The Big Interview: Ashley & Kelly McCarthy

By Ellie Bothwell

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Ye old sun Old sun inn Sun

Kelly & Ashley McCarthy, licensees at Ye Old Sun Inn in Colton, North Yorks
Kelly & Ashley McCarthy, licensees at Ye Old Sun Inn in Colton, North Yorks
Ashley and Kelly McCarthy tell Ellie Bothwell how an early setback in their careers allowed them to focus on building business at Ye Old Sun Inn in Colton, North Yorkshire, where success led them to the star prize of BII Licensees of the Year.

You know what they say about pubs. You wait ages to buy your own, then two come along at once.

That’s the situation Ashley and Kelly McCarthy, this year’s BII (British Institute of Innkeeping) Licensees of the Year, found themselves grappling with four years ago.

They took on an Enterprise lease at Ye Old Sun Inn in Colton, North Yorkshire, in 2004, but 2009 was what they describe as a pivotal year — when they bought the freehold of the Sun and took on the nearby White Swan in Wighill, North Yorkshire, on a private lease, with a view to later purchasing the freehold.

It had always been their dream to run their own pub, they were feeling confident in their business, and were looking for a new challenge. But, as they tell me, it didn’t all go according to plan.

“We thought we’d get two bites of the cherry,” says Ashley. “They [the two pubs] were 10 minutes away from each other, and we thought we’d get the customer demand from both areas. In fact, we ended up confusing the market.”


Customers would visit Ye Old Sun Inn, have a fantastic time and Ashley and Kelly would recommend the White Swan. Then the clientele would wonder why one pub charged £3 extra for the same plate of fish and chips.

Ashley and Kelly could be forgiven for misdirecting their brand, but they admit the management wasn’t quite right either. They initially ran both pubs, with the same personal involvement and passion as when they just had one.

“We tried to be hands-on in two pubs and we failed,” says Ashley.

Then they delegated some of the management responsibility at the White Swan and found they were not in control of their business.

So, in 2011 they sold it, and decided to put all their passion back into Ye Old Sun Inn. It worked. After applying for the BII Licensee of the Year competition in 2009, and losing out in the final stage, they were finally awarded the accolade in June this year.

The McCarthys’ refreshing honesty about their dip into multiple operations is partly what makes them such inspiring licensees.

They had the courage to admit it wasn’t working. But the lessons they learnt make their story one that all licensees — whether or not they are considering becoming a multiple operator — should hear.

Learning curve

“Losing out on the award first time round was a learning curve — it gave us a focus, a passion, and inspired us to take the business further,” says Ashley.

“The BII saw massive craters in what we thought was an invincible product, an invincible business. And we went to work on what they said. You’ve got to take what they’re saying objectively — you can’t just be defensive about it.”

One piece of advice from other licensees they wish they had taken more seriously was going from one pub to three, rather than from one to two.

“My hat goes off to anybody that goes from one to two and can go into a succession of pubs after that. That to us was the biggest jump we’d ever done,” Kelly says.

“You can’t be hands-on in three pubs, whereas you can try and be hands-on in two, so it changes your mindset,” explains Ashley.

All in all, 2013 has been a pretty good year for the pair. The Sun has just had its most successful September trading in its nine-year history; Christmas bookings are even stronger than usual; and the McCarthys’ names — and pub’s name — have featured in every newspaper within 40 miles of Colton.

There is no doubt winning the BII award has had a huge impact on their business, but to pin their success solely on that accolade would be to do them a disservice. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to pin it on their failure.

Their operation now is slicker than ever; they know how to take control of staff, manage budgets, successfully delegate, consolidate their ideas, and create a brand. The refurbished Ye Old Sun Inn has a reputation for quality food and a community spirit.

Running two pubs gave them an opportunity to collect data from their customers about average spend and prime visiting times, but their turnover is far more now they are just concentrating on one outlet.  


They recommend that all licensees enter awards, because it is a way of rewarding staff and “the best method to analyse your business without paying for it”.

“It gives you a chance to stand back, look at everything you do and decide where you want to go,” says Kelly. “You’ve got all these industry people giving you feedback and telling you your weaknesses — that’s the hardest thing to realise.”

It also gave them a chance to forge friendships with other licensees, which has perhaps been most valuable.   

“The hospitality industry used to be all cloak and dagger. People kept things under wraps and didn’t want to give information out because they were scared of others taking it,” Kelly continues.

“But since the recession, the good operators — the ones shining through — are the ones working from what other people have done. If we had spoken to other people more before taking on a second pub we would have done a better job.”


Ashley and Kelly have recently joined the BII Business Mentor Scheme, a 45-strong team that offers first-hand advice to licensees on a range of subjects, from acquiring funding to staff training. So, what’s their best piece of advice to other licensees?

“Be open-minded and diversify because, unless you go out there and get customers, they’re not going to come in,” says Kelly. “You’ve got to give them something to remember as well, and be personal. The personality of staff does shine through to the customers — that’s where we’re blessed.”

Perhaps surprisingly, they are due to visit a second pub imminently with a view to buying it. This time, they say, the timing is right and they’ll make sure the location is too.

Ashley and Kelly are quietly confident. “We’re not in any rush — if it happens, then it has to be right,” says Kelly.

“But next time we won’t fail. That’s for certain.”

Key dates

Ashley and Kelly meet while working at the Riverside Farm pub in Skelton, York

They take on an Enterprise lease at Ye Old Sun Inn, in Colton, Yorkshire

February 2009
They are named finalists in the BII Licensees of the Year award

September 2009
The pair buy the freehold of Ye Old Sun Inn

October 2009
They take on a private free-of-tie lease at the White Swan, Wighill, North Yorkshire

Ye Old Sun Inn wins Best Freehouse in the Publican’s Morning Advertiser’s Great British Pub Awards

The duo leave the White Swan

The McCarthys win the BII Licensee of the Year crown

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