The Big Interview with Tim Martin: ‘Surviving for another 30 years would be a hell of a challenge’

By Amelie Maurice-Jones

- Last updated on GMT

The face of JDW: Tim Martin’s meditations on loneliness, finding his life’s purpose and meeting Prince William
The face of JDW: Tim Martin’s meditations on loneliness, finding his life’s purpose and meeting Prince William

Related tags Jd wetherspoon Tim martin Pubco + head office Multi-site pub operators

“Listen more, don’t be so obnoxious you big git, and there’s no need to drink four pints of Abbot every single night.”

This is advice Tim Martin would give his younger self. Wise words. But in January the JD Wetherspoon (JDW) boss bagged a knighthood​, so the 24-year-old Norwich native must’ve been doing something right when he launched that first Muswell Hill pub in 1979.

Fast forward 44 years, and Martin now passes time by cruising around his pub empire. He visits up to 15 sites per week to say hi, thank staff, observe standards and inevitably shoot the breeze with a customer or two. “That’s it,” he chortles. “There is no magic formula. There ain't no easy way out.”

I join for one of these visits at the Metropolitan, Marylebone, central London. It’s raining outside. “I’m just gonna say hello to the folks,” he tells me, sauntering around the bar before returning with tea for him, cappuccino for me. Launching into the story of his morning, Martin seems like a man in need of caffeine. At 5.30am he woke up, exercised for 20 minutes (rather than his usual hour), made the 35-minute odyssey to Leicester Square before a flurry of press interviews.

"Costs are quite high, but the overall situation has improved immeasurably from a couple of years ago.

Fast forward to 9am and we’re face-to-face in Baker Street. Lights loom amid chipped golden pillars, and slot machines tower over kitsch furniture, blazing neon ads like ‘WIN UP TO £100’, and ‘FRUITINATOR’, before sobering reminders to ‘Stay in control/ Set your limit’. The morning crowd is a quiet smattering of laptop workers and Diet Coke enthusiasts.

In March,​ JDW reported soaring profits (an 8.2% uptick in total sales versus a like-for-like period in 2023), and hinted at the possibility for 1,000 new sites. In its latest May trading update,​ the firm revealed it had sold 18 sites to the landlord in the past year, while also announced a 5.2% increase in like-for-like sales in the 13 weeks to 28 April 2024 against the same period last year.

“I’m pleased with the way things are recovering,” says the 69-year-old, shrugging an anorak from his shoulders. “It hasn’t been a fast recovery, but sales are back to record levels. Costs are quite high, but the overall situation has improved immeasurably from a couple of years ago.” Like most businesses in the hospitality trade, JDW was battered by Covid and high inflation,​ making a loss for three years between 2020 and 2022.

But while more than 500 pubs​ closed across the country in 2023 with business confidence wavering,​ JDW is bouncing back. So what is the pub giant doing differently? Martin keeps his answer ambiguous: “I’ve always described pubs as 1,000 components of a BMW, so you’ve got to work on all the components, from staff training, staff retention, to the upkeep of the building, to design, and so on,” he gestures to one corner where the artwork is a mishmash of stern portraiture and lurid psychedelic tunnels, “... so there’s no one thing but it’s the combination of everything.”

December will be a big month for the pub boss - he’ll celebrate 45 years in the trade (“god I’m getting old”). The businessman hopes he won’t retire until 112. But does he see JDW as his life’s purpose? “I suppose, like everyone, it’s a mixture of things,” Martin considers, “but it’s been a very important part of life, and it supports 40,000 people in a job.”

“It’s sad to have your emotions go up and down with like-for-like sales but that’s exactly how people in the industry are.”

As always, the qualified barrister is dressed casually. He is a picture of tranquillity as he gazes round the pub. “There are other things in life as well,” Martin goes on, slinging one leg over the other, “you wouldn’t expect anyone to put their job above their family, for example.”

But Martin’s four children and 10 grandchildren won’t be inheriting the JDW kingdom. He’s never fancied a dynasty. “This puts unfair pressure on the next generation, and none of the next generation has shown the slightest desire to do what I do, which I can understand,” he chuckles. “I’ve never asked them to work in it and they’ve never asked if they could. They probably know it’s not as easy as it looks.”

And it’s true. Martin, who towers at 6ft 6 inches, does make the job look pretty easy. He lists off qualities his successor should have: “A passion for the business, a good work ethic, a listener. Above all [they need to be] someone who recognises he or she doesn’t know too much.” While he considers himself a “jack of all trades,” the next in line might have to be a “master of one or two more”.

Fair enough. By 2008, JDW had amassed 800 venues. In 2024, the company brags more than 900 locations,​ with JDW lauded as a “fixture of British culture”.​ Over this period Martin has experienced his fair share of knockbacks and wins. The first few years were “very, very stressful,” but the most difficult period has been pre-flotation where the pubco struggled for money. And the next difficult era was, you guessed it, when all pubs closed​ in the pandemic.

Difficult to be lonely in the pub world

He is happiest when things are going well. “It’s sad to have your emotions go up and down with like-for-like sales but that’s exactly how people in the industry are,” he shrugs, which explains his breezy mood during the interview.

Some say leadership is a lonely place to be. Not for Martin, though. He speaks in a low self-assured drawl: “It’s difficult to be lonely in the pub world.​ I try to make sure I’m not making decisions on my own. They call it a collegiate approach to decision making - that means everyone’s involved. That alleviates stress and loneliness because you can blame everyone else if it goes wrong.”

Martin bursts into laughter, then he hurriedly adds, “that’s a joke by the way.”

“There’s no point worrying about things you can’t control."

But what causes the most pressure in his role? “I think… the relentless need to make small improvements,” he answers carefully, speaking so slowly that I often wonder if he’s trailed off “...the need to get better as time goes by.” Is he a perfectionist? “No.” And is it hard to evolve while staying true to the company’s identity? Martin says there are core values that don’t change. JDW sites serve traditional ale and have a big concentration on design. They’ll also never play music.

“I’m not a techie sort of guy,” explains Martin, holding up his hands where a blue watch is held by a worn thread. But in some ways, the pubco has kept up to speed with the digital age,​ now boasting TVs and an iconic app, which counts for around a third of sales. “It’s an astonishing change really,” remarks Martin, as India’s election coverage erupts in protests from a flat screen TV above the bar.

But judgment doesn’t really concern him. “There’s no point worrying about things you can’t control, and I don’t think I can really control it, unless,” he considers, “I go in disguise around the pubs perhaps.”

“Change your hairstyle,” I offer as a suggestion. But Martin has better ideas: “People ask do people recognise you, I say no not in my short skirt and high heels!” Another peal of laughter.

But Martin’s been dogged by his fair share of controversy, which I doubt even a short skirt and high heels could protect him from. Let’s talk about Brexit. “Oh yeah, yeah.” Martin, who ploughed £200,000 into the Vote Leave campaign and spent £95,000 on pro-Brexit merch,​ chuckles knowingly. “I thought we might get on to that.”

Many industry voices have spoken out against Brexit. Former Pizza Express owner Luke Johnson has admitted​ it cost the UK economy growth, while publicans complain it has led to a ‘talent hole’.​ Martin gives his two cents on the situation now: “It’s key not to wind up Remainers because everyone’s got their views. Now, it’s eight years since the referendum. Brexit is a very good idea because what it means is the country is run by people we’ve elected. The EU has an unelected president, and MEPs who can’t initiate legislation, and a court that isn’t responsible to democratic parliament, so it’s got a democratic deficit.

“I believe in the future of the world, we’ve got to have democracy everywhere. Democracy’s pretty chaotic, but we’ve got the lowest ever unemployment in history. That must say something. Is it all sweetness and light? No.” 

JDW has also restocked European products axed in 2019: “Erdinger is back, Courvoisier has returned.”

But Martin’s days of political campaigning are over, allegedly. “I wouldn’t like to pop up every five minutes and make a political point,” he claims. “That’s enough for me. I’m now going back to neutrality. I’ve criticised certain bits of legislation, but [would] not actually say ‘you should vote for Ed Davey, or Keir Starmer or Rishi Sunak.’”

Despite this, Martin’s politics has found its way into headlines. He donated £50,000​ to the Conservative Party ahead of the 2019 general election, but has hinted that he could see himself voting Labour​ in the next election if they have a “decent set of policies''.

“My main concern is an incipient anti-business attitude among senior politicians who should know better, playing to the gallery and not having sensible long-term economic policy.”

Hell of a challenge

Talking of the backlash to his standpoints, he goes on: “There definitely has become a worrisome trait of saying ‘no, people shouldn’t be allowed to express a view,’ which is quite dangerous. If you run a business and support a particular political party, that’s fair enough. People shouldn’t be vilified for it.”

He is also happy to be a vocal critic of Government when the pub sector comes into play. A VAT cut​ for hospitality is “inevitable,” claims Martin, who has spoken unapologetically on the need for tax equality between pubs and supermarkets. “...But politicians are slow learners,” he continues.” The VAT cut was not announced in the Spring Budget, leaving the sector “bitterly disappointed”​ after months of campaigning. “When you’ve got very, very powerful supermarkets being taxed less than weaker hospitality businesses, then that isn’t a sustainable situation.”

The Exeter local has weathered many storms after nearly half a decade in the trade. But while he claims a ‘pro-business’ attitude in parliament helped the industry surmount challenges like high inflation in the ‘50s and low investment from the outside world, he doubts whether this is still the case: “My main concern is an incipient anti-business attitude among senior politicians who should know better, playing to the gallery and not having sensible long-term economic policy.”

He’s confident trade will still exist in the future but fears it is under tremendous pressure: “When I started out in the pub trade, 90% of beer was sold in pubs. The latest figure I’ve seen is 41%, so that’s a huge business and social change. Without tax equality, the 41% will go down. JDW has the capacity to do well even so, but it does mean you’re fighting with one hand tied behind your back.”

There’s also the concern that young people are going off alcohol.​ Gen Z drink around 20% less​ than millennials, who also drink less than older generations. Does this worry Martin? But he turns the question back on me: “I haven’t seen, in truth, that younger people do drink less… would you say they do?”

And to be honest, he points out, it’s difficult to tell. “If you did a survey saying ‘how often do you get rat arsed’, I’m not sure you’d get very many honest replies.”

Over his time in the trade, Martin has redefined the meaning of ‘success’. It used to be about trying to earn a buck, but now it’s about working for the other people in the business. “Surviving for another 30 years would be a success,” he adds, “this would be a hell of a challenge.”

Martin was knighted in the New Year Honours list for services to hospitality and culture earlier this year. This was a move many considered an outrage,​ while others wondered why it had taken so long.​ Speaking to the BBC,​ Martin said: “I think it’s the JDW colleagues and customers who are getting the award really. I’m just the lucky recipient.”

“Selling low priced beer makes you very popular, now there’s a surprise isn’t it!”

A personal success, perhaps. But Martin isn’t overly bothered. “In a way other people treat it more seriously than I do myself,” he says of the knighthood. “Could I have lived without it? Yes. Do I use the title? No. But it’s good fun.” He met Prince William who his heart went out to: “I thought he was a nice fella, he’s got quite a hard job, doing 30 or 40 honours a week or whatever the number is, hacking around the country. It’s probably not as easy as it looks… no privacy.”

“Tough life,” I chip in. “Could be,” Martin muses philosophically. “In some ways it’s a luxurious life and in other ways it’s living in a gilded cage.”

At this point we’re interrupted as an excited punter scurries to the table. “I just want to say you’re a great bloke, I love your pubs,” he gushes. Martin laughs good naturedly: “You’re a man of taste.”

Then he turns to me: “That happens quite a lot.” It must be nice, people telling you how great you are all the time. “Selling low priced beer makes you very popular,” Martin says, “now there’s a surprise isn’t it!”

As we wrap up the interview Londoners enter the pub and shake off umbrellas. Outside the sky is a depressing slab of miserable grey.

Correction and Apology

The Morning Advertiser stated in an article dated 24 May 2024 that the Chairman of J D Wetherspoon, Sir Tim Martin, stated that the company could not continue to pay employees during the Covid-19 pandemic. This is incorrect.

It is accepted that:

  • J D Wetherspoon Plc did not tell its employees they would not be paid nor did J D Wetherspoon tell its employees that the company could not pay them.
  • At no point were employees not paid during the Covid-19 Pandemic. All employees were paid for work done and / or paid furlough, as applicable.

We apologise to J D Wetherspoon and Sir Tim Martin for the incorrect statement contained in the article.

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