Greene King MD Neil Gillis goes 'back to the floor'. Jackie Annett reports
When Belgo founder Luke Johnson agreed to be a waiter for TV documentary Back to the Floor he probably didn't realise what he was letting himself in for.
For a man who is used to ruling the roost and cracking the authoritative whip, the task of service with a smile proved to be that little bit too much for him.
Nonetheless, his outright rudeness to customers and staff made for excellent fly-on-the-wall TV.
But when Greene King's managing director, Neil Gillis, went to work behind the bar at the New Inn in St Neots, Cambridgeshire, it was a completely different story.
He may not have been the quickest behind the bar or the best at pulling pints but his relaxed demeanour and genuine enthusiasm for the task at hand was a far cry from Mr Johnson's arrogance.
"I'm crap," Neil said when I asked him how his day had gone so far. "Absolutely crap," he laughed. "Working behind the bar is much harder than you think. A lot of people unfairly describe it as unskilled work - but it requires a hell of a lot of skill.
"How do you remember what drinks a customers has ordered, serve them correctly, ring it in the till right - while all the time remembering to smile and ask if they want ice and lemon? It's so much to take on board."
It's two hours into his nine-hour shift and so far he has made one mistake. "I keyed in the wrong price and Michelle, the area manager, had to come and sort the till out," he tells me bashfully.
Neil also confesses that he is a little slow behind the bar and admits that this could cause him problems when the pub fills up in the evening.
"There's 15 other staff on tonight so it shouldn't be too much of a worry," he added. "But it does take time to pick up the speed."
As evening drew on the bar did become extremely busy, with the team taking £2,500 that night - 30 per cent more than a typical Thursday.
It wasn't the first time that Neil had chosen to go back to the floor. When he first joined the company over two years ago, one of his first pit stops was a Greene King pub.
After gaining valuable insight into how the other half lived and worked he decided to make all head office employees go back to the floor for the day to gain some of this valuable insight. Now, once a year, more than 200 head office employees spend a day behind the bar as part of a company-wide initiative called The Longest Day.
"It means that head office employees see first hand the problems of running a pub, while licensees get the chance to meet the face behind the voice on the other end of the phone," Neil explained. "If there are problems it enables them to be brought to light and ironed out."
During his day at the New Inn he spotted several things that could be improved.
"I have noticed that the computer system here for the invoicing is a pain and you have to enter the data twice," he said. "It's a nightmare if you are entering new employees' details onto the system. I'll be doing something about that when I get back. I'm looking at lightening the bureaucracy.
"When I was in the cellar I noticed that the staff have to move the barrels quite a way which could be a health hazard so I'm going to try and get the dray crews to drop them off nearer."
While he was struggling behind the bar he realised that it might be an idea to change the till structure to make it easier, in particular for new starters. "The popular products are quite difficult to put through the till," he said.
On top of these initial problems, he agreed that licensees and barstaff do not receive enough recognition for their work. It's not just a matter of low pay. He also blames a lack of respect for barstaff which puts people off joining the industry.
"On the continent barstaff are quite respected but here it is often described as unskilled work.
"The industry needs to do something to change this perception," he admitted. "It's not just the pay that is the problem. The industry needs to change its whole attitude to staff. These people do a great job."
Feedback from other head office staff suggests that everybody enjoys themselves on the day, despite their initial fears.
"A lot of people weren't expecting to enjoy it," Neil said. "But 83 per cent said they had gained from the experience and 87 per cent of house managers want to run it again."
As day turns to evening Neil is really put through his paces behind the bar. Licensees Sean Stone and Michelle Heap have organised a "bad taste evening" - an excuse for customers to dress in particularly bad '70s clothes and lose themselves to cheesy disco music and some old classics.
Neil is particularly dreading dressing up for the occasion in an outfit picked not so lovingly for him by Sean.
"All the barstaff have to dress up," Sean said. "Anyway he came in with jeans on this morning and he was supposed to wear black trousers, so he has no right to complain!"
So Neil is forced to wear the bright and distasteful '70s shirt until the end of his shift.
When I asked him what the best bit of the day was, he replied coyly "going home". Not that it was all that bad, he explained. "It was great fun - it is just that putting your feet up after nine hours is bliss.
"I really enjoyed the day. In the end we told quite a few customers what was going on and they were buying me drinks and engaging in some banter. They were winding me up complaining that their glasses weren't clean. That was the best bit."
And the worst part? "It's completely physically tiring and mentally tiring as well. The worst bit was cleaning the pub afterwards - after the bar had shut.
"We finished, in the end, about 1am and I got home about 2.30. And I had to get up early in the morning as I was on the nursery shift at home!"
And was he glad to return to his normal job and desk the next day?
"Absolutely," he replied with a big grin and a sigh of relief. "It's a lot harder than people think."
Objectives for the day were:
- To assist the building of relationships between the team from head office and Greene King managed pubs
- For the head office team to gain an insight into the day-to-day running of a pub or a hotel
- For house managers to understand the issues facing the team in the head office.
Head office staff thought:
- 80 per cent of head office employees were made to feel welcome in the business they visited
- 83 per cent said they had gained from the experience
- 85 per cent would like to participate next year.
- 80 per cent believed it had helped to build relationships between themselves and head office staff
- 87 per cent said that those involved in the initiative worked hard and participated with the rest of the team
- 87 per cent would like to participate next year.
Changes head office staff would make:
- More encouragement for new ideas and initiatives proposed by licensees
- Head office staff to be more sensitive about contacting licensees during busy times
- When visiting sites the team should talk to all the staff and not just the manager
- Get rid of answering machines.
What the experience gave to licensees:
- Respect for others working for the company
- An understanding of the problems facing head office and how to make their job easier
- Being able to put names to faces.