After two years in the Greene King Pub Company hot-seat, Neil Gillis feels he is making his mark. Mark Stretton went to meet him.
Two years ago, the only experience Neil Gillis had within the trade was going to the pub for a pint, but today he is at the helm of the most important part of Greene King's business.
With all loose ends from the Old English Inns deal just about tied, the managed estate supremo is looking to forge ahead with the expansion of the core brands, such as Hungry Horse, and its new award-winning fresh-food concept, Appleton's.
The managed estate is the biggest part of Greene King's business in terms of delivering sales, profits and shareholder value, and the key word for Neil, and his charges, is growth.
But he is not just concerned with the financial figures. A few hours in the company of the managing director is time well spent and proof that the interests of the shareholder, publican, and patron, need not be mutually exclusive.
Neil has guided the managed business through a period of change since joining the company two years ago. He has enhanced the retail culture in the division, focused on working pub assets harder, and seen the pub company profits swell. He has also put in place a number of initiatives to ensure that both staff and customers remain a happy bunch.
Neil was fresh to the trade when he took the job with Greene King, having come from the food industry, namely Linda McCartney Frozen Foods.
A committed man, he gave up eating meat on principle when he worked for the vegetarian food maker.
Neil's appointment was not to everyone's liking, but he says that the fact he had no prior knowledge of pubs was a positive thing.
"Before joining, my only experience of this business was drinking in a pub," he said. "I feel I am still learning, but then that will probably never change - it's a constant process.
"There was plenty of disapproval when I got the job. But this industry does tend to breed the same people and I think an injection of fresh blood is very positive."
The company has made a conscious effort to attract new people to the trade by advertising jobs in unusual places such as She magazine and Cosmopolitan.
Managers have since joined the company from other sectors such as the chemical industry, petrol retailing and the food firm Holland & Barratt.
Together with marketing man Adam Collett, Neil has worked hard on merchandising and presentation. "This is a retailing business, or it should be," said Neil. "We have massive space in pubs but often we don't use it. You go into many pubs and all they seem to be selling is wood."
Rather than investing in mahogany, Neil and Adam would like to see his customers buying more beer and wine, and have concentrated on maximising use of space. In many Greene King outlets, the duo have replaced large wooden panels in the front-bar with glass windows displaying products such as bottles.
They plan to expand Greene King's latest branded offering, Appleton's, which is targeting the same audience as Harvester. Big portions, fresh food and free apples are proving a winner - Greene King will add another nine outlets to the existing eight, this year.
It was named branded pub chain of the year at the Pub Food Awards, earlier this week (Monday 4 February). Adam, who came up with the Appleton's concept, explains the brand's identity.
"In the UK we seem to have this child apartheid - our focus is on kids eating with adults. It's also about educating kids about fresh food and stands opposed to the unholy trinity of freezer, fryer and microwave." The company is currently looking at existing sites that could be ripe for conversion.
Neil and Adam believe a clutch of the Old English sites acquired in September could be perfect.
Neil describes the £102.6m Old English Inns deal as an excellent piece of business. The integration is all but complete, and just before Christmas the company splashed out £200,000 on a conference for the Old English staff to get to know their new management.
The Pub Company boss says he will continue to look at the market for further deals. But he cannot see the logic in recent speculation that the whole group will end up merging with Wolverhampton & Dudley. "Everyone seems obsessed with geographics but that is not the key," he said.
"The fact is the two businesses are totally different. They operate in different markets and target different types of customer."
Adam agrees: "The only things similar are the brewing businesses. But you couldn't really put those two together because then there would be about eight different brands of similar types of beer - hardly focused, is it?"
Since Neil has been at the helm, the company has seen the returns on investments in the estate rise from five to 22 per cent. "I was amazed how money was sprayed around in this industry, it seemed few people were concerned with returning economic value," he said. "Everyone seems to be seduced by the need for a high street brand. It seems to be a fast way to turn a large fortune into a small one."
Financially, the managed business is the most important to the entire group (in the latest report profits had risen to £22.6m - half of Greene King's entire bottom line), but Neil has recognised the importance of staff and customers to the continued success of the business.
He has taken steps to ensure Greene King punters do not experience the kind of service all too familiar to the British public. He has introduced a complaints phone-line for those customers unhappy with the service or any other aspect of their visit.
Moans and gripes are acknowledged by the house and area managers, the problem is dealt with, and then the unhappy customer will receive a follow-up call three months later.
"People are reluctant to complain on the spot or face to face as it can ruin the atmosphere of an evening," said Neil. "By the time someone is prepared to sit down and write a letter, they are really angry. The chances are you have lost their business."
Neil, who receives a copy of every complaint, will often respond to them himself. "It's brilliant - you get a real sense of the problems," he said. "Talking to house managers and area staff is not the same as talking to the customers.
"Receiving vouchers from head office is all very well but people want to hear a voice. These problems will be dealt with and hopefully the customers will return."
Neil says the one thing guaranteed to upset him is when people don't seem to care. "I think our staff are generally very good. It is very annoying when people don't seem to care," he said.
He adds that the general malaise of customer service in this country also has a lot to do with culture and the British class system.
"We have a slightly unhealthy attitude to service," he said. "Some people expect to be served with bowed head, and humility - the classic servant and master scenario.
"It needs to be a more equal relationship like they have in America and Australia, with more mutual respect."
But don't people need to be better paid? "Yes they do," Neil said. "All our management staff get a share of the profits and there are plenty of bonus structures in place. But you can also do more."
As well as pension schemes, life assurance, and a legal help-line, Pub Company staff have access to a confidential care-line, and counselling can be arranged if necessary.
"This industry is not helpful to people with regard to marriages and relationships. Alcohol misuse can also be an issue," Neil explained.
The managing director also places great emphasis on the part his staff can play in developing the business.
He meets quarterly with managers of every pub from every area. "They're certainly not shy in criticising the company, or me," he said.
"I want to encourage our people to complain. It's very constructive. We're not listen