The Big Interview: running a pub is ‘unfinished business’ for BII CEO Alton

By Gary Lloyd

- Last updated on GMT

Tech expert: Steve Alton was inspired when volunteering for the BII
Tech expert: Steve Alton was inspired when volunteering for the BII

Related tags Big Interview Steve Alton British institute of innkeeping Bii Government Social responsibility

Steve Alton, pub licensee… sounds good doesn’t it? Well, it could be a reality one day so stay tuned.

The chief executive of trade body, the British Institute of Innkeeping (BII), tells The Morning Advertiser​ he considers not having run a pub as a possible regret in his career.

Alton confesses: “I’m not sure my family will thank me for this – and maybe I’ll do it at some point – is I’m just so inspired by great publicans and what great pubs stand for, and that’s running a pub.

“Maybe that’s unfinished business for me to get out there and do something myself at some point because I’ve I started in pub as my first job when I was at university while I did my degree.

“I run my village hall pub five or six times a year because we have no pub in in the locality at all so I am the licensee and I just love it, I absolutely love it.

“At the right time, something might come up and change my mind. I think I would enjoy it even despite all the challenges which I don’t underestimate.

“So seeing good friends, colleagues and members running successful pubs… it could that have been an opportunity. Who knows?

“I naturally enjoy engaging with people and getting those small things right really matters to me whether it’s glassware or being greeted with a smile and ‘it’s great to see you again’ and those things.”

Although the Derbyshire-based business leader states he has no major regrets, he explains: “I don’t believe I have, I don’t think I’ve ever taken a wrong turn. All steps in any career are hugely additive because you learn something even if it didn’t work out as you would expected it to – it’s all building.

“Resilience is a huge issue, particularly in the modern world, because things don’t go right all the time and that’s OK. It’s how you cope with it and get up and go again that’s fundamental.

“The volatility and uncertainty in the world means we’re in need of a different type of thinking. It needs for me to recognise this won’t be the first, or last time, things go wrong.”

We needed to be that trusted voice and help cut through all of the noise and misinformation

Alton has spent just under 30 years leading technology businesses after leaving university and wasn’t sure what he was going do but joined BT and was there for about 20 years including 10 years running sales.

“I was very fortunate to be successful in that and running large national teams, which is fab, but at the same time, I was doing my MBA (Master of Business Administration), which I did as distance learning and that took five years,” he explains.

“I did 10 years in BT in business-to-business sales all about technology enabling better business performance and then I spent 10 years running businesses that BT had acquired.

“I ran one of the biggest security businesses in the UK that did everything from fire and security alarms through to CCTV, including the congestion charge camera system.

“I was due to leave and go to another role but was coaxed into staying to run an outsourcing practice and I loved it.”

After 20 years, Alton joined an on-trade business called Vianet (data and business insight business), which was about bringing insights and analytics to on-trade.

He volunteered for the BII during that time and, as an industry expert on insight, data and technology as something he knew very well, he was inspired and found something at the BII that was “incredibly special”.

He says: “The previous chief exec was due to step down so I resigned as a trustee and applied with many other people for the role and was successful.

“I started with the BII just before the pandemic and all the pubs were closed two weeks later. I’m coming up for five years in October.

“Whatever my plan A was this resigned to the filing cabinet and a plan B was rapidly drawn up.

“We needed to be that trusted voice and help cut through all of the noise and misinformation to really help our members do what they needed to do to keep their businesses and their teams together and functioning during that period.”

Phenomenal team performance

Alton has enjoyed plenty of highlights during his career. He recalls: “I’ve been very fortunate that during my time, particularly with BT, I was very successful in sales and was very fortunate to win various awards, travel abroad, etc. and I would also say completing my MBA was a really interesting journey because I was applying it in my business in real time, it wasn’t just some kind of arm’s length academic thing that I did.

“The access I got to incredibly interesting people to get their perspectives had a quite a profound impact on my view of the world and really cutting through the management speak to get to what authentic leaders really did and how they really made a difference.”

But the thing Alton is most proud of is the way he has been able to lead his BII team through the pandemic and pick up a Trade Association Forum award for crisis management for how the business supported its members through the pandemic.

“It was a phenomenal team performance to do that,” he enthuses. “Unlike many others, we we’re not furloughed we didn’t go offline, in fact our world got incredibly complicated.”

Having not suffered too many low points, Alton says it was probably when he was burning himself out entirely doing his MBA.

He adds: “Back then I had a big, serious sales target on my head as well so you’re in the ultimate performance management role where there’s no ambiguity and there’s a big number to hit so that was quite tough.

“But I got so much from it. It was a low point. I’m reasonably energised as an individual but even I felt the batteries drain at points when I was doing them both together but, overall, I haven’t got that many low points. I’m very blessed that I’ve enjoyed enormously all the roles I’ve done.”

Rectangular logo and steve alton collage

Of course, balancing a family and work life is not the easiest and, according to Alton, it’s not unique to him and is challenging for all working people with children.

“I’ve got a 15-year-old and a 17-year-old and they went through the pandemic and that had a profound effect on them in terms of their socialisation,” he states.

“It’s very tricky. You want to be there for them but I’m away extensively from home so I have huge empathy for my colleagues and I’d like to think we, as a team, are hugely respectful of that and recognise this (work) is only part of your life.

“If we get the balance right – and it is life-work not work-life balance – we’re OK in terms of the time we got to spend with our families as well, particularly during the pandemic.

“So yes, it’s tough but I’m very fortunate that I’ve got two sons who share my love of pubs. And there’s no such thing as a holiday without going on a little bit of a BII member pub tour. I think they accept that, but they’re genuinely interested and they’re so interested now that both of them work in pubs.

“It’s their first jobs and they love it and they are really inspired about the pub sector and they have even talked about running a pub so we’ll see what happens.

“We decided, many years ago, to anchor the family in one place which was in the middle of the country in Derbyshire. I’ve always travelled extensively with my roles so we leave them there to hopefully have some continuity in their lives. And I’m just going to make sure I’m present when I get back.”

And Alton admits the most pressure in his work is probably caused by himself.

He says he is a “very driven individual” and explains: “Something we talk about a lot is ‘permanent scepticism’ meaning there’s always a better way of doing things. Even if something is fabulous and fantastic, what other little thing could we do just to move it forward again?

“I’m probably my own worst enemy in a sense, where I put myself under a lot of a lot of pressure.”

He adds he thrives on change such as transformation, innovation, new ideas, etc. and spends a lot of his time talking to “really inspiring people” and, inevitably, he can’t not have amazing ideas from talking to all these individuals.

He says: “If you have the support then you can afford to make mistakes and just go for it and try things because that’s where real innovation comes from and not from the ‘safe bet’. The safe bet is the same thing that everybody else does.”

Showing humility

Does the CEO role come with any surprises?

Alton says: “The biggest surprise was I didn’t quite expect to be doing what I did at the start of my tenure. To have our members’ pubs shut at that point and I find myself on talking to Naga Munchetty on BBC Breakfast​ within a few days of taking over was probably not what I expected to be doing as CEO at that point in time.

“You’re always acutely aware of your accountability – it all does come back to me – but that is counteracted by having a brilliant team in place.

“You have moments where you clearly know that, ultimately, everything is on your head but because of the collaborative nature of the relationship I have with my senior leadership team, who I’m very proud to work alongside – plus the supportive nature of my trustees, my chair, the partners and industry friends, there’s always somebody that can help you.

“One of the biggest challenges for leaders is showing humility, showing you haven’t got all the answers and genuinely asking for help or checking your own thinking to make sure you’ve got things right.”

The very outgoing BII boss ponders about what he would do differently if he had the opportunity to start from scratch again.

“Again, this is a really tricky one because I don’t feel like I’ve taken lots of wrong turns and although hindsight is fabulous, you do what you do at the time,” Alton says.

“I started in a corporate setting and there was a pressure to maybe conform to some of the standards in place.

“It’s very much about you as an individual and you being explicitly seen as successful in your own right. One is the power of your ability to communicate with other people will be fundamental to your success in whatever sphere you choose to go into.

“And that’s paired alongside humility. If you ask somebody for help and you’re doing it in a very genuine way, nine times out of 10 people step up and they really want to help, which is fabulous.”

Alton confesses he would have liked to have been “just a little bit more my authentic self in my early days of corporate life”, adding it is inevitably that you adopt the behaviours of the people around you in that type of setting and you “probably don’t challenge that you can be yourself and maybe change some of your approaches”.

He adds: “If I was talking to my younger self, I say to be yourself more in those environments and probably be less corporate because as time goes on and particularly when you’re fortunate to interact with so many inspiring leaders, that is all about character, having a really balanced view of the of the world and being open minded.”

Alton is also a director of a number of companies, including being vice chair of Best Bar None, which “does some amazing work on setting professional standards around safer socialising”.

He’s also a “very proud” trustee of Only A Pavement Away, which is “transforming people’s lives and helping with the serious issue we’ve got around getting talent into the sector”.

Additionally, he is very involved with the Skills and Education Group, which is “all about professional standards, qualifications, apprenticeships, etc”.

We’re in a world now of ‘death of mediocrity’

The proudest moment for Alton was winning the Trade Association Forum award because he found it a fabulous way to celebrate with a team that had really pulled together and done something really important.

He says: “What we managed to achieve during that period and the feedback was so positive and humbling from our own members.

“That will forever stick out because – let’s hope we ever never ever go through anything quite like that again – it really mattered and I couldn’t be any more proud of the team.”

Alton is generous with his advice having received plenty over the years. If a young person wanted to try to reach the heights he has, he says: “There’s two or three things for me. One is definitely go for it. Think big and take that risk because you’re only going to regret decisions you didn’t take, right? You’re going to learn something from it and that things go wrong and that’s OK.

“You want people in teams that have had a tough time and had to deal with something because again, it’s that resilience.

“We have a value at the BII that we talk about, which is ‘keep calm and crack on’.

“And ask for help. It’s not a weakness. Sometimes the best ideas come from some people you don’t expect it from.”

He jokes: “One of the worst things for my team is when I phone to say ‘I’ve had an idea’. I get a little bit of a pause and then they go ‘OK, here we go… ’”

He explains a new membership platform for team members called Workforce that the BII has just launched for pub team members has allowed the team to look at new approaches working alongside collaborative partners with a shared purpose ​of ‘how do you develop and retain great talent for our sector because it’s fundamental to our success?’.

“And I’d say ‘be yourself’,” he adds. “You want to recruit for character because that is everything. You can always train for skills but you want the personality to be somebody who’s in the boat with you and sharing your purpose.”

Alton is a keen cyclist and states it is something that helps him with his work.

He says everybody’s worlds are increasingly incredibly noisy and cycling helps having been involved with the Pedalling For Pubs and Pedalling 2 Pubs challenges.

He explains: “Training on the bike on my own gives me time to think in beautiful countryside. I’m blessed where I live in Derbyshire and, unashamedly, pubs are brilliant pit stops so I visit lots of pubs for an ‘isotonic cycling supplement’, as I now call them so you get some space to reflect and thinking is absolutely key.”

But that is not the only thing he does in his own time to help improve his work. He adds: “Another one is just speaking to lots of interesting people. I find you have the most interesting conversations in the most unusual places and are totally unexpected.

“I find I’m nothing but inspired. In fact, I might go to the gym in the morning at stupid o’clock and a passing conversation suddenly turns into a call to my team at 9am saying ‘I’ve had an idea’.

“I don’t want to be too cheesy but reading really great books is interesting because you can really get behind somebody’s view that’s different to yours and can spark you.

“I’m naturally an extrovert. My way of relaxing after being away all week is to go to the pub on a Friday night because why wouldn’t you? But even I really value being out for four or five hours on my bike on my own and I come back after reflecting on the week and, undoubtedly, I’ll be writing something down when I get back.”

Utilise that point of difference

Some say leadership can create a lonely place for holders of the crown but Alton rarely finds this to be the case aside from “always being acutely aware of your accountability as a senior leader”.

He admits: “I’ve always felt hugely supported, be it from my own brilliant senior leadership team who are just a fabulous, diverse set of individuals who all think incredibly differently, which is great because we have some ferocious conversations, which is brilliant because we see the world differently.”

More advice from Alton, this time on burgeoning pubcos and brewers, is: “It’s about finding and exploiting that point of difference. Pubs and particularly small brewers, which I’m passionate about, are so distinctive and are reflections of the communities in which they operate.

“I’m surrounded by amazing local brewers. They need to recognise and utilise that point of difference and the local story they have. I would say go and speak to – and engage with – other pubs or other small brewers because that sense of collaboration is so strong in our sector that people want to help.

“There’s space for success in every community and that’s why collaboration works so well.

“We’re in a world now of ‘death of mediocrity’. That’s very clear. Being good enough is gone. Whatever you choose to be, do it brilliantly and if that’s a wet-led pub that does sandwiches behind the bar or pork pies or whatever, make sure they’re the best sandwiches that you can have or the best pork pie or if you’re going to do beer, make sure it’s the best beer.”

Alton adds the pandemic definitely honed people’s tastes and their tolerance of underperforming experiences.

He continues in his quest to offer his thoughts on the qualities a good leader should have.

“One is creating and galvanising purpose,” he begins. “Purpose is such a powerful force within businesses. When people really understand why they’re there and what they do really matters brings everybody in the boat and is such a powerful force.

“If you have clarity of purpose that’s when the pace lifts and you really get into top gear. That high humility – never being satisfied and knowing damn well you don’t know everything and things can always be improved – you’ve got to be open to it.

“If you think you’ve got it all nailed and you’re leading the way, you’re just missing a trick and you will be caught and you’ll be passed. There’s no doubt.

“Another thing is humour. It’s so important in mental fitness. I’m very blessed. I’m in an environment where I can assure you humour is very strong and, sometimes, it might it well be at my expense, and that’s OK as well.

“Authenticity is part of that as well. Who wants to go and work for a very stiff and humourless character because I’m not sure that’s the authentic place people really want to be a part of?”

steve alton and BII circular logo collage

Summarising on what excellent leadership means to him, Alton says, fundamentally, the responsibility of senior leaders is to create places where people can be at their best and where they can be their authentic selves and can, with confidence, go for things knowing that actually if it doesn’t work out that you’ve got their back.

He continues: “We absolutely value difference because diversity of thinking is everything. You want somebody who sees the world fundamentally different to yourself because otherwise you end up down one linear track.

“And I’m very blessed with my senior leadership team, the wider organisation and the brilliant partners we work with across the industry that they’re so different. It makes an environment so much richer and better.

“It’s being authentic and that’s everything from being accessible, really listening and taking time because this is not about ticking a box or following some kind of clipboard methodology. It’s about really wanting to talk to people and understand where they are and engaging with them. You’re not steering the conversation towards where maybe where you want to go.”

Alton explains further: “I did a brilliant piece of work with a guy called Richard Mullender who ran the hostage and crisis management unit for Scotland Yard and he was a high-performing communication specialist and that really stuck with me.

“It was about encouraging the conversation for where the person wants to take it. An example is you may say to me, ‘I’m off on holiday next week’ and nine times out of 10, the response from me would be ‘where are you going?’ But if I’d actually just nodded and said OK, you may say ‘yeah, I need to get away because… ’, suddenly we’re into a different conversation, which is actually the reason you’re going on holiday not because I want to tell you about a great restaurant I went to or whatever.

“So there’s a point about being authentic but also listening to where people want to go with the conversations and what’s really important for them.”

He adds a leader must be passionate about people and collaboration. From a trade body perspective and a membership body, there’s always more challenges than there will be resources to deal with issues so one can only ever really move forward at the pace and scale they would like by collaborating with others.

“We’ve always got to seek out solutions where everybody wins and sometimes other people win bigger than others but going back to when I started in corporate, sometimes it would feel it was not always about win:win, it was ‘win full stop’,

“We can achieve more by achieving together and people going off on their own and notionally being successful on their own is not sustainable and I don’t think you’re going to get the right calibre of all types of people to follow you if that’s if that’s your approach.”

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