It’s an old cliché that people fall into the pub trade and end up never leaving, but for Star Pubs & Bars’ Chris Moore, that’s the reality.
“I genuinely came for a year’s experience, because what fascinated me about the pub industry was the way it was so connected, the real estate and the business were so intertwined and it’s a great way of understanding how business works.”
And almost 30 years later, he’s still here: “I came and just loved it, so I haven’t left.”
A chartered surveyor by background, Moore has worked his way up the ladder since his start in 1992, working for some of the biggest players in the industry.
“I started at Scottish & Newcastle, on the estate management side of the business,” he explains over a pint of Beavertown in the newly refurbished Setting Sun in Brighton, East Sussex, one of Star Pubs & Bars latest investment sites.
“I worked my way through that business, which was growing all the time. During that period, we acquired the Chef & Brewer operation and Greenalls. I ended up heading up the hotels and accommodation business, working with Bob Ivell and Phil Urban.”
My favourite pub
“I always get drawn back to the Ship at Holborn, central London. It’s a traditional eating place, but a great bar downstairs and always busy. I’ve had many great experiences in there, it’s the archetypal British pub.
“Also, if you ever want to get lost for an afternoon, there’s the Grenadier, near Hyde Park. It was an officers’ mess converted to a pub in 19th century. It’s a very small pub, food at the back, traditional copper top bar, just sort of place you can meet for a beer at 12noon and you’ve lost the afternoon!”
Moore was involved in the rollout of the Chef & Brewer and Country Carvery businesses and what was then called Premier Lodge. “It was a brilliant place to be in the ’90s,” he says.
He moved around the industry, going over in an acquisition to Spirit before ending up at Punch following the sale of the Spirit business at the time.
He explains: “That’s how I got back involved with leased and tenanted sector again, when we sold the business to Punch. My claim to fame was I was the last surviving senior manager to go into that business.”
Having weathered the smoking ban and seen the changes that wrought on the industry, Moore made the move to Heineken just after it had bought the Scottish & Newcastle business.
“I became property director and, at that time, they didn’t own any pubs.”
Moore has been at the heart of the Dutch brewer’s pub operations ever since, a period of time that has seen them move from zero pubs to the current 2,700 operations, following the acquisition of the Punch estate.
Of course, the growth in the estate following the Punch deal was nothing new to Moore. “When we acquired RBS (Royal Bank of Scotland’s pub division), we went from owning nothing to owning 1,300 pubs.” That move led to the creation of Star Pubs & Bars, and the business hasn’t looked back.
Moore feels he has an enviable position in his role: “When you own pubs and you’re a business like Heineken, you can think really long term – if you’re managing businesses for people with very short-term horizons, it’s a different mindset. If you change that mindset, you can see the benefit of being a brewer and owning pubs.
“The long-term thinking that Heineken brings is incredible, and it’s what pubs need. It’s back to the traditional reasons of why people own pubs – it’s to create great consumer experience and an environment to sell beer and cider.”
Stand-alone division of Heineken
The business has certainly gone through an evolution in the past few years and is now more of a stand-alone division from Heineken, says Moore. “We’ve now got a business of 280 people, so a much bigger proposition.”
And, of course, that time has also seen the introduction of the pubs code, for which Moore has taken on the role of code compliance officer.
“It’s logical for me to do that,” he says. “In an evolving landscape, you want someone senior who’s able to understand what’s going on and also affect and make change as required.”
But has the code hit his team hard? “We’re two years in, and there are some really good aspects to it,” he maintains. “The really positive thing about the code is the way pubcos can recruit new people into the industry, and it creates a level playing field for all people covered by the code, encouraging consistency and transparency, particularly when bringing people into the business.”
Pubs code offers focus
He says the new arrivals to the trade now, as a major consequence of the code, are “really prepared to run their pub. They know what they’re doing and that will produce, and is producing, fantastic success. You’ve got people who are much better organised and equipped to be able to run pubs”.
With regard to the contentious issue of market- rent-only (MRO) option, he’s more dismissive.
“There’s a lot of noise around MRO – it’s a relatively small commercial issue for pubcos, but it makes a disproportionate amount of noise.”
He says the pubs code “keeps you honest”, and he remains a firm supporter and proponent of the tied-pub model.
“The tie has massive benefits,” he insists.
“Whether that’s providing services to tenants, using buying power or providing expertise and investing in the pubs to drive the top line. That’s what the tied model is there to do.
“What the pubs codes has done is make sure you are really on top of your game, because if you’re not, they’ve got a choice and they’re in control of that choice.
“As long as you make sure the support and the service you offer are adding value to their business then, commercially, MRO isn’t an issue.”
Value in the tied model
He refutes the allegations that pubcos are doing everything they can to block MRO applications.
“I can only speak about what we’re doing, and we’re not sitting there plotting, we’re just not. That’s not the way we do business.”
He feels, if anything, the introduction of the code has helped strengthen the appeal of the tied model. “What we’re seeing is that when people have a choice, they’re starting to value the benefit of the tie more.”
But he accepts those benefits are probably of more appeal to newer entrants to the market. “If you’ve been around a long time, you’re not going to get the benefits, but others will. I get that – and there are other choices for them to do. But the reality is that others are seeing the value.”
Invest in the future
With regard to the current review of the pubs code, Moore is keen to see balance in the debate. “We’d like to see a proper fact-based review, because a lot of the noise around it is emotional and anecdotal. I’d like to see the majority of licensees get their voice because that’s important. Those that shout loudest don’t always hold the view of the majority.”
And what does he want from the review? “I want to see the industry thrive, I want to see the opportunity for people to come into the sector and do well, I want it to be in positive health, and I think we can get there.”
But, of course, he’s conscious that he can only “shape the market for our pubs”, and that’s something Star has set about with enthusiasm, investing massively into its estate.
Moore gestures to the site around us, the refurbished Setting Sun. “We want to invest in pubs like this. This sort of investment doesn’t happen by accident. This was a pub that for some reason was unloved, but now we’ve created a great community asset.”
He says that following an investment of around £260,000, the site has now more than tripled its weekly takings under the stewardship of new young tenants.
“We’ve got a really great pub that can sit here now and will stand the test of time,” says Moore. “Hopefully, the operators will make a decent living out of it. It will grow and, hopefully we will as well – and we just need to replicate that across 2,000 pubs!”
Estate renovations ongoing
The pubco recently announced a considerable investment into the estate, £50m in 2019, and Moore says a large part of that will be into major pub refurbishments. “We’ll do around 140 to 150 schemes across both managed and our tenanted and leased channels, investing around £250,000 on average per pub although some may go as high as £750,000.
“And we’re in the thick of it. There’s a lot of on-site construction currently going, a lot of balls in the air, and hammers and chisels being deployed in the estate.”
And he says every development is unique.
“We want our pubs to look like independent outlets, we don’t want people going in and saying, ‘oh yes, it’s a Star Pubs & Bars pub’, we want it to stand out as a high-quality, independent operation, whatever segment its operating in.”
So, with strong investment and a long-term commitment to the sector, Moore and his team are looking to build strong foundations for the future and are making moves to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past by remaining flexible when it comes to their pub partners.
“We need to be flexible, but the agreements have to be right for both the pub and the operator. It’s the most important thing in the industry – a lot of the problems in the past have been created by having the wrong agreement with the wrong people. One thing I’m absolutely committed to is getting that bit right, or you’ll end up with distress all the way through.
“We’ve now got the ability to flex the agreements, and, at the end of the day, we are still investing in pubs, and giving communities great pubs.”
Get it right and you will succeed
And he sees that investment as key in the fight to arrest the ongoing decline in pub numbers, but it won’t happen overnight: “Numbers will decline still, there’s still some way to go. There are pubs in some areas that for whatever reasons, the local economic circumstances have changed, and they can’t support a pub.
“But then you’ve got pubs that, if they’re invested in or the offer isn’t right, they’ve got no god-given right to be a successful pub. People have a choice now, and the danger is, if we exclude the opportunity to invest in those kinds of pubs, that’s where you’ll see an acceleration of decline.
“There’s a lot of competition. You’ve got to be really sharp and really relevant. But as you can see from this pub, if you get it right, they’ll do very well.”
So 30 years on, does Moore regret his temporary decision to dip a toe into the pub trade?
Clearly not, the man lives and breathes pubs, and if anything he shudders at the thought of missing out: “If I hadn’t ended up in pubs, Jesus! Well I trained as a chartered surveyor, so I’d probably have ended up in retail or offices or something equally as dull!”