The Big Interview: Lawson’s rule is to ‘be yourself’

By Gary Lloyd

- Last updated on GMT

Get to know the Law: Star Pubs & Bars MD Lawson Mountstevens
Get to know the Law: Star Pubs & Bars MD Lawson Mountstevens

Related tags Lawson Mountstevens Star pubs & bars Pubco + head office Multi-site pub operators Tenanted + leased Managed pubs

Be yourself and make sure you switch off when you are not at work – that’s the advice Star Pubs & Bars managing director Lawson Mountstevens has for anyone wanting to further their career.

Star Pubs & Bars, which is Heineken UK’s pub arm, operates around 2,400 pubs and is set to invest £39m​ in capex to renovate and reopen its tenanted & leased estate.

Mountstevens, who is the last member of the former Scottish & Newcastle/Courage UK management team remaining that was acquired by Heineken in 2008, explains: “People need to have drive and ambition, it won’t just happen for you.

“Ones of the best bits of advice I was ever given was to be yourself and be comfortable in yourself because leading is tiring and it requires energy.

“Me talking to you here now is no different to if I was down the pub with my mates or with the family.

“If you can be yourself and be consistent in terms of how you lead people and motivate people to work with you that’s hugely important.”

He adds anyone with ambition shouldn’t stick a dot on a career map and think they will achieve it in a linear route “because the world doesn’t work like that and, increasingly, won’t work like that”.

He advises someone who wants to be a leader should consider depth and breadth of experience, particularly in their early career, because that knowledge will be of benefit in the future when bigger roles arise.

Lawson Mountstevens news article for 120524

“If you’ve had more breadth of experience, you are fundamentally a better and more engaging leader,” he says. “I’m convinced the ability to get away and switch off in my personal life, be that with the family or friends, makes me a better leader.

“You can’t be intense and on it all the time, you’ll just exhaust your team and we’ve all worked with a few people like that and ultimately that’s not the most engaging environment.

“You need to have a great team with people you trust and you empower them to get on with it.”

Wandering around pubs blindly

Mountstevens grew up in Tiverton, Devon, and went to Manchester University then faced a choice between two graduate trainee opportunities after returning from travelling in Australia for a year.

One was working in the bread industry and one was working in the pub industry, which he says wasn’t really a difficult decision.

He joined, what was then, Grand Metropolitan as a graduate trainee and was “wandering around the pubs blindly in October 1990”.

And although the ownership has changed a number of times, he has technically been with the same company since then.

Grand Met went to Courage then Scottish & Newcastle, which went to Heineken, he states, and has “done most commercial field-based operational roles in the on-trade and pub business”.

The business was split in 2016 to really focus on the pub business and then some 1,900 Punch Taverns pubs were was acquired in 2017.

The Golden Grove, Chertsey for BI
The Golden Grove in Chertsey, Surrey

The highlights of his career so far are not so easy to pinpoint. “That’s difficult,” he begins. “There’s an element of longevity in it but I’ve been lucky enough to work in a great industry, one that I thoroughly enjoy, met some fantastic people, worked with some fantastic people and for all its challenges, it’s been fantastic.

“Growing the pub business – to get Heineken fully involved in the pub business – through what was the old Scottish & Newcastle Pub Enterprises estate, working through that to get to a clean leased & tenanted business and proving that model does work and then expanding it by buying the Punch business is something I’m hugely proud of – not only the physical acquisition of it but the development of the team and what we’re trying to do with that business on an ongoing basis.”

He explains when Heineken bought Scottish & Newcastle, it had about 1,200 pubs, which were in a “legacy agreement” of some being owned by banks where Heineken had a management contract and some were in leasing agreements, etc. but a positive that came out of the smoking ban and financial crisis enabled the business to tidy all that up and buy the freeholds to those pubs.

“That showed if you’ve got a clean pub ownership structure where you can work directly with tenants with no banks or third parties involved with investments in the pubs, you could do good things and create really great, sustainable businesses,” he says. “That gave us the confidence to buy the Punch business, which trebled us in size after adding almost 2,000 pubs and took us up to about 3,100 pubs.

“Since then, we’ve divested of a number of pubs and now we’re currently at 2,400 pubs so that was a seismic transaction.”

When it comes to low points, he admits he has been lucky enough to not have too many.

He describes the smoking ban of 2008 when volume sales “dropped off the edge of a cliff” and Covid as “difficult moments”.

There’s two different answers to this. I’ll give you one then my wife can give you the other one!

Most recently, the utilities situation has been really another difficult moment because it affected every pub and business differently depending on what energy contract they are on but, again, Mountstevens sees this as another challenge as opposed to low point.

As a leader in the industry, there has to be a balancing of work and personal life, Mountstevens jokes: “There’s two different answers to this. I’ll give you one then my wife can give you the other one!

“It’s something you do need to be aware of and it’s just that ability to be able to switch off and step back from it.

“Family, friends and a social life are really important and I’m lucky enough that I can do that.

“There’s definitely bits of the family growing up and stuff like that I missed and if I was to go again, I’d reappraise bits but what is great is that you see new leaders coming through and they’re much more conscious of that than perhaps we were 10 to 15 years ago.

“That culture of work has changed quite a bit. It’s something you really need to be conscious of and you are fundamentally a better leader if you are able to step back, detach from work and then come back into it.”

The Unicorn, Cardiff interior for BI
The Unicorn in Cardiff, Wales

Pressure is always going to be part of anyone’s job but Mountstevens looks at this from a slightly different perspective.

“I’m not sure it’s pressure but Heineken is a huge company with 80,000-odd employees over the globe and in the UK we have a unique spectrum of pubs so the process of explaining pubs, positioning pubs, positioning our business model and where we are that’s a cycle we continually have to work our way through and it does cause pinch points because we are battling for investment into the UK, we’re battling for investment into our pub estate and can be talking to people who don’t, quite naturally, know it.

“It's a different business model so explaining the nuances of the leased & tenanted business model to enough detail, but not too much detail, and the managed operator agreement, does cause pinch points rather than absolute pressure.”

Good for the sector

Proud moments have been plentiful, including the growth of the business, the development of the teams and the opportunities that have been created for individuals and for pubs.

Mountstevens adds: “I passionately believe in and love pubs, and therefore to create a vehicle where we’ve invested significantly as a multinational that’s been really good for the sector and something we are very proud of.

“That has led to opportunities being created for operators up and down the down the country and it’s fantastic when you see their entrepreneurial flair combined with our structural investment come together. It’s bloody brilliant.

“We’ve created great opportunities for people within Heineken and for people to come and join Star that have been that I’m really proud of.

“Also, how we managed Covid and proved the true partnership of the tenanted model and how we were straightforward and up front on things is something you have to be proud of.”

We’re in a good place now but it’s been a bit of a journey of learning

Many leaders find something that surprises them about the role when they reach the top tiers but Mountstevens’ shock was different to many other people’s.

He explains: “I’ll tell you one thing that never cease to amaze me is how much people expect you to know about everything in the business, like you’re some sort of like Svengali. Personally, I just can’t know the lot – and I’m rooted in the business.

“I know quite a bit but you meet people who expect you to know all the nuances of an individual pub or an individual policy. It never ceases to surprise me because no one knows the lot.

“The wonderful thing about the pub business is we put in structures, ways of working and high-level principles and all that sort of stuff but the thing about pubs is they’re local, and the only people who know a lot of those answers are the local team and the local operators. That’s the magic of pubs.”

Mountstevens talks about anything he may have done differently and picks Star’s managed model as an example. He says: “We’ve had great development with the Just Add Talent managed-operator model and we’ve seen that across the market with lots of other players doing good stuff in that space.

“If I were to go back, we definitely under-called the back-office complexity of what we needed to put in to really make it successful and under-called the front-end capability piece to make it scalable and work our way through it.

“That’s one of those things where hindsight is a wonderful thing but that is one thing where if we would have just paused and thought that through a bit more and really tried to simplify it from the start, we would have rolled it out quicker and more efficiently.

“We’re in a good place now but it’s been a bit of a journey of learning.”

On the subject of leadership being potentially a lonely position to be in, Mountstevens says he doesn’t find that to be the case broadly but if results aren’t quite where they need to be then “it is lonely and sometimes when there’s some really tough decisions to make then, ultimately, they fall with you and that can be too”.

Golden Grove exterior for BI
The exterior of the Golden Grove in Chertsey

He adds: “If you create the right teams in the right environment and have the right relationships, you know you can have that openness of dialogue but I would never say never because at times there are times when you sit there and think ‘this one sits with me’.”

His advice continues with a helping hand for smaller pub groups wishing to grow.

“We’ve seen some amazing businesses grow and what they’ve all got in common is they really understand what their offer is and understand the consumer they’re after.

It’s how you develop your staff and for entrepreneurs that is challenging because... they have to be able to step back and trust others

“You also need to know what it is you do. That then goes to outlet selection, clarity of what the consumer gets, consistency, and all that sort of stuff which is so important.

“And then, as they grow, they’ve got to develop that operational structure. It’s that classic, one brilliant pub run by a couple of individuals but those people can’t be everywhere.

“So, as a business grows, it’s how you develop your staff and for entrepreneurs that is challenging because a lot of time it’s their drive, their offer so you have to be able to step back enough and trust other people to deliver it on an individual pub level.

“You’ve got to start building your talent and your operational structure from within your existing business. It’s very challenging to go in cold, take on a pub and put a whole new team in that have never worked with you because you need to drive your consistency of offer and delivery.

“One of the great things about the pub business is there’s numerous multiple operators who do that brilliantly.”

Summarising the top three qualities a good leader should have, he states: “You need to be yourself, be consistent and believe in people and teams – and have the ability to trust, particularly in the pub business where no one area does it all, and be comfortable with ambiguity as well.

“Creating the right culture and environment for a business to move forward and deliver but doing it in the right way by putting the right frameworks in place and spending time around people and culture.”

Mountstevens says he doesn’t have any “huge” regrets but reveals: “If you take it back to the start of the story and said to me that the person who started at Grand Met Brewing would have had the career and the opportunities I’ve had from a work perspective, I’d say ‘blimey, thank you very much, that’s incredible’.

“If it was absolutely disastrous, and I could reel off 30 regrets, this might be my last Big Interview!”


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