More than three years on, with Whiteside returning to the high street to head up Greggs, the question is: what has he achieved at Punch during arguably the group’s most difficult period?
He has been credited with making a genuine effort to improve the relationship between Punch and its licensees, personally visiting a number of pubs at the start of his Punch career, and authored a new partnership agreement and code of conduct.
To attract a higher calibre of partner, Punch now offers more flexibility, including free-of-tie pricing options, and has removed rent reviews (unless requested).
It reduced the number of pubs per partner development manager, and had success with its partner roadshows and Punch Buying Club, which has taken about 150,000 orders since its conception.
While rival Enterprise Inns battened down the hatches, Whiteside was keen to engage both the media and the industry as a whole, bringing many on-side to his long-term vision for the company, especially after its demerger from Spirit in August 2011.
Unfortunately, the performance of the group, unlike Enterprise, has been more difficult to turn around.
Last month, the group pointed out that its average profit per pub was stable and overall profit performance was in line with management expectations.
Net income in its c.3,000-strong core estate was down 5% on a like-for-like basis in the first-half of the year.
The lack of flexibility in the group’s capital structure has overshadowed his attempts to ‘turn the tanker around’, so to speak. Its trading has become a sideshow until the restructuring talks are concluded.
It could be up to 12 to 18 months before the group fully sees the fruits of Whiteside’s operational endeavours, a period that the man himself seemed unwilling to wait for as the restructuring talks continue.
The way the group has restructured the management team after the news of his departure, with Steve Billingham as executive chairman and Neil Griffiths as
chief operating officer, suggests the company has already resigned itself to being without a chief executive until the restructuring discussions have been concluded.
It is hard to see anyone taking on the job with the talks hanging over the business.
In a climate when the whole industry is recalibrating from short-termism to playing the long game, Whiteside’s legacy at Punch may take some time to become fully clear and appreciated.
He may cop some flak for jumping ship while the turnaround at Punch is still a work in progress, but the reality is that he had done a decent shift, wrestling with the legacy of others, and is leaving a difficult role for what many see as one of the high street’s plum jobs.