Give to the poor

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After selling the C-Side Ltd group for £14m Martin Webb felt like doing something charitable. By Tom Sandham.Martin Webb was on his 62-foot yacht...

After selling the C-Side Ltd group for £14m Martin Webb felt like doing something charitable. By Tom Sandham.

Martin Webb was on his 62-foot yacht sailing around the Caribbean 18 months ago. He had sold Brighton-based C-Side Ltd for £14m and was re-evaluating his role in the pub trade. From the Caribbean he sailed to the Mediterranean and, after a quick tour of the sun-drenched Balearics, returned to native shores with a unique perspective on pub operations.

After injecting some of his funds into the London-based Medicine Bar Group and then new venture WSD bars, he took a decision to make a donation to charity.

This was going to be in the form of a lump sum, but after some thought he came up with the novel idea of buying up a pub and turning it into a charity project called People's Pubs.

In May this year he opened the Robin Hood in Brighton, a pub that will give all net profits to charities chosen by Martin and a board of trustees.

It is the first time such a project has been set up and has been well received in his community, as well as in the national press.

Not only has it been well received, but it is also working. In its first three weeks the takings were at more than £20,000, and by the end of July Martin should have a very pleasing announcement to make about a donation.

He is also enjoying significant success with his other investments as Medicine Bar Group now holds a portfolio of seven, making an annual profit of £750,000.

His newer investment, London pub company WSD Bars, is also making a profit, taking in £200,000 a year. He is preparing to add two more pubs to its portfolio of five, including one in Angel, which finalised this week.

He remains a businessman, but his 18-month trip changed his perspective and when he talks it is People's Pubs that most excites him.

"Brighton has given me a great deal and this was a way of giving something back," he said. "My business concerns are in London and that's where I plan to keep them. People's Pubs is purely about providing something for the community and it's looking very good at the moment."

Martin became involved in the pub trade in 1993 when he bought a run-down boozer in Brighton called the Squid and Starfish.

Joined by then business partner Simon Kirby he refurbished and remarketed the venue with such success that before long he was weighing up the next project.

"When we started out the pub trade in Brighton was very different and very traditional. We looked to change that," he said.

"Our second pub was the Fortune of War on the sea front. We took over from an old chap who didn't open on sunny days because he couldn't be bothered.

"Our initial investment was £45,000. By the end of the second week of opening we had taken £45,000."

It must have seemed obvious to Martin and Simon that they had a Midas touch with pubs and from there they set about revolutionising the industry in Brighton.

They bought up as many venues along the sea front as they could at a time when the council was happy to oblige with licences and regenerated the area.

During a seven-year period of grind they took on 28 venues and as they worked the pub trade boomed. This led to approaches from emerging operators, including people who are now at Punch.

"We had gone from a £27,000 profit in our first year to a £21m turnover and two-year profit of £2.4m by 2000," Martin said.

"At that point we had decided to expand out of Brighton but a family tragedy led us in another direction and so we re-branded and sold the operation. The sale was a cash deal and cut me out of C-Side completely so I went off to sail around the world.

"We had a lot of success in a short time and that was because we always kept our business individual. At its peak C-Side was running 28 sites but it was never corporate. "I've always had a hands-on approach and know my staff well. I'll also go into the pubs and bars and make changes while I'm there if I think they're needed. There's a real homogeny in high street pubs these days, and too few characters in the trade."

When Martin sold C-Side he said he at first felt lost without the 70-hour week and constant pressure of running a business. He had to think hard about his next step but now he is firmly back in the trade, the obvious question is what next?

"I'm still a businessman and I'll screw all the money I can out of my investments, but I want People's Pubs to work and after a couple of months I'll approach pubcos with it. It's a win-win situation for them, they'll still make money and it's great PR. It should take off."

If Martin puts half as much effort into it as he has his other ventures this will no doubt be the case.

Related topics: Other operators