Interpub rises up from a couple of crippling years

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After a disastrous couple of years that almost crippled the company, Interpub seems to have turned a corner. We report.With ambitious plans to roll...

After a disastrous couple of years that almost crippled the company, Interpub seems to have turned a corner. We report.

With ambitious plans to roll out its brands, acquire new sites and become a public company, Interpub seems the picture of health.

But four years ago the Buckinghamshire-based company faced disaster.

Dating back to 1964, the business was hit by a bad deal, leaving it with end-of-year losses of £320,000.

"We were in a hole," explains Franca Knowles, training director and wife of managing director Keith. "It took a lot of tenacity to get us to where we are today."

Her husband is a third-generation publican who joined the company in 1978 at the age of 18, becoming the youngest licensee in the country.

His father, Ron, created the firm, then called RC Knowles Ltd, 34 years ago to buy his first tenancy, the Royal Oak in Hammersmith.

Over the years it slowly expanded, leasing pubs from Whitbread and Inntrepreneur and evolving into the current company, Interpub.

Its portfolio, which now stands at 14, couldn't be more diverse. It ranges from charming country pubs to smart city centre bars, from a backpackers' hostelry to one of Britain's oldest gay pubs.

Eight of the sites are on two-year tenancy agreements with Scottish Courage and the Grand Pub Company, while the others are leased from Scottish Courage, Whitbread, Grovebase and Lambeth Borough Council.

They are scattered across the South from the Thames Valley to Surrey and Essex, with the company headquarters at The Stag, a picturesque pub in the woodland heart of Burnham Beeches.

The dark days of the mid-90s are now in the past, with the company reporting profits for the 12 months to this March of £100,000.

Apart from tenacity and the efforts of finance director Ouse Auber, Keith and Franca Knowles believe the company's rebirth owes a lot to their commitment to training.

Operations director Murray Roberts, who joined Interpub from the brewing industry last year, said: "Our commitment to developing our staff and our managers was very important in helping us to pull ourselves out of the hole."

All 166 staff from kitchen workers to managers are offered training up to NVQ Level 4 in a tailor-made programme that has won praise from within the industry.

The company is also very proud that, after much effort, it has been recognised as an Investor in People.

Keith said: "It's underpinned the profitability of our business and led us to achieve good results in the last financial year. It holds us in great stead for achieving better results in the years to come."

The importance of staff development was emphasized by the appointment of Franca, who joined the company 10 years ago, as a director dedicated to training. They believe pub companies need to improve training to keep the best people.

"The industry has a real problem retaining good staff," Roberts said. "If everyone placed more emphasis on training, there would be more skilled people and that would be good across the industry.

"Some people don't realise that, if you're running a pub, you're running a small business. Someone can come in and within a few years get valuable experience in everything from stock control to financial management and recruitment."

He said one of the strongest arguments for cutting duty was that it would free up more money for training.

The company's plans at this stage include building on its unique brand, St Christopher's, a backpackers' pub with a high-quality hostel above it.

The first opened in Borough, near London Bridge, two years ago, with 48 beds, which are available at about £10 per night.

The first year of trading was more successful than they could have hoped for, so next month a new annexe is being opened down the road to create an extra 35 beds.

Interpub is now looking into opening another 10 sites for St Christopher's over the next five years, with a network of locations under review in the UK, Ireland, France and the Netherlands.

"This is our baby," Franca said. "This is our future."

It is also considering plans for its café-bar, Belushis, in Covent Garden, which it took over five years ago.

"We are deciding whether to restyle the brand," Franca said. "If we think it would work, we would like to try it in other town and city centres."

Interpub has also set itself a target of becoming a public company by the end of the summer, raising its profile within the City and the industry as a whole.

On top of this, it intends to develop and invest in its existing outlets, which include the Royal Vauxhall Tavern - one of London's most well-known gay venues.

This is part of its core estate of six pubs, which also include The Crown in rural Buckinghamshire and Hercules Pillars in Holborn in London's West End.

Roberts said they were also looking to acquire larger sites in the future.

"We want to grow but we want to retain the values of a family business, which is knowing your people, valuing them and not losing them."

This sense of focus is born out of years of fighting to restore a medium-sized business in a competitive and constantly changing market.

"Instead of reacting, we are now taking control," Franca said. "The foundations have been laid for what we want to be for the future, and we are finally pointing in the right direction."

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