The husband-and-wife team collected the coveted award at the annual British Institute of Innkeeping (BII) lunch which was held at Grosvenor House in London.
Speaking to BigHospitality, Ashley McCarthy revealed the pair had entered the competition previously but had known they weren't ready to win and had gone back to their Colton pub, located between York and Tadcaster, determined to improve and enter the process again.
"We applied in 2009 and we actually got through to the finals but as the process went on we realised we were out of our depth. It was a fantastic learning curve and we knew what to expect this year.
"It has taken four years to get to a stage where we wanted to apply again," he explained. "We are very hands-on, I do the kitchen and Kelly does the front of house, but we were so hands-on that we couldn't see the full picture. We couldn't take time out to do the things that we needed to do to advance the business," he added.
The couple took over the Grade II-listed pub in 2004, Ashley had always worked in kitchens as a chef and a teacher and had been keen to launch his own business, while Kelly, who also had front of house experience, gave up her dreams of becoming a midwife in order to help out with the venture.
After BII chief executive Tim Hulme handed over the prize to the pair earlier this week one of the nine-strong panel of industry experts explained why the couple had managed to beat off the stiff competition.
BII judge John Sharratt said: “We look for people that epitomise professionalism and who develop and maintain their business in a sustainable way. Ashley and Kelly are quality operators with an offering appropriate to their target audience.
"Their rural pub is situated in a very small community which could not sustain their business alone, but they have successfully created a pub that locals love and also attracts people from the surrounding area," he added.
Competition for the honour is tough: after submitting a paper entry potential licensees face four challenging rounds including a pub visit from the leading judges and a daunting panel interview where entrants are quizzed by a line-up of industry experts.
After entering the contest as Enterprise Inns leaseholders the first time around, the pair took part this time after acquiring the freehold to the venue four years ago. In 2011 they spent £350k on a significant redevelopment and have since tried to win new business.
"We took on new staff which helps us to delegate, stand back and actually let the business run without us while we look at different avenues to generate more income," Ashley said.
Also recognised at the 25th BII lunch, which was attended by licensed trade professionals from across the UK, was the University of Winchester's student union bar manager Tom Manville who became the first recipient of the Jeremy Allen Award for excellence in training.
How to be a better licensee - Top tips from Ashley McCarthy, BII Licensee of the Year 2013:
- Be diverse and don't rule any business idea out: "The refurb has given us more space so once a month a florist comes in and does a workshop - why do a flower class in a pub but actually, why not? Twelve people come in, they buy a drink, have food and they are new customers. We do cooking classes, food demos and charity nights too."
- Enter the BII Licensee of the Year award - but know your business in detail: "Treat it as a job interview. The judges don't just ask 'what sort of food do you serve' and 'who is your biggest competition', they want to know details. They wanted to know how much we were turning over on staff wages, what our wage percentage was in the poor months and how many units of electricity we used in a week."