Wizard Inns has been making big changes to its portfolio recently. We speak to Chris Hutt, the man holding the wand.
When Chris Hutt looked at some of the pubs he had bought from Phoenix Inns, he must have wished he could wave a magic wand.
Scattered across the South of England from London to Bristol, little money had been invested in recent years and their performance was poor.
"They were all in a fairly run-down condition and some were pretty dingy," Hutt said.
"Although the locations were good, the levels of facilities and environment were poor, so we knew they required major investment to make them what we wanted them to be.
"We decided to call the company Wizard Inns because we were looking for a name that was fun but that also suggested we were making big changes, which is something that wizards do."
Instead of a wizard's wand, he had a £32m funding package, with Nomura providing £9.5m of equity and the Royal Bank of Scotland £22.5m of senior debt.
He also had a unique background in the British pub industry, having come to prominence in the 1970s as chief executive of Midsummer Inns.
He proved his entrepreneurial skills as boss of Unicorn Inns, developing the Newt & Cucumber and Wig & Pen chains. After building the company up, he sold it to Morlands for £12.3m three years ago.
Earlier this year he disposed of his company, Isisgreen, which operated two pubs in Birmingham and Southampton, to SFI Group for £1.46m and turned his attention to his new enterprise.
Launched last November, Wizard bought 37 pubs from Phoenix Inns, the company set up by Morgan Grenfell to dispose of 1,750 Inntrepreneur (IPC) pubs.
Since this £11m deal was completed in January, it has bought four more individual pubs and started a rolling programme of refurbishments.
The company has just finished its 10th overhaul, spending £375,000 on transforming railway station pub, the Porter and Sorter in East Croydon.
Its biggest project so far, this involved fitting a new kitchen, creating a patio garden, improving toilet facilities for the disabled and doubling the size of the premises by building a new extension.
Wizard plans to complete its first 25 refurbishments by the end of this year and continue at about the same rate for the next two years.
All 41 pubs were on short-term tenancies but have now been converted to managed houses, which Hutt believes is the best way to transform underperforming pubs.
"To put in the sort of money that's going to make a difference, you need major investment. It's more than a tenant would want to put in."
The company is not interested in brands but, according to Hutt, it aims to create a high-quality "English boozer". Serving food, each site will even have its own unique menu.
"The big companies are involved in a lemmings' rush to branded pubs but I think that all people are looking for is a good pub. Before they go out, they don't think: 'What brand are we going to drink in today?'
"My view is that there's a lot of steam left in local pubs as long as they are handled well and given the investment and the tender loving care that they need.
"In each case we go into a site and look at the kind of people that are both working and living in the area, so that it fits in with what people need locally.
"We want something that is instantly recognisable as a traditional pub but modernised and updated for 1998 rather than 1958."
The outlets receive beer brands and other drinks from SupplyLine, the trading company set up for the tied estates of IPC and Spring Inns.
And, as a former chairman of the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), Hutt is still committed to providing cask ales in all its outlets.
Wizard, based in St Albans in Hertfordshire, is to continue making acquisitions. It aims to double the size of its estate by the end of 2001, remaining within its core area of the South and the Midlands.
"We are looking at both individual pubs or small groups of pubs," Hutt explained. "We're also interested in sites which have the potential to become pubs.
"The company's £32m finance package is very far from being committed at this stage."
As managing director, Hutt is supported by an experienced team with former senior people from Scottish & Newcastle Retail, Grand Metropolitan, Bass and other pub and restaurant companies.
With its strategy to acquire underperforming outlets and breathe new life into them, Wizard has a challenging and exciting time ahead.
"We like to buy pubs where we can see the opportunity to use the Wizard touch, to add value to what's already there," Hutt said.
"The Wizard touch can be summed up simply as creating lots of trade where there's currently fairly small amounts of trade and giving the local back to the locals."