FEATURE: Communities reliant on last bastion

By Gary Lloyd

- Last updated on GMT

Community focus: director of Admiral Taverns’ Proper Pubs division Mark Brooke
Community focus: director of Admiral Taverns’ Proper Pubs division Mark Brooke

Related tags Pubco + head office Multi-site pub operators Property Tenanted + leased Finance Social responsibility

Pubs are the “last hub standing” in UK communities, says director of Proper Pubs Mark Brooke, and it is vital they are allowed to continue doing what they do.

Proper Pubs is the 170-strong community wet-led division of Admiral Taverns that operates across England, Scotland and Wales, with Brooke at the helm.

Brooke says: “Pubs have a real responsibility or a weight on their shoulders in regards to what hubs are realistically left for local communities.

“The greengrocers has gone, the butcher’s has gone, the banks are closing, the high street is starting to disappear so pubs have become more important than ever – we’ve seen that post-lockdown.

“As an industry, the Government can’t lose sight of that. It’s a really important message that we are the last hub standing in our communities and we need to make sure we can continue to do that.”

His recognition of how the Government could – and should – be more helpful doesn’t end there. He says: “There’s lots of bodies out there campaigning for what we believe are reasonable requests – the way business rates are calculated is certainly out of date and has been for a number of years.

“While there’s an appreciation the Government has had some challenges it wasn’t expecting, we still would have thought they would have prioritised important things. All the pub industry is looking for is the means to support itself without the barriers.

“I’m very disappointed the way the Government reacted during the Budget – they had a real opportunity to make some inroads there. We’re not looking for handouts, we’re just looking for the ability to be able to trade without some of the challenges we have.

“In regards to energy, I’m not sure what Ofgem is doing. I’m not sure what value they’re adding right now. You would expect the Government to step in and give some guidance or even instructions on what Ofgem should be doing.”

jesmond arms resized
Staff at Proper Pubs site Jesmond Arms in Hull after its recent £185,000 revamp

Two retail models

Admiral operates two retail models. There’s the leased & tenanted (L&T) model, which Brooke says is a more traditional pubco model that requires entrepreneur investment and the company would also invest. It means the tenant has a lot more input on the retail offer and how they run the business.

Meanwhile, Proper Pubs is slightly different in the sense the [tenant/licensee] provides a service to run the pub. “We have a retail model that already installed, it’s predominantly value drink but we do mid market as well,” Brooke explains. “The pubco generally pays all of the bills and the person is responsible for running the day-to-day operation of the pub. They get a percentage of turnover that’s uncapped and there’s also an uncapped sales incentive as well so there’s a good opportunity to earn if you get your head down and work hard.”

He adds the level of support is probably a lot higher in the Proper Pubs environment. This includes more frequent visits, and the retail offer is somewhat more structured.

Brooke adds: “Pricing, products, range, marketing, all of those things are provided to make sure we’re competitive in the market.

“It’s great for the person that runs the pub because they can concentrate on front of house and dealing with customers, which is the exciting part of the business.”

Brooke worked in food, finance and retail since finishing school. The qualified financial adviser has worked in high street retail, with businesses such as KFC, then moved into the pub industry in 2011.

“It wasn’t somewhere I was planning to go,” he says. “It was a chance meeting that got me interested and I joined what was then Enterprise Inns at the time, which became Ei Group and was subsequently purchased by Stonegate.

“As part of the sale, I was tempted with the offer to go and create an operator-managed business at Hawthorne Leisure. They had some operator-managed pubs but it was about putting those together and giving them an identity and a bit more structure in March 2020.”

At Enterprise, he was responsible for the value drinks division called Beacon, which he helped grow from 165 to 300 pubs. Taking the lessons learned from this in his earlier career, Proper Pubs was created in August 2021 as part of Hawthorn.

“Admiral acquired Hawthorn and I moved over as part of the acquisition and it was decided the Proper Pubs retail model would continue and I would be responsible for looking after that,” says Brooke.

The more well-known energy companies that are supplying us are probably not behaving as they should”

Community heroes

Proper Pubs is looking for “community heroes” when it recruits people to run its pubs. Brooke says the importance of recruiting the right people for the job is vital.

He reveals: “It’s really important they’re willing to serve and support those who work with us, drink with us and live near us. We generally recruit people from in the local area so they already have an affiliation or understanding of their local areas or cultures. We find that a real benefit – these are people who are probably well known in the area, which we find is a real plus.”

And potential licensees don’t necessarily need to have experience of working in the pub trade. Brooke says Proper Pubs is a great example of where you can find people who are new to the industry where they will receive the training and support they need and the level of support from the BDMs (business development managers) is high because they visit the sites so frequently.

“Some people are not sure if it’s for them so we find that people will come into Proper Pubs and operate one of those for a period of time then move on to a tenanted and leased pub because they feel more comfortable after running a pub.”

The number one priority when recruiting is to look for someone who is a great community hero over someone with experience. Brooke says training will provide experience but the potential shown by a willing person is what counts.

The community aspect is evident with the activities, incentives and charity fundraising that starts in Proper Pubs. For Easter, the business collected and donated 12,200 chocolate Easter eggs for those less fortunate and did the same with 18,000 chocolate selection boxes at Christmas. It also raised £35,000 for Chasing the Stigma​ mental health organisation.

Brooke says: “We’re constantly trying to raise something for someone somewhere. And the great news is that by getting that recruitment right, we’ve got operators that are connected to local communities and they can tell us where they need to go. We’ll have some central things such as Christmas, Easter and the company charity but what we’re trying to encourage is raising funds for local people.”

Very resilient

Proper Pubs is definitely doing something right. “I’m delighted with how the business is performing. It’s fair to say the industry, for the past two or three years, has been quite a challenge,” argues Brooke. “From a post-Covid point of view, we’ve not looked back since. We’re finding Proper Pubs has proven to be very resilient and it’s popular.

“We’re ahead of expectation in performance and it’s consistent as well. Like any business, we’ve got other challenges such as energy costs and natural inflation, which is finding its way into our supply chain but we’ve tried to mitigate that wherever possible for our customers and we are very mindful that it’s getting tough out there.”

On energy costs, the business has taken matters into its own hands regarding supply issues and this “may be a good thing in the long term”.

florida park resized
Proper Pubs BDM Nikki Greenhalgh (left) and Florida Park, Glasgow, licensee Elaine Ferrie with the pub’s defibrillator

Brooke adds: “The more well-known energy companies that are supplying us are probably not behaving as they should and some of the stories I’m hearing out and some of the experiences we’ve got first-hand with how our energy companies are conducting themselves will probably force that a lot more businesses to do the same as us permanently.”

The business has “some pretty big growth plans” for the next couple of years. It has identified some sites and is working on those to grow the estate by between 40 and 60 pubs. “It’s quite an ambitious plan,” says Brooke.

“In regards to capital expenditure (capex), we continue to invest in our pubs. We continue to invest millions of pounds in making sure the retail estate is in good shape and that’s been recognised by our operators. Some of the recent surveys of feedback shows they appreciate what we do and our customers do to by the performance of the pubs.”

Investment in sustainability

Sustainability is a big thing for Proper Pubs too. When on site, completing capex works, the business always reviews the building to make sure it’s not missing any opportunities for sustainability – and that’s true for both the T&L and Proper Pubs estates.

It can be as simple as changing light bulbs to LED and adding insulation in lofts but has also included a £1m investment to improve cellar management. Such work includes installing equipment that will regulate when cellar cooling systems switches off because it’s one of the biggest energy draws in a pub. It also helps reduce the overall carbon footprint of the company.

Why would someone want to operate a pub through Admiral Taverns’ Proper Pubs model? Brooke explains: “There’s a lot of companies out there that think differently but I think we act differently. You can have someone who’s run a pub for 20 years and they’re really good at it but if they can’t demonstrate, or we’re not confident, they can be a community hero, we would say ‘no thanks’. We’re quite happy for those people to go to the competition.

“We invest in our pubs, we’ve got a really strong retail offer, we care about our people and the level of support we’ve demonstrated, which was reflected in the recent Kam operator-managed index, which showed our BDMs were rated on support and they scored 100% – the overall rating was 9.7. Given some of the challenges we’re going through to score that highly is a screaming endorsement.

“We were really proud to get that score because it’s a reflection of the hard work and the focus that we’re putting on and making sure we’ve got the right people in the right retail model.”

Related topics Other operators

Related news

Show more