People power rules at Free Spirit pubco

By Nikkie Sutton

- Last updated on GMT

Team goals: retaining staff is good for business and offers a career
Team goals: retaining staff is good for business and offers a career
One award-winning licensee reveals his secrets to success after becoming a multiple operator – and they begin with staff who love what they do.

Founded by Mark Higgs, the Free Spirit Pub Company aims to put hospitality back at the heart of the business.

Higgs, who took home the title of the British Institute of Innkeeping Licensee of the Year in 2017, now runs three pubs with Hook Norton Brewery, the first of which is the Castle at Edgehill in Banbury, Oxfordshire.

The Castle was converted from a tower in 1822 when it was sold to become a pub and in 1922, it was acquired by Hook Norton.

The pub underwent a major refurbishment where Higgs, who worked with Hook Norton, closed the pub for more than 12 weeks while major works took place.

Journey of progression

He took on the Castle in 2014, followed by the Sun Inn, Hook Norton, Oxfordshire; and has recently acquired the Red Lion at Hellidon in Northamptonshire, which is due to open soon.

Higgs teamed up with executive chef and director Matthew Ayers to open the six-bedroom Sun Inn in October 2017.

The company’s ethos is about approaching hospitality from a different perspective by offering guests and employees the opportunity to partake in a journey of progression and expansion.

It states that hospitality isn’t necessarily about providing a service but about creating and delivering an experience.

However, it hasn’t all been plain sailing and Higgs outlined what the biggest challenge of being a multiple operator was recruitment.

He said: “Finding people now who love the industry and want to get involved in it, that’s the hardest bit.

“When you’ve got people – and they do move on – it is keeping them and keeping them interested and learning to make them feel part of it. Once you’ve got them you’ve got to keep them. It’s finding them in the first place.”

Retaining staff

However, Higgs also revealed how he gets around this issue by keeping things local to his sites and staff.

He added: “The most successful way to get people in is to get existing team members to bring friends or family in – and we give an incentive to staff. If they recommend a friend, and they stay, they get a bonus.

“That is more successful than any advert. People who already love what they do bringing people in that they know.”

In fact, the Free Spirit states that it believes hospitality is a way of life and not just a career on its website.

It aims to guide its employees to help them achieve their aspirations while still bringing their own personalities and creativity to the table.

The right people

It also claims human connection is the core of great hospitality and it wants to encourage such connections while also enjoying all the other things the company knows and loves about the trade.

When it comes to giving advice to operators who are considering going multiple, Higgs keeps it simple – use the right people.

He said: “Making sure you have got a good team in place. People who understand your vision, where you’re heading and where you want to go. Get them right behind it.

“You can’t do it on your own! This industry is all about people. We have got 10 out of our 35 full time staff who are like senior staff.

“I look at them almost like partners. They are involved heavily in what we do. If they are behind it, they will ensure everyone understands our standards and expectations and what we need to deliver to the customer.”

Genuine career paths

He also outlined how the business had become successful and got to where it had thanks to its team members.

“We have grown because of the team we have got. The general manager at the Castle – which was our first site – started as a waiter and he has now been running the site for almost three years,” he added.

“From that it freed someone else up to look at a second site.

“With the third we have moved two members of staff who were second in command to go and run this third site.”

Future prospects

Looking ahead, Higgs outlined what the future holds for the Free Spirit Pub Company and for each of its sites.

“There isn’t a magic number [of sites to open]. Just see how we evolve. We are always looking but it has to be the right site with the right people around us and if it works then we will do it,” he added.

“Each site has its own development plan. With the Castle, we have recently got a wedding licence so we are looking into doing something with that and into expanding its rooms.

“We are looking to grow the food trade at the Sun, which is our second site and a community village pub.

“We have doubled the wet trade in the past 12 months but are also aiming to improve the whole community spirit.

“With our third site, the Red Lion, we want to get it off the ground in the next six months because it has been closed for the past two years.”

Free Spirit Pub Company is a multiple operator. If you also run two or more sites, join our MA500 business club – a group for multiple operators who meet three times a year to hear insight and experience networking study tours. The next MA500 event is this month (16 May) at Manchester's Principal hotel. To register your interest please contact Stevie Robinson at fgrivr.ebovafba@jeoz.pbz​​ or on 01293 846508.

Related topics: MA500 Business Club

Related news

Follow us

Pub Trade Guides

View more


Subscribe to The Morning Advertiser

The definitive voice for the pub trade

Get the latest news, analysis and insights from the uk pub sector straight to your inbox!

Listen to The MA Podcast