When Mike Clist called time on his career at Fuller’s last autumn, he had grand plans of putting his feet up, watching more cricket and, generally, enjoying a well-earned rest.
Then, a few weeks later, the phone rang and Clist took a call which shelved those plans for a quiet life. Anthony Pender, chairman of the British Institute of Innkeeping (BII) wanted him to become part-time managing director following the departure of previous incumbent Tim Hulme.
Now, several months on, that role has been upgraded to chief executive and, as Clist jokes, means he is working “about nine days a week”.
As a former operations director of Fuller’s tenanted division and backed by decades of experience at Allied Breweries, the business that later became Allied Domecq and then Punch Taverns, Clist feels he is a great fit for the organisation.
Indeed, at the time of the announcement, Pender described Clist’s appointment as “a real coup for BII members”. He stated: “Not only is he particularly suited for this role because of his experience in the tenanted environment but, having been a trustee for a number of years, Mike is already completely aligned with the BII.”
With his feet now fully under the table, Clist certainly has no regrets in agreeing to take the role. We chat at the Somerstown Coffee House, close to St Pancras station in London, and part of Pender’s six-strong Yummy Pub Co group. “I strongly felt I could bring something to the party. I felt that the work I had done over the years in the industry had given me the experience.
"I suppose it’s a change in terms of someone from a pub background coming in to lead but I felt I could bring something different. Yes, it’s hard work and completely different from my old job but it’s been great fun.”
Clist has stated publicly that the organisation, established 35 years ago, has lost its way in recent years and needed to concentrate on “what it was good at”. It’s not quite a back-to-basics mission for the two of them, more of a refocusing on providing value for its membership.
He admits that the view of the BII among licensees will be a little “mixed” but is changing. “We exist to help our members and I think we were unsure what we were giving them for their membership fee. I don’t think members especially knew what they were getting, mainly because we didn’t necessarily communicate it.
“Fuller’s paid for all tenants to be BII members but even then you could ask them what benefits they received and there was still a lack of awareness,” he says. “So we’ve really got to keep on about why being a member is valuable and what they get for their money. We’ve added new benefits, so it’s getting that message across.”
On membership, numbers rose by 10% last year to reach almost 9,000, and both Clist and Pender want to grow that figure to hit 10,000 by the end of next year. An aspiration made all the more difficult with pubcos converging and site closures still running high.
“When membership was at its peak, there were a lot of free members. That doesn’t really work for me,” Clist says. “Since that peak there are a lot fewer pubs and I believe that the pubs code will bring the number of tied pubs down. So our aspiration is to reach 10,000 members by the end of 2017. That seems achievable.”
Pender is slightly more critical of what’s gone before. “We both found that previous regimes had given a lot away for free and what ends up happening is people paying for membership are funding those that get it free,” he says.
“We have to drive value for those actually paying to be part of the organisation and engaging with us. It’s far better to have a smaller, engaged community because we know that will help us grow.”
The membership offer has been revamped to include a ‘marketplace’ that provides access to more benefits and deals including insurance, equipment, food purchasing and professional services. A mobile-optimised website features a range of other useful content.
As an operator himself, Pender felt obliged to road test the supplier offers to see if they could help licensees outside of the tenanted model.
“I gave one of the suppliers a go and it resulted in £5,000-worth of savings across the group and increased insurance cover at our sites,” he says. “I thought they wouldn’t beat me as a multiple operator negotiating deals myself but they have. That surprised me, so what they could do for single-site operators should be positive.”
Clist is keen to emphasise that the BII stands for “training, standards and professionalism” and wants the body to own that space, rather than get involved in directly lobbying Government or other periphery areas. There are others in the industry better suited to that, he says.
However, one area that he has been hands-on with is in raising awareness among tenants and lessees of their rights under the new statutory pubs code. The BII has teamed up with the Association of Licensed Multiple Retailers and the Federation of Licensed Victuallers to deliver seminars around the country on the code, and the controversial market rent-only (MRO) option.
Clist has also attended the recent Punch roadshows and been advising both members and non-members on the phone. Since the end of July, he’s taken almost 200 calls from tenants unsure about their rights.
“There is a need for independent advice and most of the calls are about timing and process. What worries me is the lack of knowledge and I know some people have already missed the 21-day deadline (tenants must request an MRO proposal in writing within 21 days of a trigger event),” he says.
“So there can’t be enough information out there. Tenants have this new right so they should use it and look at the two deals – MRO and tied – side by side and decide what’s best for them.”
The BII has also set up a group of regional MRO experts to help guide tenants through the process at a discounted fee. “We need to help people get the best result, whether that’s going down the MRO route or using it to negotiate a better tied deal.
“A lot of these MRO deals will be commercial agreements asking for rent in advance and include upwards-only rent reviews. We just want to give tenants the knowledge to make an informed decision,” he adds.
Both Clist and Pender say it’s now time for the Government to leave the pub sector alone and let people get on with running their businesses. That’s not to say help in reducing the burden wouldn’t be welcome.
“It doesn’t feel like there’s a long-term strategy and we properly know what the Government’s aspirations are for our industry,” says Pender. “We pay taxes in all kinds of different areas, which makes it difficult to plan and invest. You do need a lot of capital to run a good operation and if the Government keeps interfering then it will damage the long-term prospects for the sector.”
Those prospects are healthy despite these challenges, both of them insist, with the standard of people entering the trade continuing to improve and many outstanding retailers running great pubs. “We should all be professional retailers now,” says Pender.
“Before you might have been able to get away with a clean pub and a smile but now you need to be multi-skilled. It’s not just hard for tenants and lessees but for individual pub owners and their teams. The level of customer expectation has gone up, but what’s good is that the trade is responding and starting to move in the right direction.”
The sector is now truly taking training and people development seriously, he believes, which prompted the BII to bring back the NITAs – the National Innovation in Training Awards. Along with the flagship Licensee of the Year Awards, both insist the trade has lots of positive stories to share.
The duo at the helm of the BII are keen to push not only the organisation but the whole trade forward and are approaching their task with great energy and determination.
It seems Clist’s retirement plans may have to wait just that bit longer.