Pubmaster's John Sands talks acquisitions

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In his first full interview for more than a year, Pubmaster managing director John Sands explains what has been going on. "This is the first time...

In his first full interview for more than a year, Pubmaster managing director John Sands explains what has been going on.

"This is the first time I've really spoken to a journalist in, well, at least 12 months," says John Sands, puffing on a cigarette in the Institute of Directors.

That's because the company has been through a period of major restructuring and repositioning.

No longer associated with Tap & Spile and BierRex, Pubmaster has decided to concentrate on "what we are good at" - running tenancies.

The major changes at Pubmaster would not have been possible without independence from Brent Walker.

The former parent company would overrule budgets, block funding and generally turn the task of planning the future into a walk through deep mud at midnight.

The management buyout some 18 months ago left directors with more freedom and more responsibility.

Further freedom to move came with the sale of the company's managed house chains.

With some borrowing, an expansion war-chest of some £40m-£50m has been created.

Directors no longer have to refer to the parent company, or the banks.

The amassed millions will be used to play the numbers game. Pubmaster will make significant acquisitions this year - possibly as many as 300 pubs. It is looking for large (250 barrel-plus) community and rural pubs, often with an emphasis on food.

In this, Pubmaster is one of several huge companies with a strong commitment to tenancies.

Enterprise may have started the ball rolling, but now Grovebase, Avebury Taverns and soon the Grand Pub Company will take up the banner.

Allied is one of the more established players taking its tenanted side far more seriously these days.

Pubmaster is playing in a healthy market, as analysts in the City now belatedly realise.

It has to be said that the impetus behind the new enthusiasm for tenancies came from the trade, not the analysts. Perhaps the professionals know best, after all.

Sands says he did not realise just how popular tenancies would become. "We did not anticipate Grovebase or Avebury.

"This was very encouraging because in a way it vindicated what we are doing. You have some very good operators involved there.

"We just realised we did not have the expertise or the resources to compete in the high street alongside JD Wetherspoon, SFI and Yates's. What we are good at is tenancies."

On the down side, the sudden interest from new tenanted companies will push pub prices up - but there are obvious benefits here, too.

The company takes a proactive attitude towards investment in its pubs. If a pub needs a kitchen, the licensee will be informed. Much of the time, of course, ideas will come from the tenants themselves.

"We aren't dictatorial but we do seek to influence where necessary," says Sands.

There were 200 pub projects last year. Investment is not always 50-50 between company and tenant. Sometimes, 100 per cent of the cost is paid for by Pubmaster.

"We spent £200,000 on some pubs last year," adds Sands. Some pubs have been transformed from marginal operations into profit-factories.

What is important is the new belief that poor-performing tenancies can be turned round. It's a matter of faith.

The estate is divided into categories, among which are "Fashion", "Community", "Alehouse", "Male boozer", "Food-rural" and "Family/food". Not all of the estate can be classified. "About two per cent are 'don't knows'," says Sands. "We won't just shove something into a category for its own sake."

The company commissioned independent research to examine the estate. Sands wanted to get the balance right between finance and market-positioning.

"You can't make decisions purely on a financial basis," he adds.

"Pubs that were, frankly, dogs, can be good pubs if they are run in a different way."

One pub in Ipswich was doing three barrels a fortnight until it received a £190,000 investment in fixtures, fittings and structure. It became one of Pubmaster's first 1,000 barrel a year pubs.

Other companies would have closed it down without a twinge of conscience.

As the company has changed, so has its licensees. Sands continues: "We tend to recruit business people. Our current people are changing, too, in many cases. We are also recruiting more women.

"Licensees are being upgraded generally. The British Institute of Innkeeping has been a catalyst here."

Another part of the business Sands wants to develop is franchising. He has seen the success others have had with the idea. But this is something else Sands was unable to develop under Brent Walker's stewardship.

"I like the combination of control and entrepreneurialism which franchising allows," he says.

It also allows the development of branded concepts.

Pubmaster has three - Stout Fiddler, Celebration Ale and Community Pubs.

There are no converts from tenancies so far but this remains a possibility, where a tenant is interested.

For obvious reasons, many will not be.

There are seven such pubs at the moment but this will grow to 50 by the end of the year.

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