In the complex and immersive environment of running a pub, it can sometimes be hard to let go.
Already in this series on pub success, we’ve met a first-time publican who felt his big breakthrough was reaching the point where he could entrust members of the team to allow some head-clearing time — a day, a morning, an afternoon away from the pub.
But there’s a point when that need to delegate shifts from being desirable to unavoidable — and that’s when you decide to go multiple.
“Letting go can be the hardest thing,” says Richard Hartley, director of online hospitality staff management service S4Labour.
“The biggest challenge facing someone taking on a second or third site is that you can’t see everything that’s going on.”
As a result, he argues, getting reliable, efficient and trustworthy managers ought to be the number one priority for any licensee making the step up.
“If you have one site, very often it means you’re living above the shop and have a feel for what’s
going on,” adds Hartley.
“If you buy a second, you need a window into the business when you’re not there, so you’re able to take that step back.”
He argues that key areas to keep a tight rein on for the fledgling multiple operator are an appreciation of sites’ sales patterns, control of wage costs and a handle on service delivery.
Some of the information for this can come from EPoS and sources such as TripAdvisor, but it’s the people in place who make it all come together.
“Everything you do has got to be through people,” says Hartley.
“You have to empower people to deliver your standards and you have to provide sensible targets so that they know what those standards are. They need to know what good looks like.”
Joe Cussens and Justin Sleath own the Bath Pub Company, which operates three gastropubs in the city, having started out with a single site, the Marlborough Tavern, in 2006.
Cussens agrees that getting the right people and managing a big team can be the hardest part of going multiple.
“The biggest change is that you go from working your own pub all the time to defining the offering and employing someone else to put it into practice. You’re running a company and no longer just a pub.
“That’s probably the biggest challenge for people who have only run one pub before. It’s probably easier for people who come in with an aptitude for business who have organised budgets, teams of people and managed client relationships.
“You sometimes have to make difficult decisions about people and that can be tricky if you don’t have that in your make-up,” says Cussens.
“It’s also important to make sure you have robust systems and practices in place — the bits that the customer never sees.”
Lawson Mountstevens, managing director of Star Pubs & Bars, says good systems are essential to keep multiple sites on track.
“With more than one pub, you can’t be centre stage in all of them,” he says. “This can be hard if you love the social side of the job.
“You won’t have time to micromanage others so you must be able to let go while putting reporting systems in place to give you a good handle on what’s going on.
“When you’re not on site as much, good communication and motivational skills are also key to enthuse managers and staff with your vision.”
Cussens and Sleath originally took on the Marlborough as a Punch lease before buying the freehold in 2009, subsequently becoming multiple operators with the addition of the Enterprise Inns lease on the Chequers, followed by the Hare & Hounds, a Star Pubs & Bars lease.
“The second pub was a harder job,” says Cussens, “and there can be a certain amount of overconfidence if you’ve had a good start.”
The first two pubs are in especially close proximity, so allowing them to create their own identities under the Bath Pub Company umbrella was important, says Cussens.
Managers are encouraged to run the outlets as if they actually owned them and each chef creates a bespoke menu.
“We look for positive, enthusiastic people but we don’t have time for people with big egos,”
“A certain amount of humility is important — people need to be personable and professional. If you’ve got a clear idea of your company culture it helps to give you an identity and attracts the right kinds of people.”
Strike a balance
There’s a balance to be struck for small pubcos between having sites so close as to risk taking each other’s trade or too far apart to make operational logistics difficult.
“With hindsight, the Chequers may have been a bit close to the Marlborough,” says Cussens.
“But although we have some aspects that we aim for across them all, such as the quality of food and service, there is a certain amount of differentiation. We’re not like a big chain where you’re just rolling out the same format each time.”
One of the main attractions in going multiple is the economies of scale that come with growth in any business sector.
“There are cost savings and it can give you a bit of buying muscle,” says Cussens. “If you’re turning
over £500,000 a year you’re going to get a better deal than if you’re making £100,000.”
Some operational aspects also become easier as licensees roll out new sites.
“By the time you’re getting to your third or fourth, you’ve also done a lot of the hard work of de-
fining your offering or systems,” Cussens adds. “You don’t have to reinvent all that stuff because
you’ve built the template that you can apply to the new site.”
Clive Price aims for a recognisable identity and reliable offering across the six sites in his Surrey-based Barons Pub Co.
“Each site has to stand alone as a business in its own right,” says Price, who maintains that good
site selection is vital when it comes to adding to a pub chain, just as it is in finding the first one.
“We see the benefit of having a set of standards and replicating them well across various sites. It gives you better business control.”
He bought his first pub, the Star at Leatherhead, in 2002, and added the Cricketers at Horsell Birch, also in Surrey exactly 10 years ago, in March 2006.
“It really is a leap of faith, going from being the public face of the business and doing everything in
it,” he says. “Customers get used to seeing you behind the bar and you can feel you’re letting people down by not being there.
“You need a certain mindset,” he adds. “I was always clear in my own mind that I was building a business, not just running a pub.
“One of the things I did at that time, which I would recommend, is drawing up a company structure of how you’d like things to look in 10 years’ time, and the roles you’d envisage having, whether it’s board members, area managers, pub managers and so on.
“It’s an interesting exercise and what we have today, wouldn’t be too far away from what we set out back then.
“It can help you make decisions along the way about whether you should add a new role and give you a clear idea about how those roles are adding value to the business.”