The Big Interview: Tim Burrows, BII director of education and training

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Reasons to be cheerful: Tim Burrows is tackling his new role of director of education and training with great energy
Reasons to be cheerful: Tim Burrows is tackling his new role of director of education and training with great energy
He likes to have a laugh, but that didn’t stop Tim Burrows from plunging into the doom and gloom of the pub industry. Phil Mellows meets the new man brightening things up at the BII

So what attracted Tim Burrows to the BII (British Institute of Innkeeping)? It can’t have been the money. He must have been on a fair old whack at his previous job.

No, it turns out that the irresistible temptation for Burrows was something that the pub industry is wonderfully good at.

“One of the reasons I took the job was that, from the outside anyway, it was very much doom and gloom,” he says. “If you go into a flourishing sector it’s not the same. This way it challenges you to do something.

“The only way is up,” he adds, without quite breaking into song.

Burrows is one of those cheerful characters who might indeed break into song from time to time, an effervescent bundle of energy who you can really believe has, as reports have it, boosted morale at the troubled organisation he joined only a few months back.

As the new director of education and training at the BII he’s been getting in a bit of learning himself — discovering that the industry is not all doom and gloom, once you get to know it.

“I’ve met some really good people, and I’ve just let them rant at me,” he says. “I didn’t even know how beer was brewed until I went to Fuller’s the other day. Now I reckon I could become a publican!

“I know everything about regulation. When I walk past bouncers in the street I find myself checking their badges. I want to sit the door supervisor’s qualification myself.

“Perhaps what the industry’s going through now with the pub closures is a matter of natural selection, the bad running of businesses in the past coming through. I’ve been talking a lot to successful publicans, so it’s not all doom and gloom, and there’s a lot I can offer to build on that.

“It’s been brilliant for me so far,” he adds. “There are such talented people at the BII. And we have a laugh.”

A laugh? At the BII? Doesn’t he know about the £400,000 deficit? But perhaps Burrows is the breath of fresh, invigorating air that the body really needs.

Humble beginnings

The London boy started modestly enough, teaching at Southgate College in unfashionable Enfield and spending the next 15 years developing his career at various colleges and universities around the country.

At the turn of the century he got the chance to find his fortune in the private sector, ending up at Kaplan Financial, the educational arm of the Washington Post publishing empire.

It was there that he set up the higher-education division, effectively a private university.

“I was at Kaplan Financial for six years and working at the BII is a fantastic opportunity to do what I did there in such a different sector,” he says. “And it’s a sector that has always interested me.”

He certainly wasted no time in making his mark. Within weeks, on his initiative, a new qualifications brochure had appeared.

“One of the things I want to do is address elements of the marketing,” he says. “There was no brochure for the BII when I got here, there was nothing that set out the proposition. We needed a tool, something to make it all simpler.

“A lot of people don’t understand the qualification levels. So we have simplified that.

“Unlike the other awarding bodies that have come up in our shadow we have the kudos of being the professional body for the industry, and we’ll be promoting that.

“We also have to find out how we can work better for the membership, get our message clear, and ultimately we want to create a lifelong learning platform for the industry.”

Burrows talks about the need to “take a step back before you take a step forward” and is currently reviewing the BII Awarding Body’s long list of qualifications, which he describes as a “lottery machine”.

“We have got to make sure the portfolio is fit for purpose. Some qualifications are not appropriate. We want to be leaner and fitter. We’ve got to look at e-learning, handbooks, flexible learning. We must be able to create accessible career routes for people.

“I want to sit the Award in Beer & Cellar Quality, too. It’s really popular, but I want to know whether we can add any units to it.

“There’s a lot of good stuff there. But time is the big issue in this industry. Pubs don’t want to release staff for long periods. They want it short and sweet.”

Striking a balance

The challenge is to square that need with the range of skills required to run a modern pub.

“It’s not just pulling pints, it’s food, customer service — it’s the most diverse sector. There’s so much to encompass here.”

Burrows is already a big fan of JD Wetherspoon, at least from a training point of view.

“It has a great respect for learning. McDonald’s is like that too.”

But he knows where the BII should be steering its efforts.

“Freehouses are growing and they have very different needs to pubcos,” he says. “Finances and cash flow are key things for them, making the figures work. Food operations are important too, being able to serve someone lunch in 35 minutes. Customer service is the biggest thing and not enough people know that.

There are so many demands on everyone in the sector.”

Another priority is apprenticeships, following the BII’s June ‘summit’ on the issue and subsequent roadshows.

“Already we have had a good response from the colleges — we have 20 new providers on board to deliver apprenticeships.

“We are getting the message out to pubs too, and we have an excellent framework in place.

“The focus will be on apprenticeships at levels 2 and 3, and operators can get significant Government funding to take part in that. There’s £4,800 available to train someone to level 2, for instance.

“But there’s an opportunity to develop further pathways. We are also looking at higher-level apprenticeships aimed at young people who feel they can’t afford to go to university now.”

Burrows is alluding to the loan that a student has to take out to pay up to £9,000 in fees.

Professional qualifications are exempted from this, so the thinking is that pub operators could fill the gap by offering a university education to employees.

“We want to work to create higher-level qualifications and achieve undergraduate success. For those that want a professional career, this business can provide it.

“It’s fun as well. I must have met 60 or 70 publicans over the past few months. They haven’t been to Eton and Cambridge, but they work hard and put great value in their staff. It’s quite unique, I think.

“Pub staff are very proud of what they do, and we have to take note of that and build on it.

“This industry has changed so much. And the rewards for people making a success of it are huge.”

Burrows knows the BII has to raise itself to meet that potential, and he could be just the man to give it the lift it needs.

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