The Batman of Broadstairs - Philip Thorley gives a tour of his pubs

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Taking a pub tour with Philip Thorley can be humbling, writes Mark Stretton.As the car door opened a thousand camera bulbs flashed. People stopped in...

Taking a pub tour with Philip Thorley can be humbling, writes Mark Stretton.

As the car door opened a thousand camera bulbs flashed. People stopped in the street to turn and wave. Traffic ground to a halt, horns beeped and headlights flashed.

Well, almost. Touring the Kent seaside town of Broadstairs with Philip Thorley, one gets the impression the hero has returned. A humbling experience, it's like a royal visit, only perhaps more important. The only things missing are bunting and Union Flags.

That he knows everyone, and everyone knows him, is testimony to the hands-on approach Philip takes to running the 40-strong managed pub company. One suspects there are few people he does not get on with.

"It's my job to deal with lots of different people on many levels," he said. "That could be the bloke having a drink in one of our pubs or a key industry figure."

His enthusiasm is almost palpable. It is hard to imagine a more highly-motivated, visible individual than Philip. He is a big believer in life coaching and says most of his zest comes from personal development.

Once a year Philip takes a crowd of Thorley staff to see top US life coach Tony Robins for a motivational weekend entitled "Unleash the Power Within". With each place costing close to £1,000, it is not cheap. This year he is taking 30. He says the weekend, which includes fire-walking, can be a life-changing experience.

"These courses give people the courage to do what they've always wanted to do - to get the monkey off their back.

"I'm big on personal development. The number in the bottom right-hand corner [of the balance sheet] is the thing that gives us a buzz, but how does it get there? We do a lot to improve our people because good staff equal good business."

Philip uses a Batman and Robin analogy for the roles played by many of the couples that manage Thorley Taverns' 40 outlets. "You always have a leader and a sidekick," he says. "When we send people on the motivational weekend, many are converted from Robins to Batmans - people visibly grow."

Philip says Tony Robins is the single biggest influence in his life. Within the industry he admires Tim Martin for "putting a coach and horses through what was a closed shop". He also says "the Revolution boys are doing a great job".

It is hard to imagine a more disparate bunch of pubs, clubs, restaurants and bars than the Thorley estate.

The company does a bit of everything, from running the award-winning family pub, the Captain Digby, to full-blooded nightclubs. Seafood restaurants and cliff-top hotels are also included in the mix.

"What we do is not rocket science," said Philip. "We are not scared of running any type of operation because it all boils down to three things - customer care, the environment you provide and products you serve."

Philip also says the company has the ability to trade in many different areas because the team concentrates heavily on marketing, an essential tool of the successful retailer.

"With a nightclub background, I am used to promoting our business heavily," he says. "If we have something good happening we tend to shout about it."

Thorley Taverns takes a large chunk of advertising space in the local paper each week to publicise promotions and music events (bands that perform at one pub include the "Spanking Llamas" and the "Viagra Fools"). Text messaging, comment cards, flyers and emails are all used to good effect.

Although Philip has joined his father Frank (both pictured above)​ at the helm of the Thorley business, he started out as a stand-alone landlord with a pub in London, in 1983.

He then took a run-down nightclub from receivers. "We turned that into a raging success," he said. "Me and my father come from two different generations, have different perspectives and quite often come at problems from two different angles, all of which tends to be very healthy for the business."

Philip and Frank deal with customer gripes personally. "I don't mind complaints - it's the way we learn and understand," he said.

Because of the size and the close proximity of the estate, Philip says the company can think entrepreneurially. For St Patrick's Day, the company held a "toss the leprechaun" competition. The company also holds under-18s discos on a Monday night. "What was a dark night suddenly becomes 500 kids," he said.

"You have good door money, good soft drinks money and the chance to win some customers of the future."

In some outlets, the company uses quiet afternoons to put on tea and ballroom dancing.

"At the end of the day I'm a retailer," he said. "Retailers are interested in cash and the more opportunities we can take to get the green stuff in the tills, the better."

Philip has just acquired 40 life-size replicas of the World Cup, at £50-a-throw, for each of his outlets as part of a promotional push. "We are looking to back it heavily," he said. "It's going to be massive and it was a fiasco that the event was not initially branded a special occasion.

"It will be in every paper and on every television and radio station for weeks and weeks. I'm glad the authorities have seen sense and given the public want they want."

The company is also fast on its feet, says Philip. For example, menus and marketing material for Christmas 2002 were put to bed in January.

Although a large chunk of the estate is in seaside locations, the company does not rely on the tourist pound. "That sort of business is really the cream in the coffee," said Philip. "This is a 52-week business. We do look to cater for the holiday-maker and the day-tripper but the one or two week break is dying in the UK - people would much rather go abroad."

But the Kent coastal area is not swimming with money - it is one of the most highly government-assisted parts of the country. Philip says the area is improving and an updated rail-link to London should see the financial situation improve, with both businesses and residents locating to the area.

Philip is also a prominent and active member in the pub industry, and was recently re-elected to the council of Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers (ALMR), along with his namesake Giles, of Punch Pub Company.

Thorley Taverns is expanding its hotel interests and now has over 100 rooms within the group. Philip says that the underlying message from the company is one of evolution rather than revolution.

Out of about 200 licences on the Isle of Thanet in Kent, Thorley Taverns has about 36, so it is little wonder the operations director is something of a celebrity in these parts. Although he does, he says, draw the line at baby-kissing and signing autographs.

Philip believes that if you are happy, people will be happy back. "I gave up working at the age of 18," he said. "I now do something that I love. If we were really good at selling toilet rolls we wouldn't have half as much fun."

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