The loan rangers: One80

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Related tags: Bass brewers, Debt

Troubleshooter One80 has a mission to turn around ailing pubs.As the foot-and-mouth crisis starts to bite and the media warn of an economic slow...

Troubleshooter One80 has a mission to turn around ailing pubs.

As the foot-and-mouth crisis starts to bite and the media warn of an economic slow down, the future looks bleak for some licensees.

According to the British Institute of Innkeeping, rural pubs' incomes have been slashed by over 20 per cent and one in 10 of them are in serious trouble.

The last resort for many of these struggling publicans is to telephone the bank and admit that they may fall behind on the loan payments. All they would expect is an insolvency practitioner to turn up and a For Sale sign to be put up outside.

But Jarlath McHale (pictured)​ believes there is a way round this. He heads One80, a firm created out of the credit management department of Bass Brewers 18 months ago.

"If a licensee has borrowed from a bank to buy a pub and it has then got into difficulties, the last person they want to tell is their mortgage lender," he said. "Even if somebody comes down from the bank and genuinely says they are there to help, I'm not sure the licensee would believe them."

He joined Bass Brewers in 1996 to take charge of credit management, which included its own loan book and equity investments in freetrade pubs. He had worked in commercial loans to the leisure market for 20 years, most recently for Allied Irish Bank, and knew about the barrier that existed between lender and licensee.

"We were looking at ways we could better help publicans in difficulty," he said.

"We took the view that we needed to be going out as someone independent rather than just someone from Bass Brewers.

"The trade loan side was not as significant within Bass Brewers as the products, so budgets were more likely to be spent on new product development or production. So it needed a higher focus."

The credit management function was outsourced to specialist firm Buchanan Clark & Wells (BCW), based in Glasgow, which created the new One80 division with Mr McHale and many of his team from Bass.

BCW had strong links with the licensed trade, providing services to other brewers such as Carlsberg-Tetley and Scottish Courage. The group also includes licensed trade property specialist Gilman Jones and commercial brokerage firm Leisure Business Finance.

In its publicity, One80 conjures up images of "Troubleshooter" Sir John Harvey Jones and other "company doctors" by referring to its team as "financial paramedics".

It claims to be able to turn around ailing pubs, restaurants, hotels and social clubs, with a success rate of over 90 per cent of businesses saved from closure within six months.

Mr McHale said this meant that less than 10 per cent of cases ended in litigation or insolvency - although the company is aiming to bring this down to just five per cent.

When a pub runs into trouble, one of its 21-strong team goes in within 48 hours to begin the task of identifying the problems.

"At first, it may seem that owing VAT is the problem, but that can be a symptom of a bigger problem that sometimes they haven't recognised," Mr McHale said.

They look not only at cash flow management, credit management and financial controls but also at marketing, staffing, pricing and brands.

The team is made up of experts from the retail banking giants as well as recruits from Bass Brewers and pub operators such as Punch Retail.

But One80 also has a link-up with Mercury Management, the pub management company created by Kevin Thornton and Mark Butler in a management buy-out from the former Mercury Taverns three years ago. Mercury's team, which runs expanding pub companies such as Traditional Free Houses, provide practical operational support where needed.

One80 works with the lender and the publican to develop a plan to pull them out of the quagmire and rebuild the business.

"Our brief is to get the best value out of the outlet for the lender and for the publican themselves," Mr McHale.

"Sadly, some cases cannot be resuscitated."

But One80's performance has pleased Bass Brewers, which estimates that it has cut costs by 30 per cent by outsourcing its debt portfolio.

Bass Brewers finance director Paul Thomas said: "Outsourcing was a major innovation in the way we operate, but it ensured we better addressed the challenge of assisting customers facing trading difficulties.

"It is not just about recouping loans. The emphasis is very much on regenerating businesses."

One80 now manages debt portfolios for several high street banks and other brewers, such as Wolverhampton & Dudley Breweries, with a total value of over £200m.

"We are doing something that nobody else is doing," Mr McHale said. "In the past, the licensed trade has been bedevilled by what we call the financial undertakers, who were interested only in earning fees from throwing independent operators into bankruptcy or liquidation."

For One80, its income depends on successfully turning around businesses. Its fees are based on a percentage of how much the pubs' profits have improved, which acts as a strong incentive not to give up.

"We want licensees to recognise that we are all about providing hands-on intensive care to restore them to profitability," Mr McHale said.

"The sooner a licensee sees they have difficulties and get help, the better the chances of saving the business."

Related topics: Other operators

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