World Cup is perfect timing for Wetherspoon

Business Profile: Early football kick-offs mean the pub chain that bans TV is not missing out
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For a man whose business is based on the absence of televisions across his 577-strong pub estate, Tim Martin was in a surprisingly upbeat mood last Friday morning. Buoyed by the unlikely resurgence of popularity in the mullet hairstyle he famously sports, the eccentric chairman of JD Wetherspoon was looking forward to England's grudge match against Argentina – even if he couldn't watch it in one of his own pubs. Mr Martin even tipped England to win – out of contrariness because they're "such an unknown quantity".

For a man whose business is based on the absence of televisions across his 577-strong pub estate, Tim Martin was in a surprisingly upbeat mood last Friday morning. Buoyed by the unlikely resurgence of popularity in the mullet hairstyle he famously sports, the eccentric chairman of JD Wetherspoon was looking forward to England's grudge match against Argentina – even if he couldn't watch it in one of his own pubs. Mr Martin even tipped England to win – out of contrariness because they're "such an unknown quantity".

Where four years ago, the World Cup proved Wetherspoon's bête noire because beer drinkers shunned the group's puritanical approach to public houses, which outlaws TVs, music and pool tables, the early kick-offs this time round should work in Mr Martin's favour.

"Football isn't as bad as it used to be for pubs like ours, helped this time by the timing. You have to be a dyed-in-the-wool fanatic to get up and go to the pub when you can watch it at home," he says in a voice that is a curious, nasal twang, combining the land of his youth, Northern Ireland, and that of his school days, New Zealand. That should mean that the 5 per cent drop in sales across the footie-free estate during France 1998 won't be repeated this time round.

The 47-year-old founder of Wetherspoon sounds childishly pleased when I point out that David Beckham's new haircut is threatening to bring the mullet back into vogue. "A lot of people have seen the light and realised that the mullet is where it's at," he says modestly. "If you have it you might as well flaunt it." Of the Argentinian penchant for rock-starish long curls tamed by alice bands, Mr Martin says: "I think they've obviously been copying me [but] they obviously don't use the right type of hairspray."

On matters sartorial Mr Martin blazes a trail across the City, preferring faded rugby tops to shirts, anoraks to suit jackets, Doc Martens to brogues, and a pair of Waitrose carrier bags to a briefcase. Says one company watcher: "He's the man in the street who just happens to be worth hundreds of millions of pounds. He claims not to be enormously financial but that's not necessarily the case. He's being slightly disingenuous."

But there is no knocking Mr Martin's business achievements. He has built up Wetherspoon from scratch into a £740m public company that until recently seemed immune to stockmarket hangovers. He sees room to triple his estate over the next 10 years and is fanatical about combing the length and breadth of the British Isles for new sites. Not content with his pubs' reputation for attracting ale lovers with some of the country's cheapest pints, Mr Martin has been on a drive to boost that with value-for-money wine, cappuccinos and pub grub.

On matters lavatorial the Wetherspoon boss is ebullient. "About five or six years ago we started investing heavily in loos because females [whom he is keen to attract more of] judge pubs by their loos." The result? A series of loo Oscars from such bodies as the British Toilet Association that culminated in the UK's supreme loo award for 2001. "For any type of building," he adds, just in case I was in doubt. Three pubs – The Ledger Building in London's Docklands, the Clydesdale Inn in Lanark and The Coliseum in Abergavenny – cleaned up, so to speak, with awards for best loo in England, Scotland and Wales.

He is dismissive of the recent revelation from the rival pub group Punch Taverns, which received its stockmarket wings last month, that it was installing "twobicles" (double loos to allow girls to chat comfortably in pairs while powdering their nose). "We've got one of those. Funnily enough it's quite popular, but I think the thing is more of a gimmick."

The outspoken pub man is equally dismissive of the tenanted pubs group that was built up by Hugh Osmond from breweries' cast-offs. "My own perception is that Punch and Enterprise Inns' so-called business model, which involves tenants buying beer at an artificial, inflated price and signing long-term leases, which gives them no control over future beer price rises or rental increases, is doomed," he drawls. He thinks publicans and possibly the market are a bit "pubco-centric", regarding them as indefatigable cash generators, timeless social institutions that have also proved a defensive haven in turbulent stock market times.

Mr Martin sees "the reality of the market" as cheap beer imports from the Continent, equally low-priced beer from supermarkets, good quality, bargain restaurants such as Pizza Express and other ploys for people's relaxation time such as videos and barbecues and the abundance of cheap holidays. "When you put all that together, pubs have got a less captive market," he says, which by implication means they must step up their efforts to draw in customers. Selling them expensive beer in under-invested locations is not the answer, Mr Martin says.

He predicts a rebellion from the publicans tied to restrictive tenancy agreements. "Good tenants will see the light and there will be some sort of uprising. The catalyst will be new tenants refusing to sign up," he says. This will mean the demise of giant tenanted groups such as Punch and Enterprise Inns, he adds, pointing out: "If Wetherspoon opens 1,000 new pubs, Punch won't exist. The pubs will still be there but I don't believe that [their] tenancy agreement will."

With the campaign for the euro hotting up, Mr Martin, an arch-eurosceptic who lives in Exeter, Devon, ("to be near the mother-in-law") has been much in demand recently. So much so that after appearances on Question Time, Panorama and Radio 4's Any Questions he is "trying to reduce my exposure", despite his passion to influence the debate in favour of the pound. He concedes: "I've never seen any surge in sales when I've appeared on Question Time."

Indeed, the stalwart performer admits he found the experience "nerve-racking. I had to talk about things that I don't know anything about. I had to invent things on the spot. On Any Questions I was asked about Zimbabwe, which for a common or garden publican is not something that comes up for discussion."

Far better for the publican who eschews his fellow "beerage" to stick to his number one hobby: drinking beer and chewing the cud with his brother Gerry – who heads the AIM-listed Springbok chain of sports-focused bars. Nothing like keeping it in the family.

TIM MARTIN CALLED TO THE BAR

Career History: Studied law at Nottingham University; qualified as a barrister but founded JD Wetherspoon, Britain's fastest-growing pub chain, in 1979. Became chairman in 1983.

Age: 47

Pay: £275,000

Biggest influence: An elderly American hotel owner who once told Tim Martin: "If you've got a business, you've got a problem."

Hobbies: Beer (favourite tipple Greene King's Abbot Ale), squash (describes himself as the "world heavyweight champion"), walking, and the gym.

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