Last man standing?

By Matt Eley Matt

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Trade groups, Industry, Advocacy, Lobbying, Nick bish

There is a definite sense of a changing of the guard at the industry's trade groups. Rob Hayward's departure from the British Beer & Pub...

There is a definite sense of a changing of the guard at the industry's trade groups.

Rob Hayward's departure from the British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA) a few weeks ago took most by surprise. Meanwhile, the start of the year saw John McNamara replaced by Neil Robertson at the BII and by the end of 2009, veteran campaigner Tony Payne will have retired from the Federation of Licensed Victuallers Associations.

In this respect, it must feel like a case of last man standing for Nick Bish, who has been the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers' (ALMR) chief executive since 1991. But despite 18 years at the helm, the 60-year-old is showing no signs of stepping aside.

"I'm here for a good bit longer yet," he explains. "I came in at the bottom of a recession and I don't intend to go out at the bottom of the next one. There's too much to do and it's too exciting."

One voice

One item on Bish's 'to do' list and those of his trade group peers will be attempting to solve the perennial problem of how the industry can speak with a unified voice.

Typically of a man who spends many hours at the group's modest West London offices closely examining plans for yet more legislation, the first problem he picks is within the question itself.

"You tell me what the industry is and I'll tell you how to unite it," he says. "Because all at the same time we are called hospitality, alcohol, tourism, the beer industry, the pub industry. There are sectors and sub-sectors and salami slices of interest right across it.

"The trick is to establish where we all agree and assemble that argument quickly and authoritatively and present it to whoever it needs to be presented to.

"So if an issue arises that is specific to one sector or sub-sector we can have a coherent answer to that question and not be constrained because we also happen to be part of a wider group who may be competing or partially competing."Licensee representation

He rejects the idea there are too many fragmented voices, but does see a gaping hole for someone to champion those at the coal-face - your average publicans.

"The lack of representation for individual licensees is hugely significant and has been fatally ignored by the industry for far too long," he says.

"Fair Pint (the campaign group fighting for an end to the tie) makes a good point. I'm not saying it's entirely right, but it's a good point made articulately; the fact that they are there and listened to is because there is no other representation."

So where could this representation come from? The ALMR, perhaps? The group's cancellation of Sky's membership and Bish's anti-tie comments at the Business and Enterprise Committee (BEC) inquiry sessions before Christmas would certainly have resonated with many licensees.

But he isn't biting. "I think it would change the dynamic of ALMR for us to do it," he says. "But in terms of industry unity, something's got to happen.

"It needs a serious think-tank and a serious push from everyone who wishes the industry well, because such a group could and should be created out of generosity of spirit.

"Find the money from somewhere, put in a good team, find someone who is passionately interested in the industry."


So, short of creating this new group, is there anyone out there already who could do the job?

Although the BII is not a lobby group, Bish believes it could take on the mantle.

"It seems to me the BII needs to look very carefully at how it wants to proceed," he says. "There is an opportunity for it to represent licensees but equally it is constrained by its charitable status.

"BII has 13,000 to 14,000 members. They are probably by self-selection and definition the better, more experienced, longer-lasting licensees around.

"The trouble is that they are, when all is said and done, subscribers to the ethos of the BII - quality, standards, professionalism - and are examples of those virtues.

"They are not subscribing in any way to a group that represents them in a political or lobbying sense. The fact the BII has done so is more by accident than design and more by default because there is a vacuum elswhere."

And the BII has this week indicated it is willing to go as far as "reflecting" the views of its members, but is still uncomfortable with the terms "lobbying" and "representation".

Bish also points to Pubwatch and the Federation of Small Businesses as groups that could have more of a role in representing licensees.

One group we can be fairly sure will not be going down that route is the BBPA, which seems to have a big enough problem trying to fight the corner of both the brewers and the bigger retailers.

Its current internal examination is no bad thing, according to Bish.

He adds: "I think the current issues - duty hikes, the anti-alcohol lobby, the BEC inquiry against the background of the nightmare economic situation have been a real reality check for the BBPA. Its members are asking themselves the question of what it does, who it does it for and how.

"I think it's a good thing they are looking at themselves carefully at the moment. I have no idea what will come from it. All I know is that ALMR will carry on doing what we do for the industry to the best of our ability."

It has been suggested the trade groups do not function together as well as they might, but Bish describes that assumption as "not at all accurate" and points to occasions when the groups have worked together to avert threats before they have become government policy.

The ALMR and the tie

Of course, Bish was sitting with the now departed Hayward and McNamara at the BEC inquiry when he made his comments about the tie.

For the record, he is keen to clarify that the ALMR's position on the tie is "developing".

Once again, it is the question itself that isn't quite right.

"The ALMR does not think the tie per se is bad and should go," he says. "It's the wrong question.

"The real issue is about money and fairness and perceived fairness.

"The answer is the transparency and fairness of the divisible profit within a leased estate."

He explains that as the market declines the tenant tends to get squeezed by the pubco, leading to understandable tension.

"If the industry was being invented today there probably wouldn't be a tie, but we all know where we came from so this debate is a product of our history and we must manage our way forward to a sensible, fair outcome," he says.

So what of the future? Bish is planning on sticking around and is keen to do his bit for a trade he clearly retains a passion for.

"It's a privileged position, but it is also slightly insulated from the realities of business endured by operators in the bad times as well as enjoyed by them in the good times. We are always there for them but when times are tough that's when people need their trade association," he says.

"I can't stop it raining, but we can put up an umbrella and we can all take shelter under it."

Now there's an image of industry unity.

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