Steve Skews, originally from Lincolnshire, moved to France 20 years ago with his wife Jane. They bought a farm in deepest Normandy, began producing cider and, it seemed, started the perfect life together. But their dream was blown away in the storm of 1999, which destroyed their apple trees. The two were sent back to the drawing board, and being an ale enthusiast, Steve decided it was time to set up a brewery.
After starting ‘Le Brewery,’ Steve has expanded and set up two English pubs – the Famous Knight and the Secret Knight.
Here he talks to The Local about the trials and tribulations of starting and running a small company in France when faced with the “burden of French bureaucracy and taxes”.
How did you end up in France?
Like many ex-pats who came here twenty years ago I was dissatisfied with the state of the economy and the state of education in the UK, where I had been a teacher for 20 years.
There was an option of moving to France where property was cheap.
It was a place where you find the traditional values that are important to me. There’s a real community, it produces local products and there’s a good balance with nature, which I felt was being lost in the UK.
Talk us through setting up Le Brewery.
When we set it up in 2000 we had an absolute nightmare in the first year or two. The system for business regulation is very complicated and it’s getting worse.
It’s not like in England where you can register a business and you can be up and running half an hour later. In France you have to go through so many different departments and offices. Particularly for a business involving alcohol, where there controls for quality of product, registration of labels, and vehicles have to be specially licensed for distribution.
It’s not just me, the French I know are all struggling because of this burden of paperwork and taxation. None of the decisions made by French governments over recent years have helped small businesses at all.
They have just hit us with another increase in tax on beer. We are now paying more than 15 times the amount that wine makers pay. It’s just a joke.
In terms of electricity, if you add on all the extras, then it’s gone up 28 percent over the last 12 months.
When you’re running a small business with small margins, this puts us in a really difficult situation.
Any advice for those starting a new business in France?
It certainly needs a good deal of thought put into it. I don’t want to sound negative about starting a company, but anyone going ahead with it needs to make sure they get in contact with the right bureaucratic departments to make sure they know the obstacles that are ahead of them.
People need to go to their local Chambre de Commerce or Chambre de Métier and seek out what support there might be for the development of small businesses.
They also need to make sure they have someone French on board if possible to help with the minefield that is the French bureaucracy.
You need real business skills now and you certainly have to have sound financial footing.
Did you have any trouble settling and integrating in France?
I came to France to share the culture of France and not to live in little England. Our pubs are very much English in style but the clients are French.
Both the pubs – the Famous Knight and the Secret Knight – have the ethos of English pubs, there’s fish and chips, real ale and so on, and they are appreciated by French and Anglo customers.
How do you get the French to frequent an English pub?
A lot of the French will tell you that one of the things they like about Britain is the pubs and the atmosphere they have.
So to a certain extent we were already on to a winner. I don’t like the image of some of these places in Spain and didn’t want it to become a spot that English people would take over and turn into a little community.
There was talk a while ago of you selling up the brewery. What are you plans?
Well at the moment I’m running it as a bit of a one-man show. But I’m 63, it’s physical work and I am getting tired.
I need someone to take over full time and I need investment to improve the bottling side of it. We want someone to take it up to the next gear.
We are already exporting beer to 15 states in the US. We’ve got a good product but we need new skills for it to become a real success.
Are you happy in France?
I’m very happy to pay into a system that values education and health, which was one of the reasons I fell out favour with the UK.
Although I’m starting to see the same thing happening France with hospitals and schools closing.