All in the timing
Tim Martin, senior associate in Fleurets’ North West office, explains that the timing of an acquisition can have a sizeable impact on any turnaround project.
“For example, many new owners would be likely to trade through the busy Christmas period with an existing format rather than close a business for a refurbishment in December,” he says. “Although of course, that position would be dependent upon the existing facilities being adequate at the very least.”
“If the timing of a deal is such that a busy trading period is likely to be missed, or if there is likely to be an extended period of refurbishment or repair, this might also have an impact upon the price that the purchaser would be prepared to pay for the property.
“In simple terms, the return on the investment can only be realised once the business is generating income and the longer the period of refurbishment, the greater the opportunity cost to the new business owner.”
Starting from scratch
Operator Sue Hawkins, of the Milton Hare, in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, explains that she took on a site in disrepair after it had been at the heart of a six-year tug of war between local residents and developers looking to transform the pub into housing.
“The developer had ripped out the interior, presumably after assuming he’d get the planning consent,” she explains.
“There was no kitchen, no cellar equipment, no loos, not even a bar.
“We didn’t know the area, had absolutely no established trade to build on or even anybody local that knew us who might champion our opening. The pub had been shut for so long that we had to start from the ground up.”
Hawkins faced the challenge of jumping through hoops in order to ensure a rebuilt Milton Hare was compliant with local authorities.
“That’s always a difficult one because each department has its own agenda and they don’t often offer suggestions on how to keep the other departments happy. “A conservation officer would want to keep some lovely old wooden doors in a Grade II-listed site, while the fire officer would say they wouldn’t keep a fire at bay for a satisfactory time so need to be changed to modern, slow-burning doors with door closers and intumescent strips.”
Hawkins added that broad and thorough research helped shape her plans to transform the Milton Hare. “Spend plenty of time in other people’s busy pubs, noting down what you like and dislike about them,” she says.
“Find an architect who speaks your language – you don’t want the person who designed The Shard to design your tiny village pub. Find an architect who is experienced at pubs and knows the flow.
“Figure out your budget. How much have you got, how much can you comfortably borrow and what can you do without if the budget doesn’t stretch?
“To me, if the place is clean, light, warm with lovely well-trained staff and a buzzing atmosphere, you don’t need the high-end refurb if you can’t afford it. Spend the money on making things work well.”
Play to your strengths
When Jem Morey and his business partner took on the Castle in Oxford – in collaboration with Hook Norton Brewery in 2016 – the site was, in Morey’s words, “dark, dingy, poorly decorated and furbished, and in need of major investment”.
“The Castle’s trading area was split over two floors; the main bar and basement,” explains Morey. “The only way to get access to the basement was from an exterior door or a stairway past the gents’ toilet – not the most attractive or enticing route to half of your floor plan.
“We decided very early on to drop a new stairway from the main bar down to the basement bar. What this did was open up the entire trading area over two floors and create a nice feature to break up the main bar. We now have two clearly visible trading areas doubling our cover space.”
While Morey and his business partner established a clear vision – which took modern trends into account – he acknowledges that if he had the time again, he may manage it differently.
“We wanted the pub to remain traditional but, with the rise in popularity of craft beer, we knew we needed to concentrate on this too.
“We initially discussed designing and managing the build between us but later changed our minds when we realised the importance of getting this project completed well in our first attempt.
“We got so involved in the design and build side of things that we didn’t pay as much attention as we could to the entirety of the business plan. Moving to the city from a small town poses its own challenges and we should have spent more time concentrating on what the business will do once we’re open.
“Ant (Murray, Morey’s business partner) and I are not designers nor builders. We have a lot of faith in our abilities as operators but some things should be left with the professionals.”
Fulfilling a vision
The site of what is now MC & Sons in Southwark, south-central London, was, according to John Creevy of operator the Windmill Taverns Group, “a shell of a place”.
“The pub itself was no longer a pub. The only thing that was left was a fireplace. Everything else we put in,” he explains.
Creevy highlights that the project revolved around owners Johnny and Ryan McElhinney’s collective woodwork, design and art skills. “Between the two of them, our handyman, and two gentlemen from whom they bought a lot of wood, they pretty much put the whole thing together themselves.
“We were involved with the local authorities to make sure we were compliant with everything, but the design of it was all in-house.
“We were quite lucky that, with Ryan, we had somebody who visually designed all of it before we started – it was pretty much laid out.
“He had a fantastic vision of what he wanted it to look like and we followed it to a ‘T’.
“All of the wood that’s in there is reconditioned. Ryan went to many junkyard sales looking for different, old-fashioned picture frames, for example. The bar front is made from old church pews and they’ve made a snug in one area of the bar.”
Knowing your customers
Before taking over at the Crown Inn, in Stanwix in Cumbria, Dianne Irving and her husband had previously transformed the White Mare in Beckermet, Cumbria – their first pub and a project for which they won Best Newcomer 2016 title at the Great British Pub Awards (GBPA) and runner-up in the Best Turnaround category.
“The Crown was dated, run down, dirty and the customers who lived in the surrounding area had fallen out of love with it and rarely went in,” Irving explains.
“Our biggest challenge was to get people interested in coming back into the pub, especially female customers, as they saw the place as a dated ‘old man’s boozer’.”
Winner of the Best Turnaround Pub Award at the 2018 GBPA, Irving’s transformation of the Crown meant combining expertise from elsewhere with her and her husband’s knowledge of the local area and community.
“I worked with the pubco, its architects and designers, to ensure that what I was buying into met with the vision I had for the refurbished Crown. The pubco has huge expertise in these projects and generally know what will or won’t work with design and layout.
“What they don’t know is the local area or the customer base.
“My advice would be to ensure that you know the area well, that you know who your customers are realistically going to be and that you consider what they will want and need more than what you yourself want to see.
“You can always put your mark on a project, but if it isn’t pitched correctly to the right audience, it could all be an expensive mistake.”
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