When it comes to selecting the right person to put behind the bar, nobody is better placed than the pub's owner to make the final decision.
On the other hand, it never hurts to have help when it comes to making life's difficult choices, which is where the specialist recruitment agencies - or consultants, as they mainly like to call themselves - come into their own.
Pub operators are increasingly using consultants, which can help in a number of ways. The time-consuming business of weeding through job applications to ensure that candidates meet the basic requirements of the job is one way but according to Jonathan Lister, a director of licensed trade recruitment consultant Lister Charles, that is only the tip of the iceberg.
"Obviously, we can manage the first stage of application, and refer suitable candidates, based on the client's specification, to area managers for interview. Within a pub operator personnel staff could spend their whole time answering phones and reading application forms. Our consultants are trained specialists, and all applicants receive a response within 24 hours and should be interviewed within a week."
However, the services of a recruitment specialist can also be of benefit at a more strategic level. Lister Charles works with pub operators such as Punch Retail, SFI, and Yates. "Candidates suitable for a pub retail outlet need very specific skills," said Lister. "They are also getting damn difficult to find, with the labour market getting very tight."
Lister Charles can work with a company a strategic level to ensure that its recruitment policy is right for the type of candidate it is hoping to attract, and on a practical level operates a database which tracks suitable candidates at all levels of the industry so that key personnel can be easily contacted when the right position does come along. "It can be all about transferable skills. For example, the manager of a fast food restaurant may be very well suited to run a branded pub," said Lister.
Yates Group, which has a steadily expanding managed pub estate, began using specialist recruitment agencies, notably Lister Charles and Portfolio, shortly before Christmas. This was a new approach for the business which now has more than 150 outlets and expects to take on around 60 managers this year.
Working with outside specialists has been an interesting experience according to Mel Madeley, head of personnel at Yates Group. "We've certainly been on a learning curve. Not having worked with agencies before, I would say it's very important that you make sure they understand the precise needs of your business.
"While they may have plenty of experience of the pub trade in general, your business is obviously special to you." To help build this understanding, consultants from the agencies have spent time at Yates' head office as well as in its outlets, getting to know the company and its employees.
A clearly defined division of labour at the outset is also useful. "I would say that it's very important that you set out in advance exactly what the responsibilities are on each side - who's going to send out application forms and so on."
Yates has retained control of recruiting trainees onto its in-house management development programme and has a clear idea of the type of person it is looking to grow within the business. The outside agencies are being used to recruit the experienced managers and assistant managers needed "off-the-peg" during a time of expansion for the business, when the number of new outlets exceeds the number of prospective managers available to promote from within.
"Like many companies, we have a relatively small in-house human resources department," said Madeley. "We don't really have the time or the number of recruitment specialists which the agencies offer."
The agencies handle the initial applications, whether they arrive on-line, by telephone or by post, and conduct initial interviews. This weeds out the applicants who clearly do not have the experience or other qualities to meet Yates' person specification. A shortlist of likely candidates is then drawn up and the consultants liaise with the Yates business development manager for the outlet to plan interviews.
The process of communicating the qualities of the ideal Yates managers to a third party has also been a useful exercise in concentrating the mind. "Although you may think you have clear picture in your mind of the type of person you want, converting that into a job description which can be used by an agency can be surprisingly challenging. It makes you sit down and ask yourself just what it is you do want in a manager."
The different perspective that a recruitment specialist brings has also been helpful. "They are obviously active in the pub industry and bring that depth of understanding with them," said Madeley.
Recruiting pub tenants and lessees is an even more specialist task, and there are a number of recruitment brokers specialising in this area which work with pub operators looking for candidates interested in investing in their own business.
Patricia O'Neill, an area manager for Young & Co, is something of a poacher turned gamekeeper in this area of the industry, having worked as a broker before joining the London brewer just over five years ago. O'Neill has the responsibility for recruiting around 20 tenants a year into Young's pubs.
"Recruitment brokers fill a very useful niche in the market," she said. "I'd certainly be lost without them. Although we maintain a list of prospective tenants in-house, I certainly haven't met them all, but I'd expect brokers to know they are putting forward a suitable candidate for the pub in question."
Brokers will also ensure that potential tenants meet what O'Neill describes as the basic entry requirements for the job - trade experience, funds available, and ready to start work. "After that, it's a question of matching the right person to the pub."
O'Neill tends to work closely with a few brokers well known to her, including her former employers Add & Co, and GW Cooper, both London based and familiar with both the Young's estates and what it expects from its tenants. "It can be particularly useful when you need to get a tenant into a pub quite quickly. Hopefully the broker will have done a lot of the groundwork for you."
O'Neill's advice to prospective tenants is to talk to pub companies but also to get onto the books of reputable brokers. "It's very different for me in a pub company, I'm focused entirely on the needs of Young's. When I was with a broker I was dealing with a range of companies and was aware of all the opportunities that were coming onto the market. Whenever I have a personal interview with a potential tenant, I always advise them to sign up with the brokers as well."