Scottish & Newcastle's head of brands, Russell Scott, tells Mark Stretton why the John Barras chain is a leading light in the 'local pub' market.
When Russell Scott took charge of the branded pubs division at Scottish & Newcastle (S&N), one of the first things he did was burn all existing concept manuals.
"I kept hearing the 'no' word," he explained, "and the reason was because there were too many checklists and guideline manuals, and if any idea didn't fit with them, it was binned.
"So I literally gathered all these books up, put them in a bin outside and set fire to them - all they were was office furniture anyway."
Russell's appointment two years ago was part of the restructuring process that saw S&N sell off about 1,000 pubs. The company has pressed ahead with trying to rediscover the glory days, and with a fresh slate, Russell has set about revitalising the branded estate.
One of the key brands in S&N's portfolio is John Barras, the 130-strong community pub chain found in residential areas.
The name for the brand is taken from a famous North East brewer of many years ago from within the realms of S&N - a real character who held traditional values dearly.
The brand is internal, not external, says Russell. This means that, except for signage outside the pub and one strap-line above the bar inside, you will not have the John Barras name continually rammed down your throat.
Russell believes that customers are sick of having brands and concepts shoved down their throats, and heavily labelled pubs in local areas are not what people desire.
"People don't want or need to be continually told," he said. "It makes me laugh when you go into a branded pub and you see the name everywhere - it's on the plates, the napkins, the tablecloths and every other conceivable place.
"John Barras is not a cookie cutter brand. The outlets are all individual locals but with an infrastructure and common values."
These provide a cultural structure, says Russell, with the three most important elements being service, tradition and fun. John Barras is a brand, for sure, but it should not be confused with the high street.
"We're a bloody pub," he said. "You go to John Barras to mix with the kind of people you want to meet at a local pub. And that is what it is, for god's sake - a local pub. We resist the temptation to do plush refits with wooden decking.
"People want to feel comfortable and, yes, at home.
"I don't want people to come here to sit in sofas and drink wine, I want them to drink good beer."
He does not subscribe to the view that there is a renewed popularity for real ale among beer drinkers. "Is there a resurgence in cask ale?" he said. "No, it's just in the past the poor buggers haven't been able to find anywhere to drink a decent pint.
"The industry is crap at beer - we spend more time displaying Bacardi Breezers."
One of the first things the retail boss does on his frequent site visits is to check the quality of the ales on the pumps.
Like many executives who tour their estates, Russell's visits are unannounced as he likes to get a real understanding of what is happening on his patch. "If I'm out in the trade I make sure my PA doesn't know where I am," he said. "I don't want the red carpet treatment with everybody stood to attention. I like to go in quietly and see the real picture."
Russell says that however many visits he does, nothing is as telling as independently conducted mystery visits. But he need not worry - one unit in the John Barras estate has just recorded its third 100 per cent score. "I bet my salary they wouldn't get a third," said Russell.
"It's great to see - I've been banging on about service for two years and I think we're getting somewhere."
He says the important thing with mystery visits is not whether "the spoon is on the left hand side of the cup - because nobody bloody cares" but it's about the experience, the attitude and the service.
Part of being "a bloody pub" is to provide entertainment for local people. Football is high on the agenda, be it broadcasting Premiership matches or sponsoring the local Sunday league team. The chain has also championed the fight for extended hours during the World Cup.
Darts in John Barras is huge. It hosts qualifying rounds for the World Darts Grand Prix and famous names such as Phil "the power" Taylor and Eric Bristow have graced the "oche" at JB pubs.
"With John Barras, we have demonstrated that the local market is a good place to be," he said. "But it's not easy. It can be a rough, tough environment and there are plenty of community issues."
The brand works closely with the Portman Group and spearheaded the "I'll be Des (designated driver)" campaign against drink-driving during the Christmas and New Year period.
The pubs gave away free soft drinks to drivers. "It cost an absolute fortune," he said. "But it was the right thing to do and we are happy to be associated with such things."
Russell says that watchdogs and other such folk should not be campaigning for a reduction in the drink-drive limit but should instead focus on issues such as mass discounting. "Beer sold at 99p is absolutely disgraceful," he said. "Or being told that you can drink all you want once you pay £7 on the door.
"They got heavy with happy hours but permanent discounting should be the issue. People shouldn't be allowed to sell alcohol for next to nothing. We avoid it - in my experience if you sell cheap booze you soon get the type of customers you don't want."
Not backward in coming forward whatever the topic of conversation, Russell has some strong views on other operators in the market. He says that Ember Inns is basically a "paint job" and in three years' time its owners will be looking for the next thing to do with those particular outlets.
"All these Carol Smillie pubs have started springing up everywhere and it's just 'let's put some sofas in and paint the walls bright colours'."
In the interests of balance it should be pointed out that Ember Inns is one of the biggest competitors to John Barras and "the owner" is S&N's main rival, Six Continents.
Like the majority of Britain's watering holes, the most important person in a John Barras outlet is the manager, said Russell. "As the saying goes, there's no such thing as a bad pub, just a bad manager."
Key to the brand is to find a manager who is a local to the community and can act as a figurehead. "That's not easy," said Russell. "We need people with personality and passion, people who are committed - it's not about whether you can carry a set of keys or not.
"We don't want a jingly-jangly, bunch-of-keys manager who simply comes down the stairs to let staff in. We need someone with presence who is going to be in the bar interacting to customers."
In total, Russell heads more than 300 S&N outlets. The main growth drivers are Bar 38, the high street entertainment bar, T&J Bernard, the traditional alehouse, and John Barras.
Along with service, one of Russell's bugbears is training. "In this industry we spend ages teaching staff how to work the till," he said. "What about the greeting? What about telling them how to talk to people?
"Our training programmes mean that people do not push any buttons for the first two weeks."
Staff at Baja Beach Club wear "Yes" badges. This is to signify that staff should always be able to help and should always be satisfied.
He believes pubs are still way behind other industries in this, however. One of Russell's first jobs out of school was running the Marble Arch branch of McDonald's at the top of Oxford Street, London. It would take £250,000 a week. "It was a great grounding," he said. "It's so slick. In terms of facilities and staff training McDonald's is 30 years ahead of our industry."
In the S&N sell-off, two years ago, the company disposed of its "bad assets", says Russell