Overall ranking: 55 (new entry)
Pub and bar operator ranking: 13 (new entry)
The 100-outlet mark is a significant milestone for any operator, but for Liberation Group and its chief executive Mark Crowther, passing that point in March 2017 has put the business only halfway towards a stated aim of running 200 pubs across the Channel Islands and the mainland. Pub industry veteran Crowther joined the business in 2008 to head up a new management team formed by investor LGV Capital and stayed in the hot seat when the business was sold for £118m in September 2016 to Caledonia Investments.
What we think
There's a sense in which some of the hard work had been done for Crowther before the creation of Liberation Group in 2008. Jersey has a proud history of hospitality and brewing, and from the late 1980s onwards, an entrepreneur named Tom Scott set about consolidating an empire on the island and its neighbour Guernsey that included pubs, restaurants, hotels, breweries, retail, and food and drink wholesale.
By 2008 CI Traders, as Scott's business was called, had demerged, and LGV Capital, owned by financial services company Legal & General, was able to acquire a substantial chunk of the formerly fragmented Channel Islands hospitality industry in a single £70m package of 27 pubs and restaurants.
Crowther, who was on-trade managing director for Carlsberg UK, with previous roles with Diageo and Allied Domecq, was recruited to head the management buy-in team at the renamed Liberation Group. Since then, Crowther has delivered both operational excellence and ambition.
The initial focus was on investment in the Channel Islands operation, but it wasn't too long before the group began casting an eye on the British mainland. In 2014, Liberation acquired Butcombe Brewery near Bristol, which operated 19 managed pubs from Somerset to the Cotswolds. Crowther described this as just "the start of the exciting next chapter for Liberation and Butcombe, both of whom share the same passion for quality beers and great pubs. The enlarged group provides the perfect bridge head platform for further future growth in the UK market."
By the time the business was acquired by venture capitalist Caledonia in 2016, the estate stood at 96 pubs and two breweries. That milestone 100-pub mark came up with the purchase of the Methuen Arms in Corsham, Wiltshire, in March 2017, and by the time eight pubs in England were acquired from Welsh brewer SA Brain in November, the mainland Butcombe estate stood at 43 and the group total at 115.
Alongside the expansion drive, there is ongoing investment in existing pubs, including adding accommodation at a number of sites. Investor Caledonia praised the "high-quality pub estate and leading market position in the markets in which it operates", and added: "We believe that with Caledonia's longer-term support, Liberation will be ideally placed to take advantage of growth opportunities."
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