Mill House Inns continues to prosper

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Mill House Inns has enjoyed a meteoric rise since being formed two and a half years ago. We talk to chairman Bob Williams.Blue Streak, the first...

Mill House Inns has enjoyed a meteoric rise since being formed two and a half years ago. We talk to chairman Bob Williams.

Blue Streak, the first attempt to build a British rocket, was born 40 years ago on the disused airfield in Buckinghamshire just below Bob Williams' office window.

Having a rocket underneath him might just about explain the meteoric rise of his company, Mill House Inns.

After only two and a half years, Mill House currently runs 36 managed pubs. Turnover in 1997 is expected to reach £9.6m with a house trading profit of £1.9m. Then things will really start to take off.

With a projected 57 pubs in 1999, turnover will hit £39.2m and profit £9.9m.

While other groups have bought packages, Mill House has concentrated on advancing one pub at a time.

Some are established operations that can be adapted to fit the Mill House strategy, others are built on green field sites but most are converted historic buildings.

That site selection is such an important element of Mill House's progress owes much to Bob Williams, its chief executive and chairman.

In his previous life, Williams was group property director of Grand Metropolitan and was one of the figures behind the creation of the Inntrepreneur Pub Company.

In April 1995, within 24 hours of being offered one of the top jobs in property, came the opportunity of taking a £4m loan to set up his own pub company.

"It took me five minutes to accept the challenge," he said. Chris Parratt, who had run Phoenix Inns under Williams, came on board as finance director.

David Longbottom, the former managing director of Allied's London trading arm Taylor Walker, joined them as marketing director.

"There were only three of us at our first board meeting and we didn't even have a kettle to make a cup of tea," said Williams.

"I could see there would be no room to hide in a company that size, and that felt fantastic. Everything we achieved would be down to our own efforts."

Even now, Mill House prefers to spend its money on the pubs themselves, rather than head office luxuries.

Take the Mill House at Sherfield-on-Lodden, Hampshire, an 800-year-old mill. Williams spent at least £2.25m converting it into a pub with visitors' centre, and installed a working mill as an extra attraction.

Or Elstead Mill near Godalming, Surrey, a picturesque four-storey building. For around £1m Mill House transformed it from an exclusive restaurant into a family venue where everyone could afford to eat and drink.

All the pubs are carefully designed to lead the different kind of customers Mill House wants to attract into the part of the pub where they'll feel most comfortable.

Family Restaurants, which make up the bulk of the estate, will often have a Pirate's Playden children's play area inside. Tables nearby will be dedicated to family dining while polite 'no children' signs will mark the boundary of a part of the bar where locals can drink.

Williams takes a close interest in every development, as long-serving chauffer Lionel could testify.

"He's got great attention to detail," he said. "The night before one of our pubs was due to open, he was worried about the lighting. I drove him down there, he didn't like it and had the whole lot changed overnight.

"And the thing is, he's always right."

A dozen pubs from Grand Met got the operation off to a shaky start. Only five of them were actually able to open on day one. Others faced slight hitches - such as not having a roof.

Things moved fast, though, and at one point four pubs were reopened in the space of a week.

"We are what you might call fleet of foot," said Williams, who spends much of his time racing around the country, using his old property skills to assess new sites.

An early attempt to focus site-finding within a defined area soon broke down and Mill House already has pubs as far apart as Hull and Southampton.

There is a demographic map on Williams' wall but he doesn't use it. "You just need to be aware of where the 'nice people' live," he said.

Staff are just as important as sites. Williams believes Mill House employs "some of the best licensees in the country", including two former BII Innkeepers of the Year.

"The hard work really begins when you hand the keys over, but our people believe they have a real future with us."

The Mill House game plan from here is a simple one - to keep growing.

"I reckon we can run things as we do now up to about 200 pubs with a £200m turnover," said Williams. "That would make me happy."

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