It's a sunny day in November following a weekend of torrential rain. This captures the 'glass half full' philosophy of The Vaulkhard Group's director. Good times always come back around.
The operator is a Newcastle-based 'family business' that's been running just shy of 30 years. You could say Vaulkhard's one of the old boys of the industry: he fancies himself a bit of a 'hospitality veteran', with 15 sites under his belt and a £4.5m expansion plan revealed earlier this year.
But the director isn’t native to the north east. Raised in Yorkshire, he travelled the world after being thrown out of school. He landed in the Cayman Islands where he lived for seven years, making a living through bartending and teaching scuba diving.
This kickstarted his love for hospitality: “I thought, I’m not gonna do much scuba diving in Tyneside so that got me into bars.”
In the Caribbean, hospitality was all about customer service. “You become a destination venue because of the staff and because of the offer. That was the most important thing I tried to replicate in the UK,” he adds.
It’s been 30 years since he founded his first site. His portfolio today boasts pubs like Off Shore 44 and the Diamond Inn, bars including the Cuban-inspired Castro's and party spot the Mushroom, coffee shops, and eateries like Barluga, and Bealim House, which serve up delectable British classics and Indian street food respectively.
“Keep your mind open, don’t flop around with fashion too much, keep going back to core values.”
Now, his life revolves around lawyers, financial directors and spreadsheets. “My personal role is probably less fun than it used to be,” he says. “But the business is a bigger thing and it’s important to a lot of people.”
When you have one bar, you lead by example, he explains: “I went behind the bar with the staff and made them better. I stood as the DJ and played music. I created the atmosphere by physically doing it. The challenge now is you have to work with a senior management team and get them to buy into what you’re doing, and get them to filter that down to site level."
Going from one to two pubs was hard, and so was going from two to three. But going from three to 10 was “easy”.
Vaulkhard says: “Our very first venue was probably as good as we’ll ever be. But it was over-indulged, so as you grow, you evolve and change. Sometimes, you have to accept compromise and accept you might not be as good.”
Does this bother him? Well, the only other option would be if he still only ran one pub. “But you probably become bored of it, you become less in touch – you don’t see changing patterns or evolving trends. For longevity in a business that doesn’t work, but growing pains are a real thing.”
And there’s certainly been a lot to adapt to in his 30 years of trade. He lists off challenges: economic swings, staying consistent, keeping standards up, customer demand, staff demand.
His lowest point was when a gentlemen died in one of his venues. He opens up: “My lawyer was saying ‘don’t talk to the family’, my insurance company said, ‘don’t talk to the family', but as a human being I’ve got to talk to them – they’ve lost their son, they’ve lost their husband. That was when I thought, ‘am I going to stop doing this?’ We sell alcoholic drinks and good times and happy memories, and that fell a long way from all of that.”
'Focus on what you can do'
But other challenges were just part of the ups and downs of running a business. With experience comes confidence, but Vaulkhard warns that you can’t be ‘blind’ as if cash dries up, that’s the end of the business.
During Covid, his sites were forced to close, meaning the company was technically insolvent. He reflects: “When you stare that in the face and think, 'I’ve not actually done anything wrong, my life’s work could come to an end here', it’s actually quite releasing as you think – 'it’ll be what it’ll be'.
“So, you do a good job, you focus on customers, you work hard, you keep your team confident, you keep suppliers, bankers and landlords on your team, and ultimately, the good times will come back. If you can hold your nerve, history says it does come back. You’ve got to play the long game.”
When the director opened his first bar, he was younger than some that worked for him. Now, he’s the oldest person in the business. Tradition and longevity are assets but also a risk. “You can become lazy, out of date and out of touch.”
But he doesn’t sweat the small stuff. “Not a lot keeps me awake at night. I work hard and we do our best. Life’s probably 50% luck and doing the right thing by people and hoping they do the right thing by you.”
“No matter how big your ego is, or how big the company is, you don’t know everything, and you can’t do everything."
He believes keeping up with trends is just a matter of keeping your eyes open, and noticing things like everybody wants to sit down in pubs rather than stand and guests prefer draught pints over bottled beer.
“But focus what you can do,” he points out. “I’m lucky my age group in this economic climate is probably financially alright. So if the venues serve people like me, they’re probably going to trade quite well."
He's learnt how to roll with the punches: “Keep your mind open, don’t flop around with fashion too much, keep going back to core values.”
And Vaulkhard's career highs and lows are all to do with people. He’s hosted weddings, anniversaries and parties at his sites. People join at 16 as kitchen porters then leave at 25 to become general managers. “I’ve had customers from 25 years ago who stopped coming in because the lady was pregnant – now there’s a 25-year-old man drinking here because mum and dad used to,” he says.
And working with his brother, British racing driver Harry Vaulkhard, is a “gift”. He says: “We share the same genetics, we find the same things funny, we like doing the same things. It’s not without its challenges, but because you are family, ultimately you can’t and wouldn’t want to fall out. He will be in my life until I’m no longer in my life.”
He also jokes that his kids could be “uber publicans”, with his wife also working in the trade. His family has shaped his business. He says: “One of the reasons I’ve never wanted to trade out of the north east is I want to go home at night, I want to sleep in my own bed, I want to take my kids to school in the morning, I want to have dinner with my wife.
“I don’t want to own a pub in Manchester, stay in hotels, spend life on the road. It’s not what I want. Family is what it’s all about.”
His kids also “pushed him out” of operating in nightclubs with the company shifting its strategy away from late-night bars to day-time venues during the pandemic. “I thought ‘I cannot bump into my own daughter – this is just ultimately too depressing," says Vaulkhard. But he adds that this isn’t a bad thing.
Then, he gets existential: “Kids also make you realise the speed of life, which ultimately feeds into the thing of, we’re not here forever. So they’ve probably made me appreciate the day by day more. Being a father has been the greatest force for good in my life.”
And work-life balance is sacred for Vaulkhard who’s a “control freak” at heart. He offers up some wise words: “When you’re at work, be present, be productive – be there and make it good. When you’re at home, be a good husband, a good father, if you want to play golf, play golf. If you like cycle or [go to] the gym do that.
“Balance is really important because then you come back to work full of energy, happiness and support. When you’re away from work, if it’s so fragile it can’t survive without you for an evening or weekend, then you probably need to have another look at the business.”
He’s sometimes surprised at the authority his words hold as he still sees himself as a 20-year old scuba diving bartender. But he says, modestly, there’s lots of people working to push the business and he’s just touching the steering wheel every now and then to keep it on track.
Being honest, calm, a good listener and self-aware are golden qualities of a good leader, for Vaulkhard. He says: “No matter how big your ego is, or how big the company is, you don’t know everything, and you can’t do everything. You’re not the cleverest person in the room probably ever.”
People make the place
Building a team’s like building a rugby team: “You have to be self-aware of your own shortcomings and inadequacies so you can find people to fill your gaps. You’ve got to find people who are fast, you’ve got to find people who are brave, tall and strong, and find the little fat guys at the front and the big tall guys at the back.”
And surrounded by great people he is. Vaulhard’s greatest fear? “Probably retiring”. While bad decisions can be lonely, he finds his workplace engaging, and is surrounded by positive, happy people.
But looking back, he regrets partying his way through his 20s and wish he’d combined enthusiasm with a bit more ambitious. He reminisces on early days “having fun, buying cars, late nights and early mornings”.
“We could have probably been a lot bigger than we are now,” he says, referring to trading opportunities in Newcastle, a city he believes is on a a strong upwards trajectory.
His advice for young people? Enjoy it, maintain a moral compass, but take that energy and be driven as well.
“I’ve learnt things by doing them, you can probably shortcut a lot nowadays,” he reflects. But earning more money doesn’t really interest him. “I look at my life: I’ve got a beautiful wife and great kids, and we’re in a great industry in a great city. I have very few regrets.”