The group, which also runs Butcombe Brewing Co, took home the titles of Best Accommodation Operator, Best Managed Pub Company (51+ sites) and Best Premium Food Offer at the prestigious ceremony.
Judges were impressed by the company’s premium bedroom offer, following its purchase of 21 sites from Wadworth for an undisclosed sum.
Furthermore, strong food strategies enabled its 57-site managed business to not just survive but thrive during a challenging 2021 and it was also described as an “excellently run and well-invested pub business” amid the judging process.
The Morning Advertiser picked Perfect’s brains on the company’s plans to potentially expand its portfolio while he was in South Africa, recruiting staff for the multi-faceted business.
He said: “We like acquiring businesses, we think the industry is a buoyant place the moment and everybody's looking at a lot of things.
“We see some lovely individual sites on occasions that we would love to add to the portfolio so we explore opportunities all the time.
“As a strategy for ourselves and our private equity guys, Caledonia, we would want to expand the business for sure.”
However, there is no ‘magic number’ for Liberation Group in terms of its estate size, but it focuses on its offer.
Perfect added: “There was when I first arrived into Liberation Group, there were numbers bouncing around and then we quickly got down to the fact that actually, what we want is a core premium offer.
“Whether that is 250 pubs, or 175 pubs, the fact is, the core offer has to remain really premium and really good so we've sort of gone away from [focusing on a] set number [and] we're trying to get to where we try and just acquire businesses that fit into our core offer and drive their way.”
With a myriad of headwinds currently facing the sector, Liberation is one of many businesses navigating the storm of calorie labelling its food menus.
Perfect said: “It’s taken the chef team a long time to pull together with secondary support. Trying to fit it onto menus, redesign your menus accordingly, just working it out and then looking at the tolerance as well that you've got within this.
“If you change your product because you get shortages of something, does that change the calorific reasoning for it? And then what do you do on the menus?
“It's caused a bit of a nightmare but we've got through, we've managed through it, it's on our menus, as of course it has to be, and it is live in our pubs.
“We've had a few people who have noticed it and said, thank you very much. And then we've had a few customers [who] have gone ‘I don't like this, this is you guilting me into not eating something I want to eat and I don't think that's very fair’. There's some mixed opinions out there.
“I'm sure we will all get used to it [and it will] become common day normal practice as it is on a whole bunch of other retail items you buy when you go into the shop. But when you redoing the menu and you go to start, you know putting calorific pieces onto it, it's it can you can take a toll on your shift that much.”
With what has been labelling as a ‘perfect storm’ for the trade at the moment, Perfect pinpointed staffing as one of the big challenges facing Liberation, amid others.
“I'd love to sit here and say it's just recruitment. We're just trying to get great people in our business. But that's like one element, which is a massive element, by the way, hence the reason I'm in Johannesburg at the moment, recruiting for our team.”
However, like many other operators, alongside recruitment, rising costs are another issue the group is battling against.
Perfect added: “We've got an immense amount of headwinds coming our way with utility costs, gas, etc. Everyone's sort of on tenterhooks as to what's going to happen post October time when some contracts come up for renewal.
“Wheat has been a big issue with the war in Ukraine. There is an immense amount of stuff flying our way, national minimum wage going up, the labour battle in general.”
He outlined exactly how Liberation is tackling staffing issues by moving team members from around the business into other positions.
Rhetoric change needed
“[You are] getting [some pubs say] ‘I'll pay you a pound more’, and someone else goes, ‘well, I'll pay you a pound more’ and, and then you've seen adverts for most outrageous salaries for individual roles and thinking to yourself, that's not sustainable for our industry,” Perfect said.
“There is going to be an implosion that will happen over the next few months and years ahead for businesses overall.
“The headwinds are large, and they are coming. We have to react as an industry and we have to stop looking for the negative the whole time, because it's there, all the negatives are there for you every day open flipping the newspaper, open Instagram, Facebook, wherever you want to do Twitter, it's all there for you.
“We have to change the rhetoric ourselves as an industry to a more positive one. Why join the industry, why come and learn a skill set? Now we need to really think about how we further educate our teams within our businesses and how we can cross pollinate throughout through our sites.
“That's something we take very seriously at Liberation Group. We've had GMs going into finance roles with finance going into operations roles.
“I'm trying to make sure that we take a good skill set within the business. I want to retain as much talent as we possibly can within our business by giving people the opportunity to explore different varieties.”
Referring back to price increases, when it comes to food specifically, Liberation is trying to avoid passing on cost rises to customers by changing ingredients in its dishes and by its finance department delving into how to keep prices competitive.
Perfect added: “With our guys, you don't have to do the same dish and just go we'll have to pass it on, you can be quite clever about it and just change a few ingredients in it. Change the cut of the meat, it's really down to you as a chef as to what you want to try and achieve under there.
“So those sort of headwinds on food inflation, we've managed to keep relatively low at the moment, some really good contracts and really good money development analysis done with the team.
“That's been great on the sort of gas and electric side, some of it's a bit out of our hands, as you can imagine and we are having to absorb that into the business.
“It depends how much further that goes. Before we can make a decision as to whether we move to pass on anything, but at this stage we're quite comfortable with where we are and how we manage in our contracts. Our commercial director has done an amazing job at securing those for the next couple of years for us.”
When it comes to looking ahead, pub makeovers are firmly on the agenda alongside ongoing concentration on the company’s bedroom offer.
“Our continued focus on investment into the islands (Jersey and Guernsey) in particular. We've got a full programme of rolling out our look and feel from the UK into that and we've done 50% of it so it's just the other 50% to go,” Perfect said.
“By the end of next year, we would have invested in, 85% of our estate, in five years. Our focus on rooms will continue as well, you know, we do love our bedrooms, we're very proud of our accommodation.
“We will continue to roll that out through the rest of our bedroom stock that we've acquired in particular from the Wadworth acquisition we did, we've still got quite a few rooms to get up to spec.”
As Perfect previously mentioned, people will be a big focus for Liberation going forward, the company is looking to bring team members up through the ranks from across the business.
He said: “[I’m] in South Africa recruiting but that doesn't stop us from continuing to do cross pollination, as I said, from brewery into different islands, islands into the UK alongside cross skill and cross training as well.
“[As well as] lots of learning and development. We want to bring in some more apprentices. We also want to get more training on the ground for our teams within businesses. We're going to launch some houses of learning within the estate, which we have been wanting to do for a while.”
Similarly, on the food side of the business, Liberation is building a development kitchen in a bid to drive learning.
Lastly, Perfect is looking to get “fun experiences” back into pubs again by looking outside the box.
He added: “I don't want to just do the normal stuff so the guys are out seeking some pretty off the cards experiences you can come and have within our businesses and we'll continue to focus on that too.
“[In addition] it is about executing our award-winning offer, continuing to invest with the support from Caledonia. Our people are massively important, just retaining and in recruiting and training as much as you possibly can.”