘definitely be interested’ in buying The Plough. The pub was the subject of a failed planning application to create a Sainsbury’s convenience store, protected by its status as an ‘asset of community value’ opposite Hallam FC, the world’s oldest football ground.

The company plans to step up its work with the community at the Waggon and Horses on the edge of Millhouses Park, which reopens next Saturday, February 18, after a £150,000 makeover, creating 50 jobs.

The spotlight there will be on craft ales and freshly-prepared pub food, with a particular focus on breakfasts. Sheffield is a ‘great place’, said Kane, who lives in Dore. “I think a lot of people are moving back here. I think it’s about to turn a corner. There’s a lot of new blood coming in that will help it to improve its economic position. The retail quarter will make the city more of a destination, and there are many people setting up on their own in business who are confident and have got ideas. It’s pretty positive.”