The Big Interview: 'I'm never happy, never satisfied' says Admiral boss

By Nikkie Thatcher

- Last updated on GMT

Sector exec: Chris Jowsey has headed up Admiral Taverns since 2019
Sector exec: Chris Jowsey has headed up Admiral Taverns since 2019

Related tags Pubco + head office Multi-site pub operators Tenanted + leased Admiral

Modest is the word that springs to mind when speaking with Chris Jowsey.

The Admiral Taverns boss openly admits to being more used to talking about the business rather than himself.

Jowsey joined Admiral in 2019​, succeeding Kevin Georgel, who is now CEO at St Austell Brewery.

Upon his appointment as chief executive of the pub company, Jowsey had 18 years of experience in the on-trade, joining the pubco from Heineken UK where he had overseen the growth and expansion of its Star Pubs & Bars leased and tenanted business, looking after 2,700 pubs.

Shortly after joining the business, Admiral acquired 150 pubs from Star​ and in the same year, Jowsey revealed the company was eyeing a 1,500-strong estate​.

But before all of that, the Newcastle United football fan had a different path into the hospitality sector.

He says: “I came out of university and had no idea what I was going to do. I fell into hotel management of smaller hotels and actually quite enjoyed that. But it took up an awful lot of time, it takes over your life.

“From there, I joined the health service, where I stayed for about 10 years including on the blood transfusion service, which I really enjoyed.

“I got to a stage where I had about 600 people working for me when I was in my early 30s and it was great to get a real opportunity to do that at an early age.

“But then I got fed up with that and in the year 2000, I decided I was going to be a dot com millionaire!”

“The day I joined, it issued its first ever profit warning, I’m sure the things aren’t linked, hopefully!”

It was at this stage of his career Jowsey entered the on-trade arena, using his expertise to help businesses.

“Clearly, as you can tell, that didn’t work but I learned an enormous amount doing that. From there, I ended up working for myself but with Scottish & Newcastle as a consultant for about a year.

“The day I joined, it issued its first ever profit warning, I’m sure the things aren’t linked, hopefully!” he laughs.

These days, long hours and nights away are par for the course as Admiral chief executive, something that can have an impact on family life.

Being a father of four and husband means Jowsey makes the most of the quality time he spends with his family.

“It’s tough. I effectively work away from home for four days a week so I disappear at dawn on Monday and on a good week, get back on Thursday night,” he explains.

“The family are used to it and I’m used to it because I’ve been doing that for probably more than 15 years but you do miss things if you’re away from home for that amount of time.

“When I am home, it’s important we are together. We’re a very close family, I’ve got four kids. My favourite time of the week is actually 6pm on a Friday because on a good week, me, my wife Debbie and the kids are all in the pub at that time and it’s become a kind of ritual.

“It’s a really good way of letting the week go and reconnecting with the family. In this business, you know it’s a 24/7 job because the pubs are always open, you’re always on but you try to create that space over the weekend for family things as well. I find that helps to clear my head and keep me sane.”

Alongside family time, focusing on sport outside of work is also something Jowsey does, helping him switch off from work and being his escape.

“When I am home, it’s important we are together."

“It’s really healthy to have that sporting past time. I love all sport but I’m also a mad Newcastle United fan and I’ve got a season ticket with two of the boys,” he adds.

“I play cricket still and help to run my local club so if I can play on a Saturday afternoon, I’m delighted.

“Where I play, it’s a beautiful scene with the river next to it, the stunning hills around. I feel very lucky to be able to do that and I feel like it makes me reset for the morning.”

The Admiral boss outlines how exercise plays an important role in maintaining his mental health.

“The job can be relentless and that’s fine but you’ve got to find ways of switching off so I love to run. That’s my break.

“If I can, I like to do that first thing in the morning and if not, it will be later at night. But I do like to run first thing in the morning. It clears my brain and helps to refocus.”

However, being a driven individual, Jowsey doesn’t just run for fun, he has also set himself a particular goal.

Pressure and privilege

“I also love a target so I’m signed up for the Great North Run in September. I had a foot reconstruction about five years ago and because I made a mess of my foot from lots of sports and wear and tear, I haven’t been able to do long distance and haven’t done a half marathon since then,” the Admiral boss says.

“This would be my first one for five years and I’m going to run it with two of my sons and my nephew.

“We’ll have a great time. They’ll have to wait for me at the end but we’ll go for a couple of pints afterwards to get rid of the pain.”

While some might feel the weight of the world on their shoulders when heading up a business like Admiral, Jowsey turns this into a positive, in line with his optimistic demeaner, which is the case throughout the interview.

He says: “I really enjoy and love what I do so in a sense, I don’t feel pressure. I was listening to something on the radio and sports people talk about pressure being a privilege.

“I get there is a pressure but I enjoy it so much that I don’t see it like that. The biggest challenge though is making choices.

“Particularly with smaller businesses like Admiral, you have to choose what you do and how you spend your time and resources.

“That’s the biggest challenge – to make sure you make good choices around where you put your time and energy.”

Despite these challenges, Jowsey’s positivity continues to shine and it’s clear he isn’t one to dwell on the past.

Throughout his career, both in and out of hospitality, there isn’t anything he’d change, but rather looks the experience in different roles and how it has helped him along the way.

“I wouldn’t change anything, I’m really glad for the multiple experiences I’ve had.”

“I’ve learnt different things from different jobs, different employers and different industries. I tell people I’m not a dyed in the wool brewer, I’ve not been in that one industry of brewing and pubs forever and that’s quite helpful because you can become quite blinkered and see an industry in a very one-dimensional way if you’re not careful," he says.

“I love the fact I can draw on different experiences from different places, especially outside the industry.

“The fact I was a failed dot com millionaire stood me in really good stead and if nothing else, I learned about how important cash is.

“A lot of our licensees understand but a lot of our corporate employees don’t because they never worry about cash.

“I wouldn’t change anything, I’m really glad for the multiple experiences I’ve had.”

Having that breadth of experience has also meant Jowsey has worked with a myriad of different people and personalities, something again he has learned from.

“You get the understand different people want and need different things. They’ve all got their own perspective,” he adds.

“My wife used to say to me ‘Chris, you’re really good at standing in other people’s shoes but you’re still looking through your eyes, have a think about what they look for’.

“It was really good insight because I will look through my perspective. You’ve got to at least understand it, even if you don’t agree with it or do anything about it.”

So while the pub company boss doesn’t dwell, he is aware of areas he could perhaps change.

“[I am] very proud of the Publican Award we won this year."

“I do like looking forward, I’m not one for looking back. If anything, I should probably look back a bit more,” Jowsey admits.

“If you ask the team here, they’d probably say we wouldn’t mind celebrating a bit and I’m more like we’ve done that, well done, let’s go and do this now.

“I’m a bit driven is the word that tends to get used, so occasionally reflecting and celebrating a bit more wouldn’t go amiss.”

In terms of mistakes he has made throughout his career, Jowsey confesses to a number of learnings around people and pushing alterations when they could have been enacted in a more empathetic way.

“In the past I have made some real people mistakes where I've either believed what I was told when I shouldn't have done but I also think I've driven things through, changes very quickly in an organisation in a very unsympathetic way,” he says.

“If you get the balance wrong with change, sometimes you have to drive it but if you just force it in, you tend to pay for that later because it doesn't embed and people resist and hold on to the past.

“I am definitely guilty of doing some of that and I hope now I'd be more not necessarily slower because you have to get through the uncertainties as quickly as you can with change so you can move on but I would be much more empathetic and work much harder at the preparation and ensuring people understood why we needed to make changes.

“I'd listen very carefully if they said 'rather than doing that change in that way, can we do in this way' so I'm more receptive to that than I would have been in my impetuous youth.”

Proud moment

But he’s clearly doing the right thing at Admiral. The community wet-led operator division Proper Pubs was named Community Pub Operator 2024.

On the accolade, Jowsey says: “[I am] very proud of the Publican Award we won​ this year. At the top of our strategy, it says we want to be recognised as Britain’s leading community pub company and that has been the top line for the past three years or so.

“We achieved that and it was a really proud moment. I’m also chuffed to bits because that was led by Proper Pubs so I’m really delighted for Mark Brooke and the rest of that team because they worked so hard at it. That has certainly been the proudest moment in my Admiral career.”

But this isn’t his only highlight over the years. The business has been busy with its acquisition and capital expenditure activity.

Just last month (May), Admiral reached an agreement to purchase 37 pubs from Fuller’s​ for £18.3m while recent refurbishments on existing sites have cost big sums such as a £286,000 makeover on the Hare & Hounds​ in Nuneaton, Warwickshire.

Back in 2021, Admiral bought Hawthorn, the Community Pub Company​ for an expected gross aggregate cash consideration of about £222.3m, which at the time, took the Chester-based firm ‘s estate to more than 1,600 sites, adding 674 predominantly tenanted, leased and operator managed sites to its portfolio.

This acquisition was also up there as one of Jowsey’s proudest moments. He says: “It wasn’t just the acquiring it, it was the way we integrated it – sensitively but very quickly and we’ve achieved what we set out to and nearly doubled in size as a consequence which wasn’t a small feat either.”

Another achievement during his tenure is the support Admiral provided its licensees with amid the Covid pandemic where rent payments were cancelled​ when the crisis first hit with tapered support that followed.

Furthermore, during this tumultuous period where the sector was opened and closed multiple times, Jowsey was vocal in his opinions on pubs reopening​ and made repeated calls to the Government for support for wet-led pubs.

“This is one industry where you genuinely can go from the shop floor to being the chief exec of a pub business."

He highlights: “We behaved the right way, supported licensees in the right way. We worked really hard with the MPs, the press, anybody that would listen, to get them behind hospitality, licensees and pubs, which has been really helpful for the industry over the past few years as well, since the pandemic.”

Admiral has also fundraised for a charity close to Jowsey’s heart, which aims to normalise the subject of mental health and ensure people can access support when they need it.

Events to raise the cash included a 34-mile hike across the Sandstone Trail in Cheshire resulting in more than 1,100 miles being walked by the team.

Jowsey says: “Last year we raised £100,000 for Chasing the Stigma charity​, which is a small charity that has a national reach because there is an app called the Hub of Hope, which directs you to various mental health support services across the UK.

“[It’s] really innovative, really clever but really focused on helping people who have mental health issues.

“My daughter has had some quite difficult mental health challenges over the years so working with them and supporting them and hopefully helping lots of different people across the UK is really important to me personally because it's a personal thing, I get it, I understand it.”

When it comes the pub trade, Jowsey advocates for the sector and the opportunities it can offer, especially when it comes to career progression.

“This is one industry where you genuinely can go from the shop floor to being the chief exec of a pub business and I'm delighted lots of them do, most people have come up through the ranks.

“You have to work hard but you have to be really passionate about the industry, you have to believe in hospitality and what it can do.”

In fact, when it comes to advice, he has various top tips to other operators.

“We might not always succeed but we want to​That could be described as a pain in the arse as well, which it often is but that goes with the territory!”

He offers: “Listen to what people are saying to you and why they are saying it. Observe – most great pub people are really observant, they are watching consumers, what's going on in the pub, the retailing aspect, they are very clear and fastidious observers of what's going on.

“They are all very adaptable, our industry is changing every day constantly and the people who are successful are open to that, you've got to be adaptable to change and open to it.
You've got to ask the right questions and communicate really well, which would stand you in good stead in any industry.

“That passion, openness, adaptability and belief in yourself because if you do then you can go a long way in this industry.”

The constant striving for improvement is something Jowsey is honest about when it comes to business and how he conducts it.

He adds: “I'm never happy, I'm never satisfied, I want to make it better. It's a fundamental tick in the back of my head.

“I like businesses like that and I like people like that so hopefully there is never any complacency in our business, no matter what we are doing or what we are talking about, we are always trying to make it better.

“We might not always succeed but we want to. ​That could be described as a pain in the arse as well, which it often is but that goes with the territory!”

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