The chief executive of Orchid Group, the biggest start-up the pub industry has seen, saw his company fall into administration just two years after inception. After restructuring its finances, the group bought the 43-strong Premium Pubs and Bars estate in 2009, bringing its estate up to 290 food-led pubs, making it the largest food-led pub operator in the R200 list.
I’m quite a humble person. I think what makes me successful is the people in the business, I think they make me look good to be honest. Orchid from day one has been built quite clearly around people. That’s the bit that I enjoy, and I think that’s the bit that makes the difference at Orchid.
There isn’t a manual for chief executives that buy 291 pubs in one go, which says - on day one do this, on day two do that. When we bought all those ex-Spirit pubs with private equitty firm GI Partners, I managed to assemble a board very quickly, and we had weekly pacing meetings where we basically brain dumped all the things we had to do. It was sheer hard work and planning, and sleeping with a pad beside our beds.
Something intrinsic to the British pub is that they all have very rich histories, sometimes going back centuries, they have very different communities that they serve. We genuinely believe that the British pub represents part of our historic tapestry and we should build on that history and individuality.
We believe that British people like carvery – it is quintessential British food. We did a lot of research and felt that the carvery was a British staple that really needed re-inventing.
The restaurant and pub boundary is merging a little. Forty-five per cent of our turnover is food and there is some research around that says 60 per cent of people would rather eat in a pub because of the informality.
We’ve learned a lot from Piccolino’s, Wagamamas and Carluccio’s, who do fast, casual food. We really admire the way they do that. Another reason I like those three is because in recession, like us they’ve stuck to their guns and not panicked into discounting.
There’s a number of restaurant business that have arguably spoilt their core business by discounting. If you drop price too much, something has to give, and what tends to give is quality.
Walt Disney had a saying when he set up Disney Land: “Quality will out”. meaning quality will out last everything. And what we’ve done is not compromise the quality of the ingredients of our food or compromised service.
If there was one key to our success in recession it would be looking after our people. We actually increased our training budget and paid bonuses in 2009. We were the first pub company to be listed in the Sunday Times best big companies to work for. To do that in recession, in the hospitality business, was pretty special. That was the proudest moment of my career – it’s direct feedback from your employees.
As a business, if you don’t change you stand still. One thing we’ve always said at Orchid is that we’ll react to trends, be entrepreneurial and try things. And not be scared to fail.