The Big Interview: Mahdis Neghabian, BII Licensee of the Year

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Bright light: the BII Licensee of the Year can expect some big job offers
Bright light: the BII Licensee of the Year can expect some big job offers
Mahdis Neghabian is getting a Mini. But not until she passes her driving test. And that’s on a ‘to-do list’ that has just got a lot longer, after she was named BII Licensee of the Year (LOTY) last month.

The car is a reward from her boss Peter Linacre for winning the title, and also, no doubt, for turning his Camden Eye pub into a £1m-a-year, FMT-busting customer magnet.

She has new friends in high places, including Michelle Mone — the founder of the Ultimo lingerie company — who presented her with the BII award, hung out with her after the event and invited her to a product launch a few days later.

And she can expect some interesting job offers in the months to come. As her name was announced, I overheard one pubco boss at the BII lunch tell a member of his team: “Get her into one of our pubs ASAP.”

Neghabian knows that new opportunities will come her way this year. And so — surely — does Linacre. She doesn’t want to appear ungrateful to him — and there may yet be opportunities at his New Pub Company — but she also doesn’t want to pass up the chance to move on to something bigger and better.

“I love my job,” she says. “But I don’t want to be a general manager (GM) for ever. I’ve lived in the flat above the Camden Eye for six
years, and I love that too. My living situation is amazing. I’ve fixed it up in a way that’s very personal to me and I don’t pay rent. So that’s a big consideration.”

The BII LOYT judges — of which I was one — agreed that Neghabian had left no stone unturned in her quest to achieve maximum value from this 1,000sq ft Scottish & Newcastle Pub Company-leased pub. When she arrived aged 26 in 2006, it wasn’t even that big. It was a tiny, one-room pub taking less than £5,000 per week. And it was full of undesirables.

“It was a horrible place,” she re-calls, “full of drug dealers, prostitutes and pimps.” Neghabian says she simply asked them to leave, and they did. “Putting me in the pub was a clever move by Peter. There was some racism towards me and a few threats from some Hell’s Angels,” she recalls, matter-of-factly, “but no violence. I identified one gang leader as the main guy, and one day I told him not to come back again. He shook my hand and said: ‘I respect that.’ He never returned, and slowly a new crowd emerged.”

The Camden Eye is next to Camden Town Tube station and, once clear of the criminal element, it began to attract an eclectic mix of tourists, regulars, artists and musicians — drawn by the pub’s fast-improving reputation.

With a new customer base came the opportunity to change the retail offer. “We had six spirits, plus Foster’s, John Smith’s and one cask-ale line — which was disgusting. Now we have nearly 200 spirits on offer and a strong range of beer.”

The building also needed work. “I had to persuade Peter to invest,” says Neghabian. “It took me a while to get him to trust me, and during that time I got very frustrated.” But she made her case and won the argument, and so began the transformation. And the spending. “I didn’t always ask permission, and I sometimes spent too much — especially in John Lewis. I love John Lewis.”

She winces as she remembers a shopping trip that featured wall-paper at £75 a roll.

“I opened up the lounge,” she says, “which was my office, and immediately doubled the trading area. It’s now full every weekend and weekday evening.”

There are DJ nights on Fridays and Saturdays, which pack out the pub until 3am and generate £8,000-worth of nightly sales. It means some late shifts for Neghabian, but the Camden Eye isn’t all about loud, high-energy events.

On Wednesdays there is a life-drawing class in the lounge. Neghabian informs me that her nudes often recline on the very table at which we are conducting the interview. And that if I stick around I might meet the attractive French girl who sometimes sits au naturelle. But in the great tradition of journalism, I had made my excuses and left before the young lady arrived.

But back to the story…

Neghabian entered, but failed to make the final for last year’s LOTY, and immediately sought detailed feedback from the BII to know where she had gone wrong.

She visited her predecessor LOTY Darren Lingley to ask him what he did to impress the judges. And she put all her findings into action in a 12-month frenzy of improvement to win this year’s award.

She admits she wasn’t ready for the award last year, and says she’s now much more disciplined. She also gives herself the time to go out and see what the competition is doing, and focuses much more on staff training and development.

Neghabian pays tribute to her team at the Camden Eye. She has recruited well, and they have rewarded her with long service, energy and effort. “I never really looked at their CVs,” she says. “I just talked to them and immediately knew I wanted to work with them.”

Her intuition is combined with an independent streak that appears to be outgrowing her current managed-house situation. “People think GMs are babied. I’m not. I have a business degree and I know what I’m doing.”

Camden.Eye
Camden Eye: now attracting tourists, regulars, artists and musicians

Neghabian admits that most of the big opportunities at the Camden Eye have been explored and exploited. But in a further act of remodelling, she has the builders in, moving the men’s toilets downstairs to create a further 20% of trading space — which could increase turnover by a similar percentage, she believes. But after that?

We talk about her ideal pub. “It’s probably a London pub in Travelcard zone 1 or 2. An amazing, cool building with some outdoor space [the Camden Eye has none]. I’d like a big kitchen so I could offer great food of a consistently high quality. And I’d like to attract families, dogs and cats.”

Cats? “Yes, why not,” she says.

She says she’s probably talking about a lease — so she can personally financially benefit from her hard work — but she’s not sure. Neghabian admits she’s not a saver — she likes shopping too much — and hasn’t set aside a pot of money to invest.

But she’s in the shop window for the next year as BII LOTY. In that capacity she will speak in front of people of influence at various conferences and events while representing the institute — of which she is an ardent advocate.

And she’ll do it very well. The BII is offering Neghabian media training and public-speaking coaching. But they must be careful not to cut and polish this diamond too much. Her story is already powerful, passionate and persuasive, and her charm is natural.

When you meet her — and you should — you’ll fall a little bit in love with Mahdis Neghabian. I did.

Background to a winner

Neghabian’s background tells an extraordinary story. She grew up in Mashad, Iran’s second city. But in 1989 her father — an architect — moved the family to Sweden. They were actually en route to Canada but due to passport problems ended up in Gothenburg. “It’s very random,” she admits.

Neghabian inherited some of her dad’s maths genius and did well at school, setting her sights on a career as a banker. “I’d have been a nice banker,” she muses, “and I would probably have been more financially secure than I am as a pub GM, but I wouldn’t have had as much fun.”

Sweden was “lovely but slow-paced”, so she headed to Birmingham to continue her studies. Why Birmingham? “Because the course [a Bachelor of Commerce degree] was half the price of the same one in London, and they accepted my application.”

Neghabian didn’t work during her degree course — something she now admits was a mistake. “I didn’t realise the value of work experience. So when I moved to London after university, no one would offer me a job.”

Eventually she landed some bar work at Linacre’s Oh Bar — also in Camden. She was assistant manager within six months, but eventually resigned to work as an estate agent in Canary Wharf.

“I was really excited about that job,” she says, “but the manager didn’t like me and it didn’t last. I came back to the Oh Bar to work some shifts, and ended up managing the place when the GM went on holiday.

“And that’s when I was offered the manager’s job at the Camden Eye.”

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