We look at the work of Merlin Inns — and how it gives managers the freedom to make every pub on its estate unique.
For many people, walking into one of Merlin Inns' 19 pubs will undoubtedly prompt the question "is it or isn't it?".
With bags of individuality, a friendly face behind the bar and the notable absence of any company branding, one would be forgiven for thinking the pubs are individual freehouses or tenancies.
This is exactly what Merlin's boss Tony Williams has been striving for since he set up the company 10 years ago, after leaving Courage.
In fact all 19 pubs, stretching across Hampshire to Kent and up to Buckinghamshire, are managed.
Speaking from the company's office in Cranleigh, Surrey, Williams said: "Most managed houses have to be controlled in every aspect and there's no opportunity for managers to contribute their flair to the business.
"We realised there are people who do have more to offer but may not have the necessary skills or money to take on a tenancy. These people, we thought, could improve trading if given the freedom to do so.
"So what we did was create an animal between managers and tenants. We have people who want to run their own business and they are not being told where to cross the 't's and dot the 'i's.
"They know their community and the local competition and can initiate ideas to improve trade in their locality.
"In fact, we play down the fact that the pubs belong to Merlin Inns. We want people to look at the licensees as individual 'mine hosts' and not part of a company."
Williams said the set-up was very much a partnership which was working for the overall good of the company. Managers are referred to as licensees rather than managers and they are given a free hand with many aspects of the business, including staffing and pub catering.
"We are taking the business forward together," said Williams.
"We do have obvious controls and rules but many decisions are made by the licensees.
"For instance, one licensee wanted to increase his staffing levels considerably and paid for the additional wages out of his own salary. He has made the returns he wanted."
At any one time, Merlin Inns has several potential managers on its books. A level of experience is necessary and managers will be expected to sit the National Licensee's Certificate as well as attend many on-going training courses.
Merlin's estate varies from a young person's disco pub to several country pubs with accommodation. The look and feel of each pub is purposely different and it is up to the manager to create the desired atmosphere.
The company is slowly expanding by about two pubs a year and although it is not looking to boost its estate considerably, it does have some new and exciting ideas on the go.
Williams is looking at introducing a branded concept and the fact that he's a keen golfer could have something to do with his Sports Bar idea.
"The sports bar theme is something which hasn't flooded the market yet," he said.
"I would never look at dumping what I have got to concentrate on a concept. The way I look at it, the more concepts there are, the more people will go to traditional pubs — therefore, we can't lose."
Williams is also looking to open abroad, and has his sights set on Paris, after the suggestion that the city has more resident Brits than the whole of Reading. In Britain itself, Williams has not ruled out the possibility of expanding further afield and would consider small packages in the West Country.
Looking ahead to the overall future of the pub industry, Williams sees concepts continuing to grow although he has doubts whether the market will be able to sustain so many.
For his own company, Williams wants Merlin Inns to continue to be a "good, solid and profitable" estate which prides itself on running high quality pubs with individual charm.
And just in case anybody is wondering where the name Merlin Inns came from, "it was just a hasty decision which hopefully reflects our traditional image," said Williams.