Lorna Harrison meets CC Group's Chris Compton and hears about his plans for London's Jack Beards pubs.
London's a unique place to operate. High rents, high overheads, high cost of living and some tough competition all add up to an instant turn-off for many operators.
You have to know the marketplace and having been born in London and lived there all his life, 58-year-old Chris Compton can claim some authority in that area.
Chris' company, CC Group, owns 32 Jack Beards pubs in Greater London - an estate which is set to jump to 42 with a £1m acquisition of 10 pubs in Kent. He is the largest multiple operator with pubs solely in and around London - stamping his mark on territory that generally only the big boys can afford.
The wet-led, sports-led, community pubs operate under the pub's name with soft branding under the Jack Beards banner - a stamp of quality, says Chris. All 32 managed outlets are on long leases, 21 of them from Unique.
"Jack Beards stands for standards. People know they will get a good welcome and the service will be good," said Chris. "We are not the cheapest pubs in the world but we serve a good quality pint."
The Jack Beards name originated from an old tenant who originally ran one of Chris' first pubs in Tooting and it seemed to stick. The pubs are very individual. Some have wooden floors and log fires, others feature pool tables and prominent big screens. You can get a full-blown Thai meal in one pub, while another may just offer sandwiches.
"It's all down to what people want in that area," said Chris. "Seventy per cent of pubs are now doing food but what works in one may not work in all."
Chris' new acquisition, which is set to be done and dusted by August, provides a major opportunity away from his traditional trading area.
"Kent is a difficult area unless you know the market and you have to take a different attitude to that in London. The pubs will be a challenge, but I never turn down a challenge."
Chris started his career in the meat trade. Owning three butchers' shops at the age of 24, he decided to sell up and spent several years dabbling in everything from car importing to industrial cleaning.
His introduction to pubs came when he took a job with the newly-formed Vintage Inns with his wife Karen and after gaining experience in a couple of pubs he secured a position with Courage as its tenanted trade manager.
His break came when he took a job in 1993 with a company called Master Taverns based in Camberwell. Ready for his new job, he turned up on day one to find the company had gone into receivership.
This provided a great opportunity and after a few enquiries he took ownership of the 11 temporary tenancies - which soon grew to 65.
"It was a simple business to start with. We took the money and put it in the bank but the pubs didn't get any investment."
Chris started to develop systems and wanted to put his own mark on the pubs. "You need control in a business and you have to act as policeman. I wanted to start doing things my way," he said.
All his pubs are tightly controlled with consistency being the key. Everything is centrally ordered, there's a structured training programme and making the business tick along nicely is a head office team that includes two area managers and an operations manager.
CC Group's pending expansion indicates there's no let-up but Chris admits it's not an easy business to work in any more and he is cautious about future targets and acquisitions.
A member of the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers, until recently Chris sat on the council, so knows only too well the national problems affecting his and other businesses.
"I love this business but it is hard and due to become much harder with licensing reforms. I think the trade is in for a tough time. Disability is also causing the trade problems. It's not that we don't want to comply, it's simply that in many cases we can't afford to."
For the time being then, he's looking forward to getting his teeth into his 10 new pubs. "It is an exciting time," Chris said. "I love a new challenge and we will be investing heavily in the pubs to bring them into line with our existing estate. We will have something that we can be very proud of."