Despite the headline closures it's still possible to turn a pub into a successful business, but today's operators require a wider skill set than before, with longer hours and a greater concentration on food. John Porter reports
Twenty years ago if you asked a regional brewer to describe their ideal recruit to run a pub, the answer would be fairly simple: an ex-serviceman or policeman, able to keep discipline in a lively bar, and looking to invest their severance pay in a business that could ease them gently into civilian life and on into retirement.
Times have changed. The 2007 smoking ban and the onset of the worst economic downturn since the 1930s turned traditional "boozers", already in decline, into an endangered species.
Today's pubs trade longer hours and, in most cases, serving food is essential to the business. Despite the challenges, the dream of running a pub continues to attract people looking for a change of career. For the most part, however, they bring different skills from those traditional landlords.
Neil Robertson, chief executive of licensees' professional body the British Institute of Innkeeping, says: "We have a new category of membership, foundation membership, to support new entrants and explain to them the risks." Robertson estimates that from a typical group of 10 potential entrants, "three we would try to dissuade, because they're just not up to running a business.
"The pub trade is harder than ever, and you will not make money unless you've got the right mix of business disciplines. That includes cash management and finance, along with marketing, sales and very good customer service, as well as being distinctive."
In that typical group of 10, about half will have a background in the trade, with the rest coming from a diverse range of careers, including the financial sector and an ex-forces or police background. "While those individuals are very good at running a tight ship, as innovation becomes more important they arguably have less to offer. You can teach all of the business skills, but you can't teach the creativity," Robertson adds. "In the current market, the gap between the good and less good businesses is getting wider, faster."
Finance remains a key issue for anyone looking to enter the trade. Despite the recession, freehold pubs are still in short supply, and while prices have fallen from the peaks seen around five years ago, they still represent a major investment.
A leased pub is still the most accessible route for new entrants to the trade looking to own their own business. Paul Thompson, partner with Acorn Finance, says: "Pub leases with 15 or more years to run are fairly easy to find, and should cost you in the region of £30,000 to £40,000. The most important thing is to take proper advice and safeguard your house and family should something go wrong."
The high street banks are still cautious about financing pub purchases. "It's unlikely the small business adviser at your local branch will be an expert on the pub trade, and he will have read all the headlines about the number of pub closures. However, there is finance available - around 80% of our business is in the licensed trade."
Thompson cautions: "What we, like any financier, are looking for is experience of the trade, perhaps as a pub manager, or transferable skills, such as handling budgets, experience of self-employment and working in customer-facing roles."
We spoke to licensees at four pubs, all of whom changed career to enter the trade, comparing recent recruits with those with more than a decade under their belts.
"The head of our local catering college is working with us to bring in the skills we need"
Adrian and Lisa SegensOwners, the Dun Cow, Hornton, OxfordshireAmong the latest recruits to the trade, Adrian and Lisa Segens moved into the Dun Cow in Oxfordshire at the start of April.
Adrian says: "We believe that the reason that a lot of pubs are closing is, frankly, because they haven't kept up with what the public wants. When you see the smoking ban and the changing nature of rural communities blamed, that strikes me as the pub trade failing to move with the changes."
While both had worked in pubs and restaurants in part-time jobs, in recent years Adrian, 46, has worked in sales and marketing roles in technology companies, while Lisa, 51, ran a publishing business from home.
The Dun Cow is three miles from their home in Oxfordshire. "It's just such a lovely pub, but it wasn't being utilised in the way we think a village pub could be," says Lisa.
When the freehold came up for sale, they took the plunge. The initial plan is for Lisa to manage the business day-to-day with Adrian continuing to work for the time being. "This means that we will not be wholly dependent upon the Dun Cow for our income in its start-up phase; a fact that is certainly not lost on our bank manager," says Adrian.
At the heart of the pub's new approach will be classic British dishes, using local produce, with each day's menu drawn from a repertoire of more than 160 dishes which can be produced consistently and easily by a small kitchen team.
Adrian says: "We can both work behind the bar, but we recognise the skills we haven't got. Although we're both competent home cooks, we know that's completely different to turning out food consistently in a pub.
"The head of our local catering college is working with us to bring in the skills we need. The menu is carefully worked out, and we're looking to recruit young people out of college who are good, competent cooks but aren't ready to develop their own menus yet."
"When it goes well and we have satisfied customers, it's incredibly rewarding"
Edward HallsChef-patron, Rose & Crown Inn, Great Horkesley, Essex
Having worked as a foreign exchange broker in Germany, and later as a financial recruitment consultant in the UK, in 2003 and at the age of 28 Edward Halls decided he was ready for a change. "I wanted to do something that I passionately enjoyed for a living."
Drawing on a "gift of the gab" that had already served his previous career well, Halls persuaded a local restaurant to let him work in the kitchen - initially for free. "On my first day the head chef walked out, so everyone moved up one place."
Cooking clearly suited Halls, who went on to do a two-year stint at the Michelin-starred Morston Hall in north Norfolk, working under Galton Blackistone. Among the jobs which followed were a year at the Royal Garden hotel in Kensington, London, another at Pétrus under Marcus Wareing, and a period as private chef to General Sir Richard Dannatt, head of the British Army.
A change of tack beckoned when a cousin running a pub in Suffolk asked Halls to take over the food side of the operation. That move showed Halls the route to running his own business. "I found the Rose & Crown, on the main road between Sudbury and Colchester, and I knew this was the place."
He took on the pub initially as a tenant with Greene King, in March 2010, and has just converted the agreement to a 15-year lease.
"The scale of the change means you have a lot more responsibility. You have to focus not just on the cooking, but on everything. In the current environment every penny is precious.You have to watch the wage bill and be much cleverer with the food you buy, so every bit is used."
Running a pub is definitely not an easy lifestyle. "It's by far the most challenging thing I've ever done, but when it goes well and we have satisfied customers, it's also the most rewarding."
With customer spending cautious, Halls's advice to other entrants is to be realistic about returns. "In a boom time, your business might be secure within a year. I can see it taking two or three years in this market."
"One thing I'd say to any couple is you've got to be able to cope with each other"
Jan and Mervyn PerryOwners, the Old Mill House, Polperro, Cornwall
From a school classroom to a pub kitchen is clearly a significant change of career direction. Having worked in schools in both the UK and Germany, by 1997 Jan Perry had "really had enough. Teaching had changed completely, with Ofsted and so on things were very difficult."
Both aged 50 at the time, Jan and her husband, Mervyn, also a teacher, took on the lease of an Enterprise Inns pub near Sheffield. "Mervyn stayed in teaching when we had the first pub, for four years. We needed his income to survive."
Finding it hard going running a small leased pub, Jan and Mervyn were initially sceptical when a customer suggested that buying a freehold would be a better option. However, with the investment secured against their pensions, they were able to buy the Old Mill House in Polperro, a pub with a restaurant, large beer garden and seven letting rooms.
"This business is a lot more challenging," says Jan. With Mervyn handling all maintenance and IT duties, Jan went full-time into the kitchen and is still the pub's main chef. "We're a team, and the one thing I'd say to any couple thinking of coming into this trade is that you've got to be able to cope with each other," Jan adds.
The pub has a strong local trade - "as a freehouse we can buy beer cheaply, and we pass that on to customers" - as well as being busy seasonally.
One industry change Jan identifies is the increased support available for pub lessees now. "When we started you got no help with anything. We're quite friendly with the landlord of a Punch pub in the village and the support they receive for the business is amazing compared with the way we were treated."
Jan and Mervyn have reached the point where they'd like to realise their asset. Jan says: "We want to sell up now and have a break - but everything we have is invested in the pub. It's a thriving business, but this is a tough market to be selling a pub in."
"We took the opportunity to carve a new future"
Charlie and Carole EdgelerThe Jubilee Inn, Perryn, Cornwall
Charlie and Carole Edgeler (pictured, top) were the dream couple as far as the outplacement consultant at Barclays Bank was concerned. Unlike most branch managers being made redundant in the late 1990s, they knew what they wanted. "I'd helped my parents look after my uncle's country pub in Oxfordshire when I was a teenager and got the bug then," says Charlie. "Carole had always wanted to run a tearoom."
Having served 30 and 22 years with Barclays respectively, rationalisation meant both their jobs disappeared. "We were looked after well, and offered redundancy packages. We had been together about a year so took the opportunity to carve a truly new future."
With Charlie aged 47 and Carole 39, their future started as pub managers with Shepherd Neame in Kent - a choice based on the professional approach of the brewery. "We had some very poor interview experiences with some other pubcos, but Shepherd Neame recognised we brought skills to the party and took us on."
After almost three years managing the George & Dragon in Ightham, Kent, the Edgelers moved to Cornwall with the St Austell Brewery in 2003. Four more years as pub managers followed at the Norway Inn near Truro, with a switch to a tenancy at the Jubilee Inn, Perryn, in 2007.
With the pub offering letting rooms, as well as serving locally sourced, freshly cooked food from breakfast time onwards, the couple have the combination of pub and tearoom they wanted. So has it lived up to expectations?
"The hours and demands on time were not much different to what we were doing anyway, just at different times of the day. In a pub you work weekends, but take time out midweek," says Charlie.
"Income in the sector compared to the finance sector is miles apart, but you have a lifestyle balance. That said, a good operator can make a decent living, although times are very tough right now and it's hard, even for the better operators."
Praising St Austell's licensee retention, he warns: "Different breweries and pub groups have different attitudes towards pay and reward. You get what you pay for, and if terms and living conditions are archaic, there will be a high turnover of managers."
Advice from the front line
Charlie Edgeler at the Jubilee Inn offers these tips to potential publicans:
â- Be happy working and living ALL the time with your spouse or partner.
â- Set high standards and apply them - particularly with cleanliness, presentation, and food and drink quality.
â- Lead by example and champion great customer service.
â- Plan ahead and have a bit of flair.
â- Force yourself to take time off every now and then - if you always stay over the shop, you'll always be on call