The Big Interview: James Lyon-Shaw of Brucan Pubs

By Nikkie Thatcher

- Last updated on GMT

James Lyon-Shaw of Brucan Pubs on leadership

Related tags Multi-site pub operators Pubco + head office

Humble and honest are two of the qualities that come through clearly when talking to James Lyon-Shaw.

Lyon-Shaw has a kitchen background with stints at the Ivy restaurant in London’s West End, The Avenue and ETM Group’s The Well in Clerkenwell before he took up a position in head office for the multiple operator as operations director.

He outlines the highlights of his career so far: “There have been many great moments – cutting my cloth at The Ivy with great chefs like Alan Bird and Steve Tonkin, and seeing many of my colleagues of the time go on to great things such as Callum Franklin and Daniel Calvert.”

But, starting his own business back in 2018 has been one of the operator’s stand-out parts of his time in the sector.

“Starting Brucan was, of course, one of the best moments. Finally realising the dream of the freedom to control my own outcomes and stand by my own principles rather than somebody else’s.”

And from starting the company five years ago to taking home a prestigious award this year, winning Best Food Offer​ at the 2023 Publican Awards is the boss’s biggest achievement, he says.

The business impressed the judges with its unwavering passion for food, menu innovation and sense of purpose.

“To be nominated alongside people I respect immensely was an honour but to win was incredible and to collect the award in front of so many people in the industry who have guided or inspired me over the years was great,” he says.

Having been a leader for a number of years, Lyon-Shaw reflects on his past experience and those who influenced him to help steer his vision for those who are rising up the ranks in the sector.

To him, being someone the next generation of hospitality professionals aspires to be is what excellent leadership looks like.

“There are a lot of things in the day-to-day such as being compassionate, patient with people, understanding their needs, making sure the people have got what they need, making sure you know what you're doing in terms of the business but for me, it's about when I don't know how to do something or am unsure which way to go, I always think of people who I worked for,” he says.

“Everyone you've worked for has had good parts and bad parts but if you take all the good parts out of all the people you've ever worked for, you can put together this fabled creature that is the best leader ever, I would like to be that for someone else.”

”If there is no fun and no profit in our industry, why would anyone put their mortgage, house, their everything on the line, their blood, sweat, tears and their soul, to do this?”

However, Lyon-Shaw raises concerns about the sector as it is currently, with a plethora of challenges facing teams up and down the country.

Industry sustainability

James Lyon-Shaw’s top three qualities a good leader should have:

Confident decision maker

A good communicator

Ability to reflect on your decisions

He says: “It's not an ego or an arrogance thing, but one day when I have had enough, I need to sell these pubs.

“The pubs have been around for 200 years, I haven't, despite how old I may feel sometimes and I like to think they are going to be around a lot longer than me so really I'm just a custodian.

“I've just got them for a few years, I'll do my bit with them, I'll turn them into my incarnation of what I think they are and I'll hopefully take a little bit of money out of them at some stage. But, who's next? Who is taking them next? That's a bigger concern on the sustainability in our industry.

“If I look at my teams at the moment and think 'who is the next custodian of these pubs?', it's a struggle to pick who that might be and that isn't because they aren't talented, ambitious or capable.

“[But] if there is no fun and no profit in our industry, why would anyone put their mortgage, house, their everything on the line, their blood, sweat, tears and their soul, to do this?”

“For me, as a leader, it's about making sure you can nurture the next level of operators and ensure there are people coming through the business who think 'yes, I can do this, I want to do this, I can make a success of something like this'.

“Ensuring there are people to take over on the other side otherwise everything becomes unstuck if there is no one to take over the tenancies and the leases.”

However, while he remains as a director of Brucan, Lyon-Shaw reveals what he does in his personal life to improve his leadership:

“Enjoy both work and family time. Eat well, stay away from the booze and wake up every day with the purpose of making someone else’s day better.”

On the subject of balance, Lyon-Shaw outlines how he ensures he has time for work and family.

“If you stop being involved at ground level and just sit in the office processing information then it all becomes very tedious and the passion can die off.”

He says: “[It’s] always hard but we have a good routine. I tend to start work very early to get a good run at each day and get ahead of any issues.

“I manage the school pick-ups at least three times a week and enjoy the later afternoons/early evenings with the family before picking up with work again once everyone has gone to bed.

“I try not to get too battered by it. The kids will be grown up in no time and not want to spend time with me anyway so it’s important to enjoy it now while I can.”

Staying involved

Something that surprised the director in terms of leadership is how easy it is to become distracted and detached from the day to day and lose sight of the enjoyment of the role.

“It’s really important to stay involved. In the context of kitchen work, I learned when you stop being involved in the prep then the service stops being fun and this rings true in the wider business," he adds.

“If you stop being involved at ground level and just sit in the office processing information then it all becomes very tedious and the passion can die off.”

He doesn’t find being a leader a lonely position to be in and being honest and part of the team feeds into this.

”There is no room for vanity, never hesitate to cut off a limb to save the body.”

“A leader doesn’t have to be outside of the team, just the person in the team that people look towards.

“Keep the team bench full of people who make you better at what you do and that you enjoy working with.

“Don’t waste time working with people you don’t like. Not all humans get on, fact. Don’t try and force it. Life’s too short and you’re too busy.”

This isn’t the only advice he offers to other operators. When it comes to those looking to expand, Lyon-Shaw gives his top tips.

“Don’t get encouraged by others to do things at a pace you are not comfortable with and don’t have any illusions that you will get it right every time.

“Be prepared to make mistakes, recognise your failures. There is no room for vanity, never hesitate to cut off a limb to save the body.”

From making mistakes to looking back on lessons learned, the main thing Lyon-Shaw would have changed during his career was taking the leap into starting his own business earlier.

“I feel I stalled for the past few years before Brucan because I didn’t have the courage to start the process, to seek investment or have the belief that anyone would trust me on my word to make it work,” he adds.

On this note, he shares regrets that, with hindsight, could have helped make the sector a better place to work years ago.

“I wish I had the focus on work-based culture that we have now, about 15 years ago. We could have made such a better industry by now if we had realised sooner the bullying and over-working culture that was seen as a badge of honour was totally unacceptable,” the pub group boss says.

“Business leaders of then shaped operators in the sector now and we could have done so much more positive things for our industry if we had a different start in senior roles.

“The minority who were ahead of the curve are now leaps ahead of everyone else with incredible businesses and incredible teams and I have no double, incredible P&Ls to match.”

Looking ahead, the ongoing challenges are causes for concerns, especially over the next 12 months. Lyon-Shaw says: “2024 looks set to be another challenging one as the trends of not going out become habitual and casual use of pubs declines.

“Having a strong consistent offering is ever more critical as guests become even more cautious with discretionary spend.”

Related topics MA Leaders Club

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