The City loves a branded pub. In recent years, of course, the boys and girls in the Square Mile have had to get used to the idea that tenanted pub groups - which are really a conglomeration of small businesses - can be quite profitable too.
But a brand is about as close as a pub gets to being a tin of beans: clearly defined, readily measurable and, more than other pubs, the work of intelligent design, its success less subject to the whims of human nature.
Except that interfering humans play just as important a part in the operation of a high-street branded pub as they do in a community tenancy, if in a different way. Even branded pub chains ignore the people factor at their peril.
Of course, you hear industry leaders trotting out phrases such as "it's a people business" and "people are our greatest resource" all the time. But how much money, or whatever it takes, goes where their mouths are?
While touring the EP estate (formerly known as Eldridge Pope), operations director Tim Bird carries in his pocket a number of
coffee beans made of real gold. When he comes across a cup of coffee that "does it for me" he presents the member of staff who prepared it with one of the beans.
It's a direct way of recognising and rewarding people and sums up the approach Bird has taken throughout his career - putting human beings at the heart of the operation every time.
After learning about teamwork as a dustman, Bird trained in hotels before taking his first managerial job in charge of one of Grand Met's Berni Inns. More recently he has put his motivational philosophy into practice at director level with Greenalls' and Morrells' unbranded estates.
The Que Pasa challenge
Now at EP, working for serial entrepreneur Michael Cannon, he's taken on the branded challenge, most notably in the Que Pasa chain. At the rate of a pub a week the high street chain is being taken upmarket and expanded with the addition of new sites, including former Toads and a handful of ex-Yates's which the company has acquired.
The change involves a refurbishment and an improved food menu, but at the heart of the transformation are the people - a clear sign of Bird's involvement in the project.
"As with all brands, the key is that the people who work in it feel it is worth being a part of," he says. "We're stronger at this now, and in every other way, than we were six months ago. We have brought a consistency to what we do.
"Taking a pub from being a Toad to becoming a Que Pasa is tough to do. A lot of managers couldn't make the jump, there were a lot of non-believers in the business.
"But one thing Eldridge Pope had was a load of great people who'd simply lost the will to deliver. They've leapt on the new concept and have been successful. It was a tough nut to crack but they're believers now.
"I mystery visited each pub six times to identify the potential of each member of staff. From the coffee you serve through to the music you play and the doorstaff, it all has to be quality. That's what EP does differently. It's not a case of going in and saying 'we're cleaning up your pub'."
Gaining the necessary sense of belief from the outset requires detailed preparation. The Que Pasa refurbishment programme is set well in advance and staff are trained six weeks ahead. Few Toad staff become Que Pasa staff, and not too many customers survive the change either. It sounds risky but so far it seems to have paid off handsomely.
"In some cases we have changed everything, including all the staff and all the customers," says Bird. "We have gone from taking £300 in food to £4,000 per week, and have gone from taking £6,000 a week in total to taking £15,000 a week. In the two weeks before Christmas some were taking £50,000 a week.
There are only 20 of the new look Que Pasas so far, but the brand is growing.
"We have some tough sites, particularly the ex-Yates's. The trick has been to manage them well and stick to the brand. That's the way you can change a poor reputation.
"The toughest thing is to establish a new reputation and to get people to trust you. In some cases I didn't think it would work but we did it in Slough, and if we can do it there we can go to any town!"
For Bird, what makes a successful brand is less about the way it looks than what he calls the "retail act" within the pubs.
There is no strict design template for Que Pasa. "As well as getting the signage right it's the approach to people that makes a brand - you can do it in different shaped buildings," he explains.
"It's about brand values rather than brand constraints. There are seven flavours of HP sauce now, but it's still HP - and it seems you've got to have a few flavours to make a brand work these days."
Choice of people is crucial to getting the right "retail act", he believes.
"You've got bar people and you've got pub people," says Bird. "There are very few, perhaps only five per cent, who can flip between the two. Bars have more transient customers and pub people tend to like working with customers who visit regularly, they are more inclined to develop a community among their customers.
"There are those managers, for instance, who can helicopter into an operation and orchestrate a big food unit. In some bars you have got to "hover" over the operation and be structured - and if you work in bars you have to like staying up late.
"I'll recruit on personality and energy," he continues. "The rest we can give them. There are people you just know will be the drivers for you. Young people see the trade as exciting. You only have to tell them they will run a business that will convert more profit than a small company.
"If anything this industry is growing more attractive for them. They can zig-zag in a business to get a breadth of experience. They are paid well, the accommodation is better and the hours are reasonable."
Seeing the trade as a good career option
Even so, Bird appreciates that pub operators need to make more effort on recruitment and forge closer links with colleges and universities. "What it needs is people like me going to colleges to talk about the bar and pub business," he says. "The problem is that hospitality students are still being taught to work for hotels.
"EP offers work experience to students at local colleges and placements on their year out. We have 45 assistant deputy managers doing the BII's Profitable Business Portfolio qualifications at Weymouth College."
Once you are working for EP you can expect close attention to your development and career path, not least from Tim Bird himself.
"I go through every name - I want to know when the next person will make the next grade," he says. "If they leave I want to know why. It's like being in charge of a great football team - you want to hold onto your youth.
"We identify those who are ready to move on in the business. Around 30 to 40 per cent should go to management within five years. But there are some who are happy being a deputy manager forever, and we'll continue to develop them as a person.
"I know what it's like to flounder as an assistant manager. We have got to appreciate that everyone is different and not force them to take promotion. The trouble is that companies are desperate to fill posts."
Good communication through to the grassroots of the organisation is clearly essential.
"If there's a problem, we want people to talk," says Bird. "We need to create an environment where staff can do that. Industry is a little obsessed with their profit contribution this year and don't always pay enough attention to the people who can add value to the business."
Bird's staff are "not McDonalds robots". "If you're told to say something, it doesn't mean anything," he says. "But staff like the reassurance and back-up of a brand, something with values they can work to. That's where Toad lost its way. The bran