Flotation for Mill House Inns? Chairman Bob Williams tells all...

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Mill House Inns is reaching an important phase in its development. We meet chairman Bob Williams.Flotation is on the minds of executives at Mill...

Mill House Inns is reaching an important phase in its development. We meet chairman Bob Williams.

Flotation is on the minds of executives at Mill House Inns now that the company is approaching its third birthday.

It looks set to be one of the most successful floats in recent years in this sector.

Chairman Bob Williams said: "Flotation has to be an option for us but we have made no firm decision yet."

Asked what the other options would be, he hesitates. The impression is, he isn't giving them a lot of thought.

The company will build its future by creating a new kind of pub.

The Mill House at Sherfield-on-Loddon, Hampshire, is an example of what the company is trying to create.

Built on the site of an old mill, the pub is accessible only via a half-mile long driveway stretching across fields.

Inside there is a Pirate's Playden, a parents' area, a drinkers' area, a diners' area and an annex in which customers can see demonstrations of the mill.

Mill House planners are able to take a site from scratch and employ the best techniques to make sure everyone is catered for. With such a varied clientele, this is vital.

Parents, for example, are seated within sight of the Pirate's Playden, though far enough away to enable them to enjoy a drink and a meal while the children can clamber about on the equipment, supervised by a qualified member of staff.

The pub is a massive tourist draw because of the working mill, where, after a free demonstration, customers are invited to take away flour with which to make their own bread.

Food at the Mill House is incredibly varied - gourmet European dishes are available as are Mexican, Thai and Indian food.

Few pubs offer so much - and I haven't even mentioned drinks.

But the Sherfield pub is not typical. Mill House has several pubs in town centres. "They keep certain skills sharp," said Williams.

The company started off in 1995 with just 12 pubs and there are now more than 40. Seventeen of these have a turnover greater than £20,000 a week.

Expansion plans are well under way with openings in the pipeline at Farnham Royal, Buckinghamshire and Swindon, among other places.

There should be 60 Mill Houses by the middle of 1999. A private share-placing fetched £9m last year and this will be used to fund the next phase of development.

A flotation would raise significantly more, but much of this money would be used to pay off venture capitalists.

Mill House does not restrict itself geographically and never has. Area managers clock up more miles than most but the company wants to create a skeleton from which to build a national chain.

Mill House also wants to expand in the Midlands and South Yorkshire.

The company is built on its people and its information systems.

"We have information and technology," said Williams. "It's a powerful combination."

Former Innkeeper of the Year Kirkland Davies telephoned the company when he worked for Bass to say he wanted to move. He is now in charge of the Mill House at Sherfield, a business with a turnover in excess of £2m a year.

"We believe in empowerment and accountability," added Williams.

Teams at the pub are encouraged to regard each other as customers.

The company has a penchant for awards - it won the 1998 Publican Award for Multiple Operator of the Year and operations manager Simon Longbottom has been recognised by the Anheuser-Busch sponsored awards for his profession.

The barstaff are customers of the kitchen staff, the kitchen staff are customers of the cleaning staff, and so on.

Sean Foley, deputy general manager at the pub, said: "Once you have made this mental shift, efficiency levels improve dramatically."

A flat management structure ensures pub managers are in regular touch with Williams and other members of his senior management team.

Williams makes it clear that he admires the people philosophy employed at Tom Cobleigh, where Derek Mapp has abolished memos and regularly rewards everyone from directors up to cleaners and receptionists (or is it down?).

"The pace of development is not too fast for people, or too slow," added Williams.

"It all depends on what the individual wants and is ready for."

Salaries are top quartile for the industry and incentivised.

Williams divides the pubs into four areas: North; East, which covers the Norwich area; South, which covers South London and West, which covers Bristol and the M4 corridor.

The idea is to build huge pubs with a lot to offer. Williams does not have a great deal of faith in small pubs - or, indeed, tenancies.

If ever a company was bound to succeed, it was Mill House Inns.

Its effective combination of recruitment skills, training, organisation and information systems gives it a real edge.

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