Real Life Stories: What’s It Like Running A Pub With Greene King
Date added: Wed, 14/12/2016 - 10:00
In this Real Life Story we talked to pub landlord Nigel Williams about his experience running a pub with Greene King. Nigel, and his partner Andrea, took on The Bell Inn at Bearsted, Kent two years ago: and haven’t looked back since!
Here’s his story about finding the perfect pub for him and his family, how he uncovered the exciting potential of the Bell, and his plans for the future.
Finding The Perfect Pub
Like many of our landlords Nigel came into the pub trade later in life. At 48 he’d already clocked up plenty of experience in a varied career, but taking on a pub had been a dream for him from an early age.
Nigel says, “I’ve always loved pubs since I was a boy, and also thought one day I would like to have one.” But he didn’t go straight into the trade; instead he joined the Armed Forces and then spent many successful years working in retail, progressing to senior management level.
His first foray into the pub business was not so successful. On reflection Nigel says it was down to the location and the operator whom he wasn’t able to build a trusting relationship with. Luckily for us this didn’t put him off. Nigel knew that with the right pub, in the right location, and with the right deal he could make his dream a reality.
Perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, Nigel wasn’t going to take on any old pub. He wanted something in Kent, where he’s from, and a pub in a location he knows well so he could make a good decision about whether or not he could make it work.
So when The Bell Inn at Bearsted came up, Nigel was interested. He knew the pub well, knew the area, and felt strongly that he could turn it into a very successful business. The pub had a reputation for being a bit of an ‘old man’s pub’, but Bearsted was crying out for a different type of pub. Somewhere customers could take their family, a pub that women would also feel comfortable in, somewhere that could provide a community hub.
By his own admission, Nigel played hard to get. He says that the pub had potential ‘oozing out of it’, and he likes to take on a project. With his Business Development Manager they explored what could be done with the pub, how that fitted in with Nigel’s ideas, and worked out a deal that suited both parties.
Business Development Managers At Greene King
BDMs look after different areas of the country and are the people that work with and support our landlords. Yvonne Fraser is Nigel’s BDM and has been involved with his Greene King journey from the start, first showing him around the Bell over two years ago.
Nigel says, “I am very fortunately to have a great BDM with Yvonne, she’s been great from day one. She’s realistic, she won’t oversell anything. She asks ‘what about this, what about that’, we can be open and honest, I didn’t have that previously.”
Our ethos at Greene King is that we don’t try to fit square pegs in round holes; we want the right landlord for the right pub.
Secondly our BDMs are here to help landlords make a success of their business, we want them to succeed. Therefore we’re always realistic about what can be achieved, and we don’t encourage them to take risks such as investing their money in refits unless we can see a clear business case for doing so.
“Yvonne’s been fantastic, very transparent. I think that’s the only thing you can ask for in a BDM. There are some operators out there who really give the industry a bad name, and it’s fresh air for me to work with someone who’s thinking about what’s right for me. With the garden refit Yvonne is asking ‘do you think it’s the right time? Are you going to stretch yourself too far? Is it going to cost too much, how are you going to pay for that?’
“That’s the key, that’s been the support from Greene King.”
Creating Nigel’s Perfect Pub
With Greene King’s support, Nigel had ambitious plans for refurbishing The Bell Inn. He had a vision for what he wanted to achieve, and had it all planned out in his Business Plan. In very simplistic terms, it looked a little like this:
Year 1: Trade
Nigel didn’t want to take on the pub, rip out the fixtures and fittings and turn it into something else overnight. Instead he knew that he needed to understand the pub better, the customers, what worked or hadn't worked in the past, and then put his plans into action. He says:
“A lot of the locals had been going to the pub for 30 years. They would do the same thing everyday come here, they’re comfortable with their surroundings and I think the art of keeping them was to keep them informed of my ideas.”
During the first year Nigel was able to really develop his ideas for the pub, using real customer market research. He wanted to create a pub that attracted everyone; but he also wanted those customers to still feel welcome and want to use the pub.
“What we were lacking here were the females coming in, I think it almost looked like a Phil Mitchell convention for a long time – it had a name as an ‘old man’s pub’.“
By the end of the first year, Nigel and Andrea were confident that their vision would work: keeping the existing customers and attracting new. Their plans were to create a community pub with a country feel, restaurant area to serve British pub food, traditional bar with a good beer offer and other drinks, relaxed seating areas, and regular events to provide a focus in the village.
Year 2: The Refurbishment
Having really listened to his customers and taken on board their thoughts and concerns, Nigel was ready to refit the pub. He did have some reservations about whether Greene King would share his vision.
“To be honest my worry when I was first talking to Greene King about doing the pub, is that you go and see a lot of pubs and managed houses and everything seems to be duck egg blue! Everywhere I went these refits all looked the same and I was so determined to make sure my pub was not going to be like that.”
Nigel worked with our designers on every stage of the design. He had very clear ideas of how he wanted the pub to look and how that would impact on his customers.
“I think the designer really got his head round what I was looking for. You need to have a designer, you need to have someone who thinks slightly differently to you, if I’d done the painting it would have been awful, but he knew how to pull things together.”
Nigel and Andrea moved out for two weeks while the major works were done – taking a well-deserved holiday. However he was in constant contact with the Greene King team, demanding updates and photos that then gave him sleepless nights!
“It was a big risk for us, it was the scariest thing. But it became the dream, the pub that I wanted.”
More importantly, were the locals happy? Nigel says, “You get butterflies, thinking ‘what if they don’t like it? What if they think what we’ve done is awful?’ You have to care; if you don’t care then these people won’t stay. A lot of them thought that the pub was going to close, they thought ‘our local’s going to go’ I wanted them to know this is long-term, what I’m doing here is for your future so you can drink here for another thirty years. I think we’ve succeeded in that.”
What about the new customers he wanted to attract?
“I think by having the different type of furniture, having it warm and cosy, and we’ve brought a great wine range in, prosecco, a lovely gin offer with six different types of gin, we’ve done a really good job of bringing women in.
“The relaxed seating areas are perfect for ladies to come down, I’ll often find four or five ladies coming in, bottle of prosecco, good old natter, and you can’t get them out at 11 o’clock: you can never get them out of the building! It’s lovely, it creates a different type of atmosphere in the pub.”
Year 3: Growth - New Garden
January 2017 sees stage 3 of Nigel’s vision coming to fruition with the renovation of the existing garden. He has plans for a ‘street food shack’; serving stone baked pizzas, fajitas, and other things that are quick and easy to cook, as well as offering a takeaway service.
The garden itself will also undergo a makeover including a covered area for shade or protection from wet weather. The garden can easily hold 100 people so Nigel will be looking for a balance of eating and drinking areas, and space for children to run around.
Ultimately Nigel and Andrea want to run another couple of pubs in the area, managing them together with their highly skilled and capable staff heading up each individual pub. He already knows that his team at the Bell can do just that:
“To be honest I could pull out of here tomorrow and the team I’ve got could run this without any shadow of a doubt. They’ve all got the skills and I could manage it remotely.”
Once he’s put all his immediate plans for the Bell into action and it’s running perfectly, Nigel will be looking for a new project to get his teeth into:
“It’s definitely on the cards. Before you go onto your next one you need to make sure this model works perfectly. So my next vision is for another pub and do the same thing there, and then another pub and do the same thing there. Ideally for me, three would be great.”
If you think that you could take on a pub like Nigel and Andrea and build a really exciting business, get in touch! Request a call back below or come to our next open day. You can find out more about Greene King Open Days here.