With 14 outlets turning over £2.5m, Crownelm Properties is now enjoying a very big last laugh. We report.
With just £20,000 in their pockets, two ageing Vauxhall motors and a small computer, Norman Brooks and Neil Sharpe were laughed at when they decided to set up a pub company.
"When we started, people thought we were just playing at pubs," Sharpe explained. "Everybody thought we were just a bit of an amusement.
"Even our bank manager told us to forget it and go and get a proper job."
Their business, Crownelm Properties, now has an estate of 14 outlets in Norfolk and Suffolk with a combined turnover of £2.5m.
And, after a period of consolidation, they have started looking for new sites and are launching their own training company.
The pair founded Crownelm five years ago, originally to run pubs temporarily for other companies and brewers.
Brooks had been a publican for 13 years in London and East Anglia.
Sharpe was a regular in Brooks' pub and when he was made redundant from Pearl Assurance, they decided overnight to follow their dream of setting up a business to run pubs.
Sharpe said: "I walked out of Pearl on the Friday afternoon and on Monday morning we started Crownelm."
They took the name of an existing off-the-shelf company simply because they both liked the sound of it.
For the first year they ran the business from their homes but, as it expanded, they moved into their current HQ above a shop in the quiet town of Beccles on the Norfolk-Suffolk border.
Over the years they have gone into more than 40 pubs to run them temporarily for periods ranging from three months to five years.
But in 1996 they decided they wanted to go in a new direction to safeguard the company's future - and their own pensions.
"We took on temporary management of pubs to test the water and establish ourselves in the market," Brooks said.
"But one day we sat down and realised that, despite all our hard work, all we had were rolling 28-day leases and we could suddenly find ourselves out of business if they were all sold."
Since then they have slowly built up a portfolio of managed houses, four of them freehold and 10 leasehold, with more than half strong on food sales.
Two are tied Inntrepreneur Pub Company outlets but the rest are freehouses, supplied by Scottish Courage, Norwich-based Woodforde's and Ipswich-based Tolly Cobbold.
Many of them are in picturesque locations by the seaside or on the Broads, attracting high numbers of tourists during the summer.
The estate also includes a 14-room hotel, the King's Head in Bungay near Beccles, which has three Crowns from the English Tourist Board.
Crownelm has been gradually upgrading its sites, with the King's Head due for a major refurbishment with the help of a European Commission grant for regions in need.
The company is about to embark on a period of growth, with plans to acquire a freehold site and three leaseholds within its current trading area.
"We have gone as far as we have without recourse to any borrowing other than the mortgages on our freeholds," Brooks said proudly.
"Everything else is paid for out of the income we have generated, and we are now looking at our options for financing our future acquisitions.
"We have been consolidating our estate and put a management structure in place so that we can cope with more pubs.
"We wanted to make sure the business was efficient and working profitably before we did the breast stroke and swallowed up new sites because we didn't want to lose control."
Control is vitally important for the two directors who are still very hands-on, regularly visiting their pubs along with area manager Mike Collis.
They would never consider taking on tenants because they want to keep tight reins on how their outlets are run.
"We don't want the managers to be just monkeys," Brooks said. "We encourage them to be part of the local community and give them the autonomy to operate their outlet within their own personality - provided that it satisfies what we want to do.
"We are in total control and, if something is wrong, we can do something about it straightaway. This is our future. This is our pensions."
Their newest venture is Crownelm Inn-Training, which was originally set up to provide their own staff with courses approved by the British Institute of Innkeeping.
But it is now being launched to the outside world, offering five-day courses leading to the National Licensee's Certificate, including the qualifying exam and basic certificates in food hygiene and health and safety.
"The industry has been left in the dark ages as far as training is concerned but we want to raise the quality of the trade and its image," Brooks said.
"We need to take it out of the gutter where it was and put it within a plain where it's a profession where you need to be highly trained and have a vast array of skills.
"People now expect so much more from their pub. They expect it to be somewhere for eating, for meeting, for entertainment and not just somewhere to sit on a stool and throw beer down their throats."
He believes Crownelm's emphasis on training has helped it to boost sales, with turnover on course to increase next year by about 50 per cent to £3.7m.
"When people look at what we have achieved over the past five years, they are surprised," Brooks said.
"We have done it on a shoestring and got where we have by hard graft."