She currently runs two pubs, the food-led Magnet Hotel in Castleford, Leeds, and wet-led community pub the Victoria Hotel in nearby Allerton Bywater. The Victoria Hotel could — as colleague and FLVA director Martin Caffrey points out — have been one more pub closure statistic due to its rural location in a small village. However, thanks to Dwan’s business nous and determination, it’s been going strong for 25 years.
1990-present: Takes over the Victoria Hotel in Allerton Bywater
Becomes multiple site operator with 13 sites
Becomes a member of the FLVA
Downsizes to two pubs following the death of her partner
Becomes FVLA junior vice-president
Appointed FLVA president
“Pubs have to keep evolving,” she says. “When I first came into the trade, it was all Tetley’s hand pull; it was a mining community; we didn’t sell wine. Now it’s becoming a commuter village so you must have the things commuters want, like food and wine. There needs to be a nice place for them to come so you have to keep moving forward.
“A lot of people will say to you ‘running a pub is a way of life’, and yes, it is, but it’s also a business and you have to detach yourself sometimes or you can be emotionally irresponsible.”
It’s this pragmatic approach that makes Dwan a force to be reckoned with in the FLVA, which she says is the only tenants’ organisation run by and for licensees. The FVLA helps guide its members through any potential sticky patches, from rates bills to rent reviews, and since becoming involved 15 years ago, Dwan says she’s only missed a handful of meetings. Supporting licensees who might be struggling with the minefield of paperwork that comes with being in the trade and explaining the implications of the statutory pubs code coming into force at the end of May is a big part of her role.
“It’s easier to talk to people because I’m a licensee myself. It (the code) is fine for me because I’m dealing with it all the time and I’ve had quite a few agreements. But if you’re a licensee who has been in a pub for 15 years, you’ve paid your rent, haven’t really had to deal with your pub company and suddenly the MRO (market rent-only option) is splashed all over the papers, your BDM is coming in and saying ‘well if you’re free-of-tie you won’t be able to get this, that and the other’ — my heart goes out to them.
“If I wasn’t part of the FLVA and was just in the Victoria on a 20-year lease and I was getting on with my business quite happily, my BDM calls once a month and then I was suddenly reading about the MRO and customers over the bar were asking about going free-of-tie, I’d be in the same boat.”
Although Dwan recognises that some licensees will be better off severing the tie, she says she wants to ensure tenants take the decision with their eyes wide open. “We just don’t want to see people jumping into it automatically thinking ‘oh, we can go free-of-tie and we’re going to make loads of money’. There’s a percentage that do think that.”
Dwan describes the FLVA as a “balanced adversary” to the pub companies, there to help and support tenants but equally unafraid to tell them if they’re in the wrong.
“Pub companies are businesses, we’re a business and we’re in this together for better or worse. A lot of the problems I find are because people don’t look at their agreements properly when they go in. They go in blindfolded and haven’t done their figures. If my pub is empty, that’s my fault. It’s not the pubco’s fault. You can’t blame other people. Take responsibility for the business and what you put in to it.”
She points to one of her own pubs, the Enterprise-owned Magnet, as an example of the tied model working as it should.
“We (the FLVA) totally agree with the tie. Enterprise is my landlord at the Magnet and came in and
did a £150,000 refurb. The pub had got very old and needed a lot of
work. I couldn’t afford £150,000 and, without it, the pub would have died. We made an agreement, I’m happy, they’re happy and the business has gone on. If my agreement was rent only, I wouldn’t have the money to put in and then where do you go? The banks won’t loan.”
Get back to trust
However, the trade does need to get back to a place of trust, she argues, something she feels has been lost during her time.
“It used to be that your BDM would come in with a new agreement, you would say ‘is there anything in there that I need to see’ and they would point out what has changed. We had a brilliant relationship, whereas now some of the current BDMs are seeing what they can get out of you. No one is an angel and all the pub companies have been good or bad but, in the past, we weren’t playing poker with each other.
“If you had a bad week or a bad month, you could ring up and sort something out. Now there’s no sense of ‘we know that person, they’ve been at that pub a long time’. We need to get back to knowing that individual.”
Despite some of the well-documented struggles facing licensees, Dwan has no time for moaning. Yes, she admits, licensees have more competition, but it’s up to them and no one else to win customers back.
“Before, everything evolved around the pub. Now, people go out for meals, they go to the gym, they go bowling and a lot of the current generation follow brands, they’ve been brought up with McDonald’s, Wetherspoon’s, Nando’s. I suppose that’s made it a bit harder for us.
“But there’s no point me standing behind the counter giving out about brands or the supermarkets. They’re not going to go away, they’re not going to stop selling alcohol, so there’s no point whingeing. We have to think about what can we do better; we can provide a lovely ambience, a lovely pint of craft beer and something to eat, and everyone’s welcome.”
There’s a lot of licensees starting out in the trade who could learn from Michelle Dwan. She’s faced many of the issues experienced voices in the trade argue are killings pubs; the tie, increased competition, changing consumer behaviour, and has built a successful community pub where others would have failed. FLVA members should sleep easier knowing they’ve got Dwan fighting their corner.