How I got to where I am now
I started as a cellar boy at the age of 16, doing the barrels, looking after the beer, filling up all the bottles in the shelves. I had a good teacher and I also did things like taking stock, polishing bottles and making sure each one was facing the right way. From there I developed an interest in the more sophisticated side of the business.
I became head barman at 18 and I enjoyed that side of the business. Then I decided that the thing that fascinated me the most was the kitchen, so I gave that a serious crack. But in the end, I was of the view that I wasn't the best chef in that kitchen and I was never going to be, whereas I was looking at the management over the counter, who I generally thought were a bit average, and thinking ‘well, I would be better than you mate, even if I can’t be better than my colleagues in the kitchen’.
So I finally realised I wasn’t going to be a chef, and took my hat off and tossed it to a rather annoying assistant manager and told him to do the cooking and walked out. And then I just worked my way through the pub industry. And I got promoted from being a pub manager to assistant area manager, to area manager, marketing manager and then a director. So from the ages of 25-35 I really worked my way up the corporate ladder.
My biggest Challenge
While I was working my way up the ladder, real operational experience wasn't that valued. It was still a bit ‘oh you’re too old’, and your educational background is seen as much more important. But food was becoming a more important part of the pub industry at the time and my skills became relevant and that enabled me to bully my way through the corporate jungle.
My biggest achievement
I think Oakman Inns is my greatest achievement. It is my third business and the other two have gone extremely well. Starting out, I just bought a small site and spent a huge amount of money on it and people thought I was crazy, but the Akeman went well and that’s the starting point for the rest of the business.
And it’s an incredible business. There’s nothing more stressful than getting things wrong because you’re being told to do something you don’t agree with. When you’re running your own business you take real responsibility because you can. But equally you've got the privilege of actually listening to those around you, and there’s no egos involved, no bitchy corporate competition. You’re trying to get it right for your customers, your employees and your shareholders and there’s a great purity to it. And I love it… I love every minute of it.
What I love about the hospitality industry
It’s hospitality. The clue is in the name. There’s no greater pleasure than being at one of my places on a busy evening, standing in the corner watching a load of people having a great time, seeing the staff flying around, and being a part of the positive atmosphere. It’s like having a party at home. And to me that never changes, that’s always the kick.
Its lovely to see the business growing and its lovely to make money, but to me its abut the buzz you get from seeing a load of people enjoying themselves. It is always a basic satisfaction; making people feel welcome, giving g them something to eat and drink, making them feel warm and making sure they’re happy.
What I don’t like about the pub industry
I don’t like the way we’re taxed, I don’t like the red tape or the legislation. I also don’t like the level of criticism the pub industry seems to get. There seems to be no other form of service where you are so scrutinised and people are so harsh on you. A lot of critics never seem to judge things on whether something is value for money or not. If something’s wrong, people tend to leap upon it, but for me it’s not about being precise its just about warmth, friendliness and value, and just giving people good stuff that they want to eat and drink.
My advice to a young entrepreneur in hospitality is
Don’t be too impatient - I didn't own my first business until I was 34. You’ve also got to learn along the way and you learn from great people, you can learn from poor people, you can learn from everyone.
Also, don’t be in a hurry - you don’t have to do it tomorrow. Make sure you know what you’re doing, and don’t be undercapitalised. It really saddens me that some really talented people come up with good ideas and they are very hard working, but they just go at it too quickly without enough cash. And the business goes under, not because it’s good, but because they have run out of money. And that’s a real shame.
In hospitality, you mustn’t be afraid to ask for advice. If anyone rang me and said ‘I’m a chef, I want to start my own business, will you talk to me for 5 minutes?’ I always would, and I know lots of other people who would. People should just not have too big an ego. Seek help, seek advice and listen to other people.
If I wasn't working in hospitality I’d be…..
When I was younger, the alternative for me was the army. I got a place at Sandhurst but in the end I decided to do this. I think my fantasy career would have been to be a rugby player and then a coach; I've coached at amateur level.
But if I had to quit tomorrow, I guess I’d probably take up some form of writing, probably about food and travel.
Oakman Inns & Restaurants recently unveiled The Blue Boar in Oxfordshire as its latest site, following a £1.5m restoration programme of an 18th Century coaching inn.