Clarinbridge Pub Company - committed to community locals

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Clarinbridge Pub Company is staying true to its commitment of running community locals.When Richard and Dee White were trying to come up with a name...

Clarinbridge Pub Company is staying true to its commitment of running community locals.

When Richard and Dee White were trying to come up with a name for their pub company, they decided to go for something that harked back to their Irish roots.

But they rejected most of the obvious names because they were determined not to be mistaken for a branded pub operation, like O'Neill's or Mulligans.

"We have always said 'No' to concepts," Dee said. "We are focused on the unbranded community sector because that is what we are best at."

When they formed their company four years ago, they settled for Clarinbridge — named after a picturesque village near Galway City in southern Ireland, home to an annual pub-based oyster festival.

It reflects their determination to create a company running individual community pubs where about 85 per cent of trade comes from regulars.

"We don't define community pubs too tightly," Richard said. "You can have community pubs in town and city centres. Their entire offer and ambience is aimed at a solid customer base that uses the pub routinely."

The husband-and-wife team set up their own business after working at Whitbread, Richard as a regional executive for Pub Partnerships and Dee for Whitbread Trading South, where she managed licensee recruitment and training.

They began four years ago as a management company, Clarinbridge Ltd, which grew its portfolio to as much as 60 pubs and still handles about 40 at a time.

Dee said: "We provide a management service rather than just a holding service, so we try to make sites better than when they came to us, whether we have them for the short or the long term."

They continue to manage outlets for national and regional operators, such as their first-ever customer, Manchester brewer JW Lees, but it was always a springboard for their own pub company.

Richard said: "Although we have backgrounds in the sector, that doesn't demonstrate an ability to run your own company. We built a business from a small base to a reasonably substantial turnover and built a reputation among some quite key people for doing it professionally and in the right way, so that has established our credibility.

"While the management business is profitable, we wanted to build fixed assets into the business so it would have future value."

Last June, Clarinbridge bought its first pubs, a package of 14 from Suffolk brewer Greene King, scattered around the North West.

The deal, which took just three-and-a-half weeks from start to finish, gave it some well-known Manchester pubs, such as the Rising Sun in Queen Street and Paddy's Goose in the "Gay Village".

It followed this in November by taking over pub operator LTP (Inns), which gave it four pubs in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire. By Christmas, Clarinbridge had acquired three individual sites in West Yorkshire, bringing the estate up to its current 21.

Clarinbridge is now on course to top the 100-mark within two years, with talks under way for more packages.

Its ambitions have been enhanced by gaining access to extra financial backing through investment bank UBS.

"We had to have a fighting fund. That means you can fund deals and do them very quickly," Richard said.

"We've found we've been able to beat some of the bigger boys to deals because, whereas they have the cash, they have decision-making processes that involve different levels of management approving the deal. Our decision-making structure is very quick indeed."

Growth has already led it to move into bigger offices in Altrincham, Cheshire, and appoint operations director Adam Waters, formerly a regional director for Enterprise Inns.

Originally, Clarinbridge expected to focus on the North West, but it already stretches towards the North East and the Midlands.

Richard said: "If a package comes up of more than 12, which would be enough for one area manager, we would look at it anywhere in the country."

This month Clarinbridge completed its first refurbishment, spending £200,000 on transforming the Britannia in Urmston, Manchester. Art deco features have been restored and modern facilities installed, such as disabled access and smoke extractors, but it is still a community pub aimed at the local market.

"We are enhancing what's there, so the locals won't be driven away by the changes," Dee said. "The customers will be moving back into a pub that's geographically the same inside but has been much improved.

"It's not something we will do with every site. Some of them don't need it. The returns on investment have to be there."

The next project is to restore a 16th Century coaching inn, the Ram's Head in Disley, near Stockport, which Greene King had turned into a branded Hungry Horse.

The first floor of the Britannia offers a bar area which will be used for training, something that the Whites are working very hard on.

"For years the community pub was the last thing to attract investment," Richard said. "All the brewers left them alone because they were busy developing either high street concepts or branded formulaic pubs on greenfield sites in semi-rural locations.

"Hand in hand with that, the companies were not investing in staff, so there was a decline in standards."

Clarinbridge has been improving the food available in many of its sites, going for quality pub meals and snacks.

Richard said: "We do see food as an important part of the offer but we don't rigidly say that all pubs should do food. There are sites where it just wouldn't ever sell."

The Whites believe community pubs are still seen as the "poor relation" by some operators, but are confident the industry is waking up to their value.

"We thought that here was a fantastic, well-established market for selling lots of beer but it had been neglected," said Richard.

"Suddenly everyone else is deciding it's a good idea, which must vindicate the direction we're taking."

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