Trade veteran's historic move

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A pub saved from developers by a philanthropic local historian, and since laid low by flooding, has become the latest addition to recently...

A pub saved from developers by a philanthropic local historian, and since laid low by flooding, has become the latest addition to recently established pub company Tequilla Leisure.

The Mill of the Black Monks in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, opened in June with takings of £12,000 on its launch night. The pub, which has a history as a mill and priory, dates back to 1140. It became the flagship of Tequilla Leisure's 12-strong estate in the north of England.

Sheffield-headquartered Tequilla was established in August 2007 by pub industry veteran Gerry McDermott after he sold his previous concern, the Business Plan Pub Company, to local competitor JMA Leisure for £1.1m in May last year.

Business Plan was a tenanted pubco, with McDermott "buying up three freeholds as shells, doing them up, putting in tenants and spinning the business round". Tequilla, on the other hand, is a managed business consisting largely of Enterprise and Punch leases. He has been frustrated in his attempts to acquire bank funding to purchase more freehouses. It is a shift indicative of the way the market has changed in this short period of time, according to McDermott.

"My previous life was with a tenanted estate and freehouses, but the way the market is at the moment, we can't seem to get anything freehold because the banks are saying they're not lending money," he says.

"That's not to say in 12 months' time we won't split it into a tenanted estate. There are some nice freehouses on the market precisely because of the market conditions. I'll just wait until the time is right."

It is this waiting game that Tequilla Leisure is putting its faith in at the moment. McDermott has had a 32-year career in the pub trade, with roles at Grand Metropolitan, Whitbread and Scottish & Newcastle Pub Enterprises, and claims the market conditions can be weathered, as they have been in the past, by small pub companies such as his.

"Banks simply don't want to do anything with the pub trade during a credit crunch," he says. "However, we have been here before, we have seen these same problems before. There will be opportunities out there; you just have to be patient and you will find them."

For now, however, he is concentrating on the current business model. This includes community and food-led pubs in Sheffield, Chesterfield and Rotherham and a newly acquired student venue. The Mill of the Black Monks is the big one, though, and McDermott wants to make it a pub that turns profits of between £10,000 and £12,000 a week.

He claims that the large, food-led site was achieving this before the floods that hit this part of the country last summer caused it to close. There are plans to build on its obvious historical appeal by establishing a wedding and function trade, and planning permission has been granted for the addition of 24 letting rooms.

All this at a pub that's future was at one point in doubt. Some time before Tequilla Leisure took on the tenancy from archaeologist

owner Malcolm Lister, the Mill of the Black Monks had been in the hands of developers.

Lister had approached the developers with a view to buying it back due to the respect he had for the site as a historical specimen to be preserved. "Places of this calibre deserve to be exposed to the public," Lister says.

More dramatic members of the on-trade may say the same of pubs in general, with doom-mongers claiming the obituary of the traditional British pub model has already been written. Gerry McDermott and Tequilla Leisure are among the many hoping it has not.

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