The Big Interview: Rupert Clevely, Geronimo Inns

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Clevely: "I’m a very creative, self-motivated person and I have to be doing something. This is my dream job — it’s a really exciting place to be"
Clevely: "I’m a very creative, self-motivated person and I have to be doing something. This is my dream job — it’s a really exciting place to be"
The old saying ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ doesn’t quite cut it for Geronimo Inns founder Rupert Clevely, who clearly prefers a different version — ‘if it ain’t broke, it’s still worth tinkering with’.

Geronimo Inns’ portfolio of 33 impressive pubs is well known for its unusual and innovative interior designs, for which full credit should go to Clevely’s wife, Jo. The Oyster Shed, where we are meeting, is one of Geronimo’s most recent unveilings.

It is decked out to look like a boat house with wooden banquettes adorned with cushions and floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over the Thames, with views of the newly-completed Shard.

As the manager brings over his drink Clevely comments on what “looks like a really good coffee” before having a brief chat.

Geronimo Inns has expanded rapidly over the past 18 months, adding six sites, and is now approaching a time of consolidation.

“With Geronimo we need to be careful not to grow too quickly,” says Clevely. “We’re at that limit now where we’ve grown a lot and need to put our foot gently on the brake, though if something amazing comes up we’ll look at it.

He reads the numbers every day. “The most important thing in these businesses is the detail. If trading is soft there is always a reason — you can’t just say it’s because it rained that day. Normally the reason is that you’re not doing something very well. The numbers tell the story.”

Despite his caution, Geronimo is trading against the tide, with spend per head up at all sites in food and drink at a time when many operators are reporting a downturn.

“We are a wet-led business, but food drives 70% or 80% of drink sales,” says Clevely.

“I think the change towards drinkers is a reflection of the economy — it’s nice to go out for a drink when times are tough.” The group’s city sites trade at 60% wet, while its three sites at Heathrow are 62% the other way.

“I think people are moving away from restaurants in favour of a good meal at a good pub. The main trend emerging is customers’ increased expectations. They want good food, service, a smiley face and they won’t stand for long wait times.”

Geronimo doesn’t believe in “corporate” comment cards, but each menu encourages customers to phone or email with feedback, which is responded to directly by Clevely and logged in a complaints book.

On the move

But sitting behind a desk is not what he was made for, as his six E grades at O-level testify.

“I am a very self-motivated creative person and I have to be doing something. I love the creation of exciting places and living in a very innovative, fast-moving world. This is my dream job.

"If I wasn’t doing this I would want to own or run a luxury brand. That is a really exciting place to be and I loved my 20 years with Veuve Clicquot.”

A typical day includes several meetings, a spell in the office and visits to sites. For all his work, though, Clevely sets great store in life balance. He aims to be home by 7pm each night for some family time with Jo and his two younger daughters  — his eldest is off in Australia.

He describes himself as a “tough dad”, but admits that he can be a pushover — the family’s Dalmatian and Tibetan Terrier are products of his daughters’ pleas. But luckily he is a keen sportsman so runs with the dogs are seen as something to be enjoyed. Keeping fit is high on his agenda and he’s a dedicated gym-goer, joining me today fresh from a spinning class.

Clevely’s more indulgent hobbies include skiing, sailing and racing old motor cars, which he confesses are “a bit of a passion” for him. He chooses a second-hand purple Range Rover Overfinch to get him from A to B.

Jo introduced him to skiing when they first met; she later founded Geronimo Inns with him in 1995. In 2010 the time was right to sell and Young’s bought the then 26 pubs for £60m.

The agreement was to keep the two groups separate and, other than weekly board meetings with the pub operator, not much has changed from Clevely’s point of view. He speaks of the DNA of both groups as entirely separate entities, though concedes that Young’s is among Geronimo’s greatest competition.

In-house promotion and training are key points in the group’s ethos. At the higher end staff turnover is very low and this could be to do with the autonomy they are given.

Though there is a nucleus of core dishes on the menu, chefs are free to create their own and managers are encouraged to make their own decisions in line with the company stance.

 “It is about empowering the team to deliver the vision,” explains Clevely. “The sign of a great business is when the staff don’t need the boss.”

Challenges

The greatest challenges facing Geronimo are maintaining standards as it grows, recruiting the right people and improving the training to meet consumers’ rising expectations. Costing correctly is essential too as any operator needs to make the margins somewhere. The food is all fresh, made in-house and signed off by a director of food at 70% to 71% GP, with drink coming in at 72%.

“More businesses need to look at their GPs,” says Clevely. “I hear of businesses working at 60% or similar. It’s not about end price, but about the cost of your dishes and regular stock-takes. You can’t keep pushing consumer prices up.”

Prices are kept the same across all sites from those at Heathrow to Westfield Stratford and central London.

Currently, all but one site is firmly in London with the anomaly being the Red Barn in Blindley Heath, Surrey. This could become one of many as Geronimo grows, with possibilities of sites in several directions out of London as far as the M25.

Another plan on the radar is adding bedrooms to the portfolio, which would be a new venture for the group. Young’s has a very successful hotel chain and the experience is there to be drawn on.

“The business has become much bigger than I ever imagined,” says Clevely. “It is a constant challenge to keep ahead of the curve.”
So it’s appropriate that Geronimo’s name symbolises a leap of faith. You never know quite what’s coming.

Youngs.Alma.outside

My kind of pub

“I like Young’s the Alma in Wandsworth. It has always been a favourite of mine. It’s quirky with great rooms and food, and has long  been an iconic place to meet. You can meet the boys for a drink and then the girls can come for a bite to eat.”

Key dates

1995
Geronimo Inns opens flagship site the Chelsea Ram, Chelsea

1998
Ed Turner joins as operations director

2005
First airport pub the Tin Goose opens at Heathrow. Chris Hutt joins as non-executive chairman

2006
Penta invests private equity in the business

2008
Ian Edward joins as non-executive director

2010
Young’s buys Geronimo for £60m

2011
First shopping-centre site the Cow opens at Westfeld, Stratford

2012
The Calf pop-up bar opens for six months at Westfield, Stratford

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